CD Review: Judas Priest 'British Steel' (30th Anniversary Re-Issue)

CD Review: Judas Priest 'British Steel' (30th Anniversary Re-Issue)
Sony Music

All Access Review:  A-

A powerful streak of individualism runs through British Steel, the landmark heavy-metal album that roared from the mouth of Judas Priest 30 years ago. “Breaking The Law,” for example, might seem, on the surface, to be a call to take up a life of crime or smash windows and loot the shops on Main Street without regard for public safety, and undoubtedly, the romantic notion of the outlaw unrestrained by societal conventions figures prominently in the song. But look a little deeper, and you’ll find it is a story of desperation, of an unemployed drifter of a man at the end of his rope who figures he has nothing to lose and “… might as well begin to put some action in my life.” And that action might not be exactly legal.

What about “Grinder” and its references to “self-reliance” and the need for “room to breathe,” and the line “… from the treadmill/ I take my leave”? Or in “You Don’t Have to be Old to be Wise,” the first words out of Halford’s screaming maw are “I’ve had enough of being programmed/ And told what I ought to do.” There are outside forces that will demand conformity of you, one of them being the workplace, but Priest will have none of it.

Considering where Judas Priest came from, namely Birmingham, England, with all of its smoke-spewing, soot-stained factories and dirty coal mines, it’s hardly surprising that Rob Halford and company would cry out for independence and freedom from a life of soul-killing blue-collar work. Nor is it shocking that Priest, though they wanted nothing more than to escape Birmingham and find their own path, would do so without disrespecting the sweat and toil of those laborers they watched go off to work day after day, while at school, as Halford explains in the DVD accompanying this reissue, the clanging of work tools was within easy earshot. And lastly, it’s not exactly stunning, in hindsight, that the strong sense of self that pervades Priest’s lyrics and their racing, hard-charging, industrial metal riffs would resonate with frustrated British, and American, youth of the time.

Still, Priest was hardly an overnight sensation. Their career, starting in 1970, the year the band was founded, was marked by a steady climb up from the streets, with late-‘70s LPs Stained Class and Hell Bent for Leather spearheading the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement and establishing a beachhead for the massive metal invasion that was to come with 1980’s British Steel – which zoomed up to #3 on the British album charts its first week and went platinum in America, birthing two classic metal hits in the aforementioned “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight.” Their studs-and-leather look already inspiring a legion of imitators, Judas Priest confidently drove their Harleys into a new decade, their sound pounding harder and faster than ever, but with British Steel came a more sure sense of melody and, dare one say it, more commercially appealing songs. 

Re-mastered to add more punch and sonic richness, the 30th anniversary reissue of British Steel is a powerful reminder of why the album had such an impact on the world of heavy metal. From the onset of the opener “Rapid Fire” on through the relentless “Grinder,” and that tricky little bass intro and the ensuing avalanche of guitars in “The Rage,” the new meaner, leaner British Steel simply attacks and demolishes expectations, Halford’s incredible voice soaring ever higher and the intertwined twin-guitar forays of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing grabbing the bull by the horns and unleashing molten, instantly memorable riffs, such as those that drive “Breaking The Law” and “Living After Midnight,” both of which pack a bigger wallop here. A bonus track, “Red White & Blue,” could be a new anthem for America, but it’s not quite as potent as usual Priest fare and comes off a little like the similarly anthemic “United.” But a gutsy, bulldozing live version of “Grinder,” recorded at a show in Long Beach, Calif., is a welcome addition, the guitar solos seeming to pierce heaven.

Making the package essential is that DVD, which includes a sensational, life-affirming concert of modern-day Priest doing British Steel in its entirety and throwing in classics like “Freewheel Burning,” “Victim of Changes,” “Diamonds & Rust” and the crowd-pleasing finale “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” to get fists pumping. Along with the live show, there’s a segment on the making of British Steel, featuring an interview with Halford, Hill, Tipton and Downing that’s enjoyably nostalgic and informative. What a way to honor an album that wasn’t just a breakthrough for Priest, but also one that set the standard by which almost every succeeding metal, real metal, that is, album was measured.

-         -Peter Lindblad

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