Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Judas Priest - 'Sin After Sin'


Rating - 8/B

Sin After Sin was Judas Priest's third album, and their first with a major label - CBS, as they were then called. The two preceding albums are also well worth a listen, and contain their share of Priest classics, and I'll review them eventually. For now, though, it's 1977 - the same year I was born. That's a bit of a sobering thought, dating as it does both this album and its present reviewer.

Sin After Sin is a good album, but it still has moments that prevent it from being a 10 on 10 classic. While Priest may look upon themselves as heavy metal innovators, forever searching for new sonic territory, the truth is that most of their innovations were made in their first few albums, whereupon the band perfected a formula that would ensure them metal glory. There's nothing wrong with a formula as long as it is well formulated and honestly pursued - see Motorhead and AC/DC for further details. To their credit, Priest's formula has always been a little more diverse, allowing for straight-ahead thrashers, more rocky songs, anthems, epics and even ballads at times. Not all these elements work as well, however, and they really perfected this formula when they gave up trying to be as diverse as early Queen and zeroed in on the things that would make them metal gods - pace, power and (admittedly cartoonish) bravado.

I'd like to stress this point a bit more, if I may. Like the blues, metal is a genre that thrives on formulae as easily as it falters upon them. There are certain values that a metal band must espouse, and the further they deviate from these values, the less convincingly metallic they will seem to the metal audience. Which is fine, as far as I'm concerned because of the flipside- when applied with due diligence and creativity, that metal formula is capable of yielding great results, and a surprising amount of diversity, within its own perimeter (consider such diverse examples as the tribal drums on Sepultura's Chaos AD or the jazzy grooves on Atheist's Elements). Priest established a very good formula for great metal albums - a formula that produced classic or at least very metallic-ly satisfying albums throughought their career. Conversely, the albums produced in an attempt to veer away from the formula - Point Of Entry and Turbo - are not among their finest. The rule has its exceptions of course - Defenders Of The Faith and Ram It Down have always struck me as somewhat over-nervous attempts to stick to this formula in the aftermath of unsuccesful deviations, or triumphant returns to form, but then nothing works out perfectly in this disturbingly real world of ours.

But I digress. Coming back to the album at hand, one of the most striking things about it is the way it is bookended by two really strong, headbangng tracks. The opener, Sinner, is built on a mid-tempo sludgy Sabbathy groove that wouldn't have been out of place on Priest's earlier albums, but the chorus kicks in with an emphatic, vehement riff that is pure classic Priest. Halford's voice is in fine form as his vocal imagination. The track that closes the album, Dissident Aggressor, sounds exactly as its title would suggest and is a near-perfect slab of proto-thrash fury. Absolutely perfect ways to begin and end Priest's first major-label venture.

What lies in between is a little uneven. The Joan Baez cover, Diamonds And Rust, causes some dissension among friends of mine who cherish the original and feel that this is a senseless metallising of song that was extremely personal to its original creator. I suppose I'm less of a purist - I've always liked the way Priest tackle covers, and this one is a real classic. If there ever was a metal singer who could channel the wistful lyrcism of the original into something that preserved the mood of longing nostalgia while rocking at the same time, it was Halford. Which is handy, because it's Robbie Halford on vox here, you know. The musical arrangement is cool too, with its galloping power chords and nice bursts of melody. Two of the other faster songs on the album are decent as well - Starbreaker is a bit mellower - early-Rush levels of metallness, here, but a good SF-ish track. Raw Deal is a barroom boogie gone metallic, with lyrics that begin with describing Halford scoping the scene at a gay bar in New York and seem to end with him being tied up in a sack and beaten up by the 'big boys'. Oh, my. It's also a bit of a riff-fest, and musically quite complex although the guitarist keep the feel going so well that you don't necessarily notice this. Let Us Prey/Call For The Priest begins with a Queen-esque bombastic intro, and launches into a pacey if not expecially memorable rocker with defiant lyrics which could be about heavy metal tribal integrity or gay pride, depending on how much you want to retroactively intepret Priest lyrics in terms of Halford's sexuality. It's not nearly as good as the bookend tracks, though. It does have a descending guitar motif that kinda puts me in mind of a real epic on their next album though, but that's not immediately pertinent.

The two ballads work even less well, to my mind. Last Rose Of Summer is a tender, romantic ballad that fits even worse here than the Stones' Lady Jane did, sandwiched as it was between miosgynistic anthems like Stupid Girl and Under My Thumb. It's a pity though, the song itself is a rather good ballad, and immaculately rendered by Tipton, Downing and Halford. The other ballad, Here Come The Tears, is much more of a by-the-numbers power ballad, rising in pace and volume into a passage with Halford-wails and powerful solos, but the heavy bits actually come across as a bit of under-conceived caterwauling done as an aobligato. Which is a bit of a suprise considering that Priest had a really classic epic in their last album, Victim Of Changes, but the dynamics there were very different.

Still, there are passing worries, with the strong points as strong as they are. It's perfectly okay for an early album to have shaky moments, and the relatively low rating of this album has to be seen in light of the slew of near-perfect metal classics that followed it. You may even have a stronger tolerance than I do for metal power-balladry in which case you'll love this album that much more. Historically, this album was released at a time when the buzz-saw fury of punk seemed to have rendered the thud and pomp of classic metal extinct. Priest, along with other bands like Motorhead, Iron Maiden and Saxon would soon reply with a new, speeded-up and raucous metal but this album stands as a halfway mark between what, in 1977, were the old and the new. Songs like Sinner and Dissident Aggressor show the way forward, while songs like Send For The Priest and Here Come The Tears stand as a legacy of the artsier approach that was then out of favour (although Maiden, at least, would succesfully combine near-prog ambition and NWOBHM grit for a brief, shining period).

The Remastered edition of the album cetainly boosts the sound, and this is the edition you should own. Be warned, though, the bonus material adds little to the experience. Race WithThe Devil is a fairly standard rocker, although it would have made a good replacement for one of the ballads, and the live track - Jawbreaker - is both a mediocre performance and out of place, as it is a version of a song from a much later album.

The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: If you're new to Priest, Sad Wings Of Destiny or British Steel may be better places to start. That aside, this is as diverse and creative a classic metal album as you could want, even if all the diversity isn't used to good end.

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