Judas Priest in the '80s made two albums that cemented their reputation among young headbangers: Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith. Prior to to these two, I knew of them only through seeing shrunk-down images of the album sleeves on the inner linings of other records I had — I knew they had an album called Rocka Rolla, which was exactly the kind of album title that turned me off when I was young and grave-minded. Neither KMET nor KLOS, the twin engines of southern California rock radio, played Priest much — if they did, it went right past me, because I don't remember hearing them in grade school at all, and I listened to the radio every night. All that changed with "You Got Another Thing Comin'," one of the all-time great hard rock singles and a staple of early eighties rock radio.
But Black Sabbath had been up to: the Sabs had been leaning proggy on Volume IV and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and their countrymen in Judas Priest had been taking a few notes.Sad Wings of Destiny came out in 1976, and it was well ahead of its time. It seems clear that both the band and the producer had been listening to Roy Thomas Baker's work on the early Queen albums (look at all the ground covered on "The Ripper" — the stereo panning, the attention to development; listen to the backwards cymbal crash dropped between the first and second verse on "Dreamer Deceiver") and probably also to what
Neither Queen nor Sabbath, though, had really tried anything quite like Judas Priest attempted on Sad Wings of Destiny: dark little uptempo quasi-biker-rock mini-operas about killers and kings without any love songs to thin the broth. Halford's falsetto, which would inform the entirety of the next decade's metal hopefuls, didn't have the depth of Freddy Mercury's: it was piercing, and producer Jeffrey Calvert didn't try to balance it out. He just let it pierce. K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton's twin-guitar work had some similarities to a few FM mainstays, like, say, Thin Lizzy, and it's audible that they've both listened to plenty of Brian May solos; but Thin Lizzy liked to boogie, and Queen was grand. Judas Priest had decided to keep it bleak.
It's the bleakness that makes Sad Wings so great. Search in vain for good-time rock and roll: the songs have titles like "Genocide" and "Island of Domination." There was plenty of darker rock and roll around, for sure — David Bowie, Lou Reed — but Judas Priest really let the grey shadows envelop their craft; the minor harmonies giving call-and-response in Tyrant are just plain bummed out. The whole album is like a very violent action movie that opens and closes in limited release on a single weekend.
A whole generation of musicians and fans were hungry for exactly this sort of thing. You wouldn't have known it to read the rock press; there wasn't really room for Judas Priest at the table. Maybe that not-invited-to-the-party aspect of this kind of music is part of what made it appealing to a lot of people. The best moments on Sad Wings of Destiny are opportunities for a subculture to share moments of depth and emotion without having to join in any greater cultural moment. Listening, it's hard to hear who Judas Priest is playing for — are they reaching for, and missing, the mainstream? No. There were people in houses on every other street who wanted something like this, and by '82 or so, it'd be a little easier to find.
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John Darnielle is the singer and songwriter otherwise known as the Mountain Goats.
Books mentioned in this post
John Darnielle is the author of Black Sabbath: Master of Reality (33 1/3 Series)