Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Judas Priest 'British Steel'
Rating - 9/A

In my Sin After Sin review I mumbled about the importance of formulae in metal, and how Priest's greatest contribution to the genre was their introduction of a patent-leather-and-chrome gleaming-and-roaring guaranteed 98%-effective formula for the production of a proper heavy metal album. It was a formula they would (and do) turn to whenever excursions into compositional sleepwalking, synthesised tedium or simply having a different singer and trying to get with the nu stomp and the death dissonance had compromised awe and adulation amongst the metallic masses. That formula reaches a point of near-perfection on this nearly-perfect metal album. Rather than try to elucidate this formula, I shall let a description of this album, British Steel, serve instead. Which is handy, because this is supposed to be a British Steel review.

First, the thrash. The album begins with another straight-for-the-jugular opening stab, Rapid Fire. It's incredibly tight and ferocious, with an incessant single-string pedal-point pattern looping over a steady, throbbing power chord base. The song is played with so much power and passion that even a 21st-century postmodern ironist (supposing you want to be such a quaint thing at this point) might just feel the urge to wave a fist about and sing along as Halford intones lyrics about 'Pounding the a ba-tter-ing ram!' and so forth. Next, the big, anthemic feel. And look, here we have Metal Gods, a more mid-tempo number with lyrics that glorify Judas Priest and metal and a simple iteration of the title for the chorus that still drives the fans wild in the Budokan! Oh, and then we need to be incredibly catchy because otherwise only a very small hardcore faction will bang along, and no one will ever bring their girlfriends along to the show! And stepping up to bat are: Breaking The Law and Living After Midnight. These are both superdupermegabumper hits of course, but it has to be said - they deserve to be. Breaking is simple in construction, fierce in execution and has just the right blend of antisocial angst and heroic rebellion to fire up the metal fan (that's me, in case you refuse). It's also wonderfully concise, at around 2 and a half minutes, so even incessant overplay at pubs or on radio can't make the experience too bitter. Living After Midnight has a fantastic pop-metal melody and hook, one that KISS would kill for - but with added power and guitaristic lead glory that KISS never came close to.

Once you have all these elements in place, the trick is not to let things slide over the rest of the album. Sadly, some of that does happen which is why I can't quite give this album a perfect A+. United is their second attempt at a Queen-esque stadium chant for the brothers and sisters of metal, and like any blatantly populist manouver, it doesn't have much staying power, or none at all if you're over the age of 13 when you first hear it (I wasn't, but I'm pretty much over it now). Similarly, the song You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise has some nice vocal hooks, but the main riff is too simplified to count, even if they strum and chug at those 4 or 5 chords a little more than would be the case on the minimalistic Point Of Entry album.

There are still a few decent tracks left to sit through, though. Grinder has an incredibly silly chorus, but the vocals are great and the riffs rule. I personally treasure The Rage - it has an oddly reggae-ish opening that doesn't sound like a silly, cheesy experiment but instead finds a potential for purposeful menace in their modification of the bouncy reggae groove. The ghost of Marley shudders and faints with the rage! The song itself is very compelling with it's 'we are a breed apart, despised yet proud' thematics and nicely screechy lead breaks. Steeler isn't on par with Rapid Fire, but it is a rather pounding thrasher and a fitting way to an end a metal album (unless you opt to go with an extended epic track, but that can be dicey unless it is really good).

The remaster muddles the effectiveness of the running order a bit by adding an unreleased outake (a deservedly unreleased song which is a nearly unlistenable stab at pseudo-patriotic anthemicness with power ballad stylistics) and a redundant live version of Grinder. But that's what the Stop button is for.

A couple of things stand out in this iteration of the Priest formula. The first is the conciseness. None of these songs aspire to potentialy tedious beyond-6-minute lengths, and most of them deliver the goods in around 3. This also helps keep a sense of overall dynamism going, as you move from one track to another without too much delay. Secondly, there's a great deal of restraint on this album - Halford doesn't hit the highest registers of his voice a whole lot, and that makes his voice sound more warm and anthemic than banshee-like. Similarly, Tipton and Downing don't just go for the flash, but play breaks that mostly add a layer to an already good song - heck Breaking The Law dispenses with the solo break altogether and nothing's lost. Looks like restraint - within set patterns of excess - can be an important part of that formula, too.

The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: As near-perfect a set of tight, fierce and catchy metal songs as you can get. There are hints of the compositional parsimony that would make some future releases seem weaker, but for now this is all-out heavy duty British Steel.

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