Tuesday, November 8, 2011

REVIEWS: Classic album review: BRITISH STEEL by JUDAS PRIEST (1980)

Rating: 85%.
First I want to briefly discuss Killing Machine (known as Hell Bent for Leather in the USA) and then move on to British Steel, so please bear with me...I heard both records for the first time late in 1984 or early in 1985 when I was 16 years old and new to the metal scene... 

Killing Machine was a great record, it was released in 1978 and was Priest's first experiment with its new stripped-down sound, shorter songs and more direct lyrics. As such, while individual songs on Killing Machine were great (actually they nearly all were), the album had a very experimental feel to it, and you felt that still better was to come.

British Steel was released two years after Killing Machine, and you felt the band had matured a lot and grown heaps in self-confidence. The live album Unleashed In The East kept the fans' interest in the band alive throughout 1979. Another change took place before British Steel was recorded, with Les Binks being replaced by Dave Holland on drums (sadly incarcerated now for sex offences - forever remembered in my mind for the drum intro on "Riding On The Wind"). The heart and soul of the band, Rob Halford on vocals, KK Downing and Glenn Tipton on guitars and Ian Hill on bass, remained in place for British Steel.

What can I say about British Steel itself? I loved it, I just loved the overall sound that the band managed to produce. It was similar to Killing Machine in basic style, sound and direction, but there was more of the feeling of the songs being linked together as a complete package. The sound was still raw, but it was slightly more polished, and by the time Screaming for Vengeance came out in 1982 the band would head further in the direction of the polished sound. Halford's voice is at its best on British Steel, authoritative, powerful, passionate, able to hit the very low and high notes, and suitably aggressive in the right places.

The album starts with "Rapid Fire", a speed-metal track ahead of its time, that just keeps on keeping on as the words and riffs just continue unabated, with not much variation in the tone, just a grinding repetitive rythmn, and no sign of an identifiable chorus either. It's a similar opener to "Delivering The Goods" on Killing Machine, but in this case I feel the Killing Machine opener is better, but not by much. [Young Yogyakarta, Indonesia death-metal band Warhammer does a great cover of "Rapid Fire" and I hope that they can record it.]

"Metal Gods" is anthemic in nature with the powerful chorus of "Metal Gods", backed up by the dragging of chains sound effect that occurs at the same time as the main riff, and its timing and volume mixed in with the regular guitar sound is just perfect, and chilling in its effectiveness. The chains sound is not too loud or too buried. The subject matter - which I didn't realize back in the day (no lyrics came with the album) - is about security cameras, as on the song "Electric Eye".

"Grinder" is a standard, fairly slow, menacing and brooding heavy number. The main riff of this song and "Creeping Death" by Metallica seem somehow similar to me. However, to my knowledge no-one else has ever said this, now or then, so maybe I'm missing something.

"United" is a sing-along fun anthem ("Take on the World" Part II), focusing on the togetherness and unity of metal fans back then, which is sadly (in my opinion) much lesser nowadays (but now is better than the 90s) because the genre has split up into thrash, death, black, melodic death, metalcore, etc. and many people are interested only in one or two of the sub-genres. So the early to mid 1980s were really a unique time in metal history, and "United" sums up the feeling of the times well. Back in the 1980s, metal was metal, and those that loved Motley Crue also loved Slayer and Metallica. Yes, the song was cheesy but think what Queen was doing back then.

On the original vinyl LP version, "Living After Midnight" kicked off side two with a bang. A great song, more commercially oriented, but its still definitely Priest in character and heart (in my opinion). It has so much energy and simplicity, and just simply rocks.

I was in a cafe in the entertainment district of Perth, Australia called Northbridge with a Canadian friend (Mark R.) one Sunday night two years ago. We both found out, almost stumbling upon it by accident, that we were two 80s metalheads in hiding. Thirty seconds later and we were both singing the chorus of "Living After Midnight"!

So I think this is the best Priest record. The title says it all. It summarized what Priest was all about - reliable, trustworthy, tough, unashamedly patriotic, resolute, cheerful. I'm glad the band didn't call the album Living After Midnight and make that song the title track. British Steel sums up best what the band was all about circa 1980.

FOOTNOTE (added 9 June 2006): I have noticed on certain internet chat forums, it has become cool among some people to bash this record, and heap praise on all the Priest records that came before it and after it. This is just re-writing history in my opinion. Back in the day the vast majority of fans loved British Steel, and regarded it as a positive move forward for the band. It should also be noted that whilst "Breaking The Law" and "Living After Midnight" are not bad songs at all, they are not representative of the album taken as a whole.

By Jack Frost, first posted on Amazon.com 24 March 2005. 

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