The Importance of Being Metal: Judas Priest-Stained Class

1978; Columbia Records

1. Is It Any Good?

Imagine Black Sabbath by way of Queen and you'll come up with Stained Class.

...You need to hear more? What the fuck is wrong with you?! What do I have to say, that listening to this album will make you jizz gold? I guess I can say a little more, if that first sentence didn't convince you this album is worth getting(by which I mean, if you're a communist.)

In many ways this is the quintessential heavy metal album of the '70s-loud, fast, heavy, dark, and more than a little goofy. On the surface it's nothing really more than a fun time, and truth be told that's probably the best application for it. I'll be honest with you, I'm not a fan of the phrase "on the surface" because that's code speak for "what you dipshits fail to realize is...". I don't like condescending to readers, especially not if it's in a heavy metal article-there's a special layer of hell for dorks who talk down to other people for not taking heavy metal "seriously", and I hope it's the one where you have to watch your parents die forever.

The only reason I use that phrase in this case is because there are a lot of things that you miss the first time you play Stained Class. I don't mean nuances-Judas Priest has all the subtlety of a drunk pyromaniac on the fourth of July. I mean that it's possible to get so sucked into the songs, you miss some of the song construction or some of the flourishes that really make the album enjoyable.

Take the opening and arguably greatest track on the album, "Exciter." It's totally possible to not acknowledge how truly excellent that regal little guitar solo right before the end of the song is. It can skip by you how the opening drum solo sets the tone for the rest of the song in such a way as to subconsciously ready you for the rest of the album, and you can even miss the little grin that you yourself make when all the instruments stop for just a moment to allow Rob Halford to proclaim "Fall to your knees and repent, if you please!"

You might get so enamored with air guitaring the main riff to the title track that you miss what a cool lyric "Impaled with betrayal, the tourniquet turns" is. Halford's unearthly, echoing scream of "We are Saints in Hell" during the song of the same name might distract you so much that you miss how it wouldn't have nearly as much effect without Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing's wraithlike guitars drifting through the background to create the atmosphere. And in the case of "Beyond The Realms of Death", you'll probably get so caught up in how masterfully that song builds and builds in such a cosmically emotional fashion that you don't even notice that the song is an incredibly moving, relatable morality play about loneliness and isolation.

This is primarily a headbanging album, I want that to be perfectly clear. It's function first and foremost is to entertain and provide a release, and in this it succeeds in spades. But there's an intricate, masterful craft running through the veins of Stained Class that's a remarkably rare trait of any album, much less a heavy metal one. I'm not saying that it's just a thrashing good time "on the surface" because you're an ignorant savage who doesn't understand music, I'm saying it because there are too many wonderful things going on with this album at once, so many parts that you might miss the even more excellent whole. If heavy metal is the musical equivalent of trashy pulp sci-fi books, Judas Priest, during the late '70s, was the H.P. Lovecraft of the genre, and Stained Class was their At The Mountains of Madness. No metal collection is complete without it-I might go so far as to say no music collection is really complete without it, if only for the fact that it encapsulates everything that works about this kind of music so very well.

2. Is It "Influential"?

A band named itself after the first track, Exciter. This was Judas Priest's first album to break the Billboard 200, enabling them to make later classics such as British Steel and Screaming For Vengeance. Oh, and it was not only considered the height of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the '70s, it was also one of the first albums to concretely lay the groundwork for thrash metal. It is one of the defining releases of all time and it doesn't get nearly enough credit for being so.

3. Is It A Good Entry Point For Beginners?

Everyone I've loaned this album to has been turned into a believer after hearing it-to continue with my earlier analogy earlier, there's a theatricality to every song that transcends normal likes and dislikes of heavy metal. Halford's vocals are so goofy and over-the-top as to actually cross the silliness barrier and become dramatic, and the guitarwork can only be described as "kingly" much of the time. Just about anyone can have fun listening to Stained Class, and if they can't they're generally not the kind of person who enjoys the heavier side of music to begin with. In other words, I can in good conscience recommend this to almost everybody and say it will turn them on to metal. And I do. Much to their annoyance.


1 comment:

  1. "If heavy metal is the musical equivalent of trashy pulp sci-fi books, Judas Priest, during the late '70s, was the H.P. Lovecraft of the genre, and Stained Class was their At The Mountains of Madness. "

    I love you, Chris.