Let’s ruminate on some classics: Sabbath and Priest

In recent months the temptation to do a self-indulgent top 100 list has become overwhelming. The problem with lists is that they either become a musical biography of the writer, based mostly on albums that were significant to them at the time with anecdotal tales related to the music, the appeal of which depends completely on the talent of the writer to do so with flare, descanting on the music they love on the off chance the reader is familiar with it. Or else for a more objective perspective, they can be put to a vote from the readership or a select crowd, the problem with this being that the list becomes a predictable exercise in the trivial. Both approaches can only ever offer a snapshot of tastes at the time of publishing, either of individual taste always in flux, or collective taste subject to trend and new releases.

So instead I thought I would compose a chimerical tapestry, pitting albums of a similar colour against each other every week, and assessing their distinctive merits and flaws. The hope would be to build a collage of the best music various styles have to offer. It need hardly be added that this will be weighted heavily towards extreme metal, and weighted heavily towards my taste, as I am writing this, and I will choose what to feature.

So without further ado let’s start with something easy, and roughly at the beginning.

Judas Priest – Sad Wings of Destiny 1976 / Black Sabbath – Sabotage 1975

‘Sabotage’, the sixth studio album from that band what played that riff, is widely regarded to be the last of the great records of the Ozzy era. It saw these musicians take their music still further into the realm of prog rock combined with the more familiar classic heavy rock fair of the time. ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ is pretty much Judas Priest’s first fully fledged metal album. It sees them shaking off any pretence to psychedelic rock and largely shedding the blues heritage. I guess the easiest way to throw into sharp relief the thoughts on these two releases is to illuminate my reasons for choosing them.

For Black Sabbath, the fact that their self-titled debut is so often singled out as the creation myth of heavy metal tends to ignore the fact that the rest of the album largely relies on heavy blues, often played faster and heavier than their contemporaries certainly, but largely too disjointedly to work as a solid album. The follow up, ‘Paranoid’, is a more cohesive work certainly, but again, rhythm and blues abound. Throughout their first six albums they continued to build on their sound, and it is to their credit that they did not shy away from developing whilst never losing sight of what made them distinctive in the first place. 1973’s ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ saw them attempt to meld their sound with the popular face of progressive rock, recruiting Rick Wakeman of Yes fame for a couple of tracks, but the results were patchy.

In many ways ‘Sabotage’ was a rerun of its predecessor. A humongous opening number, expansive songs interspersed with more traditional heavy rock, apocalyptic lyrics interrupted by inane sentiments regarding love and tripping. But all these things have been subjugated under the yoke of musical discipline on ‘Sabotage’, with the result that the whole thing comes across as a cohesive entity.

One underated aspect to ‘Sabotage’ is the improvement in Ozzy’s vocals. Never before on record do we get such power and precision from his voice box, and arguably never did again.

Which I guess leads us nicely on to Judas Priest’s second full length offering from the following year, ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’, which for all its flaws never suffered from weak vocals. Structurally it works much like Black Sabbath’s debut, but a step further down the line of what we would recognise today as heavy metal. It opens with an expansive, ambitious and lengthy number, complete with screaming guitars with both Glenn Tipton and K. K. Downing sharing lead duties. But much like Black Sabbath, the load is blown too soon. The quality recovers with ‘Dream Deceiver’, much like Black Sabbath recovers with NIB, but the rest of the material varies from at best classic NWBHM riffs that time has not been kind to, or at worst hammy ballads. Having said all that, there are aspects to this album still capable of surprising all these years on, and its musical significance cannot be underestimated. This and the two albums that followed solidified Judas Priest’s status as a pillar of influence for all heavy metal, before they fell into the heavy rock self-parody of their 1980s selves.

Black Sabbath might as well have left the stage with 1975’s ‘Sabotage’, their crowning achievement, an ambitious and technical work, complete with theatre and fun, the culmination of five years of development. Judas Priest took up the mantel the following year, continuing along very similar musical lines and produced a truly ambitious if patchy slab of heavy metal, predicting much of the music of the decade to come; a factor which has led many to forgive and forget its flaws. The two albums that followed from Priest would build on and surpass this work, bequeathing an intimidating legacy to live up to for the generation to follow.

An interesting thought for the majority of us who were not present at the time of these releases. We tend to look back upon them placed neatly into their context in history, with the knowledge of what came after and the meaning these originators held for future generations. This is in contrast to viewing them as works of art in their own right. There is a temptation to describe these pieces as means to an end, the end being whatever modern form of metal you take to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement. The language we use for these older artists, ‘pave the way’, ‘historically significant’, tends to paint over the fact that these musicians were making art for its own sake, with no view to what could possibly follow. Probably inevitable from a modern perspective, especially for writers not alive at the time. I am still undecided whether such an approach does these artists a credit for what they achieved, or a disservice in refusing to view their creations on their own merits alone.

So it’s probably not fair to pit these two albums against each other and decide which is the release of superior quality, but ‘Sabotage’ is the release of superior quality.

One last thought, ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ kicked off Judas Priest’s proud tradition of song titles that end with  ‘er’, songs usually about a thing, that comes into town, and causes or protects folk from havoc, but sometimes written in the first person, as if Rob Halford is the thing. Here in chronological order, behold:

 The Ripper, Dream Deceiver, Deceiver, Sinner, Starbreaker, Dissident Aggressor, Exciter, Invader, Grinder, Steeler, Troubleshooter, Jawbreaker, Turbo Lover, Painkiller, Night Crawler, Abductors (Not sure if this one counts), Devil Digger, Bloodsuckers, Demonizer, Hellrider, Redeemer of Souls, Metalizer, 

I am not sure if this is just coincidence for a career that now spans over 40 years, but at one point they were at least two to an album…

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