Judas Priest - British Steel (1980)

Credits:

  • Rob Halford - Vocals
  • Glenn Tipton - Guitar
  • KK Downing - Guitar
  • Ian Hill - Bass
  • Dave Holland - Drums
  • Produced by Tom Allom



Background

1980 was a great year for metal and hard rock albums, with the release of Sabbath's "Heaven and Hell", Def Leppard's debut album "On Through the Night", Ozzy's "Blizzard of Ozz" - and this classic slab of stripped down heaviness from Judas Priest.

Prior to this album, Priest was just another band from England who nobody had ever heard of. By 1980, they had recorded 6 albums, changed drummers 4 times, and made themselves over from neo-hippie flower children into leather clad metal warriors. Despite being fronted by arguably the BEST metal vocalist of all time in Halford, and the twin guitar assault of Tipton and Downing, mainstream success had eluded them. Until British Steel. This album and the three immediately following it (Point of Entry, Screaming for Vengeance, and Defenders of the Faith) are essential listening for any fan of metal and hard rock, and represent the pinnacle of the band's career.

What distinguishes Priest from their scads of imitators is: riffs. Riffs, riffs, and more riffs. ANY Judas Priest album is packed with incredibly cool, nasty riffs - chugging power chords blasted through Marshall amps, coupled with heavy bass and drums and the banshee wail of Halford. For British Steel, the band brought in ex-Trapeze skin pounder Dave Holland, and stripped the music down to the bare essentials. There's an almost punk intensity to the songs on British Steel - nothing is wasted, nothing is included that doesn't need to be there. The only band in the same league with Priest in intensity during this time period was Accept. Priest was A MACHINE. Live they were like a jackhammer that rolled over you, beating you into submission. There was nothing funny about Priest. Girls and parents feared them. I loved them.

There are two schools of thought on how to successfully integrate twin guitars in a metal band. You can either a) match both guitars as precisely as possible, or b) let the two guitars compliment each other. Priest uses the latter approach to great advantage. Tipton uses a fat, humbucker driven tone that is flat to scooped in the midrange, while Downing goes for a thinner, mid boosted sound that perfectly compliments Tipton's, creating a MASSIVE tone. Additionally, the two guitarists will often play the chords or rhythms slightly differently, perhaps in different positions, to create differences that allow both players to be heard, and add to the overall effect. Sheer brilliance! Why more metal bands don't do this is beyond me.

Onward, troops - the songs await! (Note: The song order on the original version and the recently released remaster are different. The track listing below refers to the remastered version.)

Track By Track (vocal cues in parentheses)

Rapid Fire (4:08) Priest kick off the festivities with a clinic in speed metal. Listen to Dave Holland's toms when the drums come in - they sound like cannons! The band is tight and playing with mechanized precision. Another monster tom fill leads into the solo section, which features a series of trade offs between Halford, Downing in the left speaker, and Tipton in the right speaker.

Metal Gods (4:00) Classic Priest. This song features a strong chugging 16th note groove. The verse guitar riff (We've taken too much for granted) has a lot of space, which gives the track room to breath and lets the band build the intensity in the chorus sections. The chorus changes key to F# and gets busier with some truly WICKED riffing (Marching in the streets) and bent double stops. Tipton takes the solo on this one and leads in with a nasty little dorian riff at the second fret, through what sounds like a wah cocked in the middle position and a phase shifter. His tone is very honky and nasty. The outro takes the chorus riff and beats it into submission, adding guitar overdubs each pass through to build the intensity. Killer track - one of Priest's best.

Breaking the Law (2:35) Who hasn't heard this song? This one is tough, short, and to the point. Great tight rhythm work from Tipton and Downing. Notice how they vary the main riff starting at 2:26 by moving the accent from the '1' to the and of '4'. Subtle, but effective.

Grinder (3:58) This one starts with the rhythm guitars spitting the main riff for 4 bars before the bass and drums come in. Again, a lot of space is left in the verse riff, and the guitars really lay back here. GREAT solo from Tipton, again with a wah boosting the midrange. He peals off a nice sequence of pentatonic licks before Halford reenters with the bridge section (I have my license) and continues to add fills as the song heads through the final verse and chorus.

United (3:35) The "big concert anthem". Once again, a lot of space in the guitar riff allows the band to really lay back.

You Don't Have to Be Old to Be Wise (5:04) The intro starts out with Tipton playing the chorus lick in the right speaker; after the second pass through Downing enters (with the drums) doubling the riff but using different chord inversions, and he plays it a lot more staccato. This is an example of how Priest uses two variations on the same part to really fill out the sound. At 0.45, they lock into the verse riff. At 2:39, it's back to the intro for the guitar solo. First up is Tipton in the right speaker, followed by Downing in the left. As the song fades, Glenn and KK swap fills.

Living After Midnight (3:31) If you haven't heard this song, you've been living under a rock! Nice fat rhythms once again exhibiting the trademark "we're not exactly locked in" feel that Priest uses so well. The guitar solo is Tipton's - he blasts out a nice, memorable little lead that alternates between major and minor pentatonic. Short, to the point, and out. This is a great little lead to learn as it really shows how you can milk a lot of mileage out of some simple combinations. Nothing too difficult here, but it's very effective.

The Rage (4:44) Ian Hill starts this one with an almost reggae feel; Tipton comes in on the upbeats (continuing the reggae feel) while Downing plays sustained chords underneath. The main riff enters at 0:41, flattening everything in its path. Downing takes the lead with a tone and vibrato very reminiscent of Brian Robinson of Thin Lizzy. He's using a phase shifter and some serious wah. On the outro he continues channeling Robbo. Great lead work from KK on this song!

Steeler (4:30) The closing song on the original album. Tipton and Downing once again use different chord inversions in the verse riff to fatten things up. The first solo sounds like Tipton, but it's played more like Downing's crazier style - who knows? Could be either guy. KILLER drum fill coming out of the bridge at 2:18 and then we're back into the verse. The outro has a lot of whammy abuse from Downing and they continue to build the intensity right up until the end. Great closer!

Red, White and Blue (bonus track) (3:42) This nicks the melody from "Oh Britannia" - there's even a trumpet fanfare (which I assume is coming from guitar synth or keyboard). Pretty subpar - it should have stayed unreleased.

Grinder [Live] (bonus track) (4:49) Making up for the previous faux pas, Priest rips your spine out and beats you to death with it. This live cut is very faithful to the studio version, just more intense. Very tight, and the guitar sound is huge, especially considering the time it was recorded. This gives you an idea of what this band was like live in the 80's - a metal machine!

Summary

This is classic Priest -- the album that put them on the map. It's stripped down, raw, and brutally heavy. At their best, Priest creates a sound that is more than the sum of its parts, by checking their egos at the door and working as a UNIT. Tipton and Downing are often overlooked when people talk about great guitarists, but they are two of the best in the business in my book.

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By John Walker Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.