JUDAS PRIEST – Sad Wings Of Destiny

Judas Priest’s debut album, 1974’s ‘Rocka Rolla’ hints at a potentially very talented band, but is ultimately let down by some plodding arrangements and somewhat leaden production values.  Everything about Priest’s second album, ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ (issued by Gull Records in 1976) is in a completely different league, right down to the fantastic album artwork (‘Fallen Angels’ painted by Patrick Woodroffe).

Rob Halford’s vocals are recognisable as being those from before, yet he’s far more assured (focusing more on the melodic screams he would soon make his trademark) while the guitar riffs of Glenn Tipton and KK Downing are often  far sprightlier than ever heard previously.  Even though some of the featured material is over five years old by the time of its inclusion here, there’s absolutely no doubt that each of ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’s nine songs are hugely superior to any of those featured on ‘Rocka Rolla’. [Three songs, ‘The Ripper’, ‘Genocide’ and ‘Tyrant’ were, in fact, completed in time for inclusion on that debut album, but vetoed by producer Rodger Bain.]

The opening number, the epic ‘Victim of Changes’, contains elements from two earlier songs – ‘Whiskey Woman (penned by original vocalist Alan Atkins) and ‘Red Light Lady (by Rob Halford, written prior to his joining the band).  Atkins’s original lyrics can still be heard, with the opening verse making specific reference to the “whiskey woman”.  While constructed from bits and pieces, ‘Victim of Changes’ is a surprisingly coherent work – one of the best from the band’s early years.  It has a solid groove which is in keeping with most of their debut’s ploddiness, but there are various factors which stop this number falling into dullness.  While Tipton and Downing’s twin lead riff has a Sabbath styled doomy quality, it is tempered by a fantastic lead vocal.  Striking just the right balance between melodic rock voice and metallic squeal, Halford sets out his stall as one of metal’s great vocalists here – his position subsequently reinforced by every one of his performances on this album.  During the instrumental break, Glenn and KK exchange lead guitar solos with a great amount of whammy bar and vibrato; but here they remain very much in the top end of hard rock, not yet going for the really metal styles they would perfect on 1980’s ‘British Steel’ album and beyond.  Bassist Ian Hill is on hand throughout the first half with a rock-solid bottom end while new drummer Alan Moore turns in an admirable but rather workmanlike performance.  For the closing section, things move away from heavy riffs and venture into something more atmospheric.  Over softer guitar chords, Halford delivers a tuneful vocal, exploring the deeper end of his range, while his higher registers are used for an occasional backing vocal.  According to legend, Moore was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to record some tree-bells for this part of the song, but they were never used!  Returning to the original riff to bring things to a close, Halford screams at the top of his lungs, leaving the listener wondering how the rest of the album could possibly live up to this early promise (especially given the somewhat middling efforts on their previous release.)

Compared to Priest’s later recordings, the metal elements of ‘The Ripper’ seem a trifle mundane.  This is particularly true of its main riff which sounds like it ought to be tackled at a much faster pace.  On its own merits, the riff is still a solid one, however, working especially well when combined with a few top quality lead moments.  Providing an instrumental break before the last verse, Tipton’s staccato work is incredibly distinctive and the featured solos from both he and Downing are fantastic.  It’s Halford who leaves the biggest impression though, as his vocal – sounding rather understated, almost spoken in places – really adds atmosphere and builds tension during this short ode to the famous Victorian murderer.  [For a great version of this number, check out Judas Priest’s 1979 “live” album, ‘Unleashed In The East’].

What then follows is one of a couple of unexpected musical curve-balls.  The whole of Priest’s debut album – and the first couple of tracks here – firmly presents them in a hard rock/proto metal mould, but ‘Dreamer Deceiver’ shows them in a new light – at least at first.  With a clean toned guitar for backing, Halford sings in a falsetto voice lending a very pompy style.  In doing so, to begin with, this tune has as much chance of turning into a Kansas number as it does a metal workout.  There’s no real change once the bass and drums join the arrangement; Alan Moore does little than tick time, but Ian Hill’s bass work offers plenty of warmth.  Halford’s falsetto drops, but his vocal still maintains a very untypical style as he croons through most of his lines.  The guitar work is fairly far removed from a hard rock style too, with a few Spanish guitar fills thrown into the mix.  As the track progresses, things fall into a more natural hard rock pattern, with Halford screaming in a way that only Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan had committed to plastic previously, while Tipton and Downing’s lead work moves in the electric realms, mixing bluesy playing with just enough rock chops to keep things sounding tough.  The heavy ‘Deceiver’ is tacked on the end as a contrasting coda; it’s driving riff featuring plenty of bottom end and Halford’s vocal typifying a style he’d hone to perfection over the next couple of years.  It’s a decent hard rocker overall, though a reprise of the Spanish guitars from the previous track suggest this maybe shouldn’t really be viewed as a separate track in its own right.

‘Prelude’ opens the second side with a brief cinematic instrumental, with rolling drums – almost in a kettle drum style – dominant piano and vibrato filled guitar lines moving gently beneath.  As a tune, it has more in common with Brian May and early Queen than any sounds which would later be considered typical for Judas Priest, but it’s also best remembered that ‘Sad Wings’ was the work of a fledling band still in the throes of experimentation.  This leads into the rocky ‘Tyrant’ – a live favourite for some years prior to recording – which features all the hallmarks of what would be soon be classified as “classic” Priest.   While it’s driving riff and sometimes shrieking vocals are among the most obvious features, you must also listen to Hill’s solid bass line.  His style is so natural, it’s easy to almost not notice him; and yet his role here is vital, particularly on the chorus when he hits a few higher registers.  As far as guitar playing is concerned, ‘Tyrant’ is one of the high points, with both KK and Glenn seeming in good form across most of the two featured solos.  KK’s playing during the second half of the first solo has a slight scrappy nature, but this is more than compensated for as he and Glenn turn in sterling twin harmony work throughout the second.  ‘Genocide’ is a solid hard rocker which showcases Halford’s effortless long notes, but musically, it’s a little pedestrian.  The main riff is enjoyable, but doesn’t quite have the oomph it deserves due to Moore’s somewhat limited drumming style, barely breaking beyond a trot for most of the track.  It picks up at the end, though, as he pounds out a hard rhythm and Priest get to power their way across the finish line with a spikier vocal and more soloing.  A spoken word mid-section adds an unexpected pompy nature, with Halford even name-checking Priest’s follow up album.  It brings nothing essential to the end result, but it’s quite fun.

‘Epitaph’ is possibly the most uncharacteristic thing Judas Priest ever recorded. Backed by piano, Halford croons in a spectacular way, he voice sounding like there’s no effort in his delivery at all.  Adding to the unusual nature of the track are occasional three-part harmonies, which sound rather like those featured on Queen’s second album (specifically those on ‘March of The Black Queen’s quiter moments).  Priest would go on to record other ballads, with 1977’s ‘Here Come The Tears’ and 1979’s ‘Before The Dawn’ coming closest to ‘Epitaph’, but even so, they never recorded anything so brazenly non-metal ever again.  Promising “the fright of your life”, ‘Island of Domination’ really redresses the balance: it’s a number which is one of ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’s rockiest offerings.  While not as heavy as ‘Victim of Changes’, it’s style very much looks to the band’s future, as it’s staccato riffing resembles the best parts of their next three albums.  Its mid section moves from fast riffs, bringing back a blues rock styled stomping riff.  While Halford’s vocals are spot on here, it’s best not to look to deeply at the lyrical content since it concerns all manner of oddities including night drivers, sky riders, throat chokers and spine snappers.  Still, when Halford’s delivery remains one of classic metal’s finest, it’s easy to brush such silliness aside.

The nine songs presented here are the result of a very hard working band, and have aged incredibly well over the passing years.  The album has deservedly become somewhat of a fan favourite with regards to Priest’s earlier years.  While reviews were positive, ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ was not a commercial success at the time of release, since Gull Records were somewhat lacking in the promotion department.  The band, too, were struggling financially.  Something had to give: luckily, despite the album’s relative failure, CBS came to Priest’s rescue.  The band had made enough of an impact to be signed to the major label in time for their third release.  From that point on, they were on their long journey as one of the world’s most successful and best loved metal bands.

July 2011