1. Is It Any Good
metalrules.com's pop metal fetishism ends with this gem of a Priest album. Sitting comfortably between their New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and Arena Rock phases, Hell Bent For Leather is an essential part of any metalhead's discography, from the title track to the iconic album artwork.
Things start off at a nice rip with "Delivering The Goods", where Rob Halford can barely contain his joy at the prospect of a grisly beatdown. It's wonderfully energetic, almost giddy with malicious glee, and it's an ingenious way to begin an album about biking and street fights. Indeed, this is probably Judas Priest's most straightforward album in terms of lyrical content: Gone are the heady meditations on death and the supernatural that were abundant just one album prior, on Stained Class. Hell, if you were to simply read the lyrics without having heard any of the music, you might think that this was an AC/DC album.
Of course, one place where Judas Priest has always excelled is in their ability to switch tone, and this is the album where they really master the technique. As opposed to the unnatural transitions from balls-out heavy metal to subdued progressive rock that dragged down Sad Wings of Destiny, here the changes feel natural as the somewhat generic anthem "Rock Forever" switches into the quietly heroic, optimistic "Evening Star" and the raucous "Runnin' Wild" flows into "Before The Dawn", perhaps their first true ballad. Lyrically the songs may be consistent, but I'm hard pressed to think of a Judas Priest album that has so much variety in terms of tone.
To be sure, the album does have a few duds-the aforementioned "Rock Forever" is pretty forgettable, and there are a few more songs where I'm hard pressed to even remember what they sound like. That said, the quantity and the quality of the good far outweighs those of the bad. How much so? If it wasn't for "Ace of Spades", the title track may have stayed as heavy metal's standard "badasses on the road" staple. You literally cannot listen to it and keep still, and the simple, speedy catchiness of the main riffs have a lot to do with it. "Take On The World" is an obvious prototype for "United", a song off one of their later albums, and while it's not an amazing piece of work it does have a goofy, fist pumping sort of charm to it. "Killing Machine" is a stomping anthem to contract murder that's second only to "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap", and like that infamous classic it's the kind of song that makes you feel cooler for having heard it. Perhaps most notable of all is their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Green Manilishi(With The Two-Pronged Crown)" ,a grooving, snaking, simmering work that's not quite like anything else in the Metal Gods' discography. It's almost strip club-worthy in the way it slides around the listener's ears. And speaking of strip clubs, "Evil Fantasies" is probably the best metal song about BDSM ever written...and considering that this was before the Hair Metal movement took off, that is saying quite a lot.
Hell Bent For Leather isn't Judas Priest's greatest album-that honor will always stay with Stained Class-but it's certainly in the conversation. Abandoning the progressive aspects of their previous works while adapting the polished, studio-driven charms of their later albums and never losing a hint of edge in the process, this may be the greatest underground-to-mainstream transitional metal album ever released. Highly recommended, no matter what your taste in metal may be.
2. Is It "Influential"?
That's sort of hard to say at this point. It probably wasn't as influential to metal as a whole so much as it was a giant step in a different direction for Judas Priest. So, maybe? In a roundabout way, I suppose.
3. Is It A Good Starting Place For Beginners?
Absolutely. Heavy without being too abrasive, fast paced without being too quick to keep up with, catchy riffs and cutting vocals...what we have here is the perfect storm of introductory metal elements. Safe for neophytes and satisfying for seasoned veterans, Hell Bent For Leather is truly a heavy metal work for all moods and seasons.