The Essential Judas Priest (2 CDs)
posted on 4/2006 By:
Judas Priest follows Iron Maiden as the latest metal band to get Sony’s “The Essential” treatment. This is pretty much just a label project, as the bands don’t have much to do with these compilations--they don’t select the songs, and the standard cover art is a black and white band photo. And as you’d expect, the Priest collection has the same issues as Maiden’s–it’s content rich but superfluous (especially for the MetalReview audience), and there’s the typical controversy about the song selection, or more accurately, the songs that weren’t selected. But at the end of the day, if you’re in the market for a Priest career summary, The Essential is as good as anything this side of Metalogy.
Problem is, I’m not sure just how many people actually are in the market for that career summary. “The Essential” is exactly friggin right. So essential in fact that nearly every metalhead already owns all or most of the material in the collection. Obviously a collection like this is aimed at listeners with little or no experience with one of the greatest and most influential metal bands of all time, or perhaps older ex-fans who are content with a compilation that highlights their favorites from high school. The first group is inexperienced, and the second are dicks. And neither of them are reading this review. But I think that there may be a modest percentage of our readership who might get some use out of this collection. It seems possible that there might be some (probably) younger metal fans who’ve cut their teeth on current metal from the last decade or so but haven’t really worked backward far enough to have gotten around to soaking up the full Judas Priest experience. Sure they’ve heard them, and maybe even own Painkiller (which is not the album to pick if there’s only going to be one), but they’ve never made the rounds through the band’s classic but lengthy back catalog. If you’re in that category, and you’re able to afford it, take my advice: fuck this collection–proceed to store and immediately purchase Sad Wings of Destiny, Stained Class, Screaming for Vengeance, and Unleashed in the East. Digest, fall in love, and return for further instruction. If you don’t have the cash or are too lazy to make the commitment, at least pick up The Essential Judas Priest or Metal Works ‘73-‘93. You’ve gone too long without fully understanding the history and context of metal.
There are several differences between the Priest and Maiden compilations that make this collection the more enjoyable listen, although no more worth the price tag for fans. First, although Priest has a reasonable share of collections and live albums, they haven’t peppered fans nearly as relentlessly as their colleagues. Fans already own a version of these songs, but probably only one or two, as opposed to four or five. This makes the tracklist seem moderately less dull. Second, as opposed to presenting the songs in reverse chronological order, this collection mixes the years together, which makes it less apparent how each album is represented as the tracks tick off. Lastly, they’ve done a slightly better job ignoring the, um...less essential material. The closest Ripper Owens comes to this album is the title of the Sad Wings track. Unfortunately, the third album to get the shaft is Rocka Rolla, the band’s very strong debut. The rest of the albums, twelve in all, each make contributions here, with nearly all of them represented twice. The early 80s era material gets a little extra attention, with tracks from Hell Bent for Leather (’78), British Steel (’80), Screaming for Vengeance (’82), and Defenders of the Faith (‘84) all showing up four times. The later effort Painkiller is also represented four times. It’s unfortunate that the band’s two best albums, Sad Wings of Destiny and Stained Class only contribute four of the thirty-four songs on the album, but overall there can be few gripes about the songs selected. Most of them are indisputable classic tracks, and the ones that aren’t (“United”, “Before the Dawn”, “The Sentinel”) provide some nice surprises and give the collection some depth.
A track by track discussion of the album’s massive two and half hour, thirty-four song tracklist is too formidable a task, and nearly every song is a known quantity but still a highlight, so this will be brief. The collection starts and closes with a pair of songs (“Judas Rising” and the painfully average “Revolution”) from the band’s latest album, the impressive comeback album Angel of Retribution. You also get a set of cover tunes, in The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown) from Hell Bent for Leather, and "Diamonds and Rust", from Sin After Sin. The contributions from some albums are completely predictable. The Pavlovian response generating “Hellion”/”Electric Eye” combo starts off disc two, and are joined by two other Screaming for Vengeance favorites, the warhorse “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” and the title track. Point of Entry contributes the usual suspects–“Heading Out to the Highway” and “Hot Rockin’”. Defenders of the Faith, on the other hand, throws a few headbangable curve balls, as the amphetamine-laced “Freewheel Burning” and “Love Bites” are joined by “Jaw Breaker” and the fantastic “The Sentinel”. The early years still provide the most thrills, and classics like “Victim of Changes” and “Beyond the Realms of Death” are ageless and undeniably superb slabs of dynamic, intense metal. At times the stylistic shifts between eras is marked from one track to the next, but in general the album provides a well mixed and varied set of classics. As well worn as this material is, it’s still impossible not to get completely swept up in the majesty of Judas Priest. The melodies and leads born from the magical partnership of Tipton and Downing, the rock solid foundation of Hill and Holland, and the mammoth, jaw dropping voice of Halford, have combined to spawn some of the greatest and most influential music this side of Black Sabbath.
Not every song in the collection is truly essential, and in truth, neither is every album in the band’s catalog. But even the weaker albums (Turbo, Ram it Down) contribute reasonably effectively, although any fan-created mix would likely substitute those tracks for others. Or maybe not. That’s the thing with the classics—the Priests, Maidens, Sabbaths—everybody has their favorites, and no collection will please everyone. Regardless, the monstrous play time of the collection makes a few skip-worthy tracks seem like a minor inconvenience. Hopefully, you’re intimately familiar with the long history and highs and lows of Judas Priest. If not, The Essential Judas Priest is an adequate primer, and it should be noted that Metal Works ‘73-’93 offers a similar amount of material and about a third of it differs from this album. Either will get you started. And by this time next year, I expect that you will have remedied your errant ways. But for the majority of us, the advent of the cd burner and mp3 playlists has rendered collections like these as useful as a combination sun dial/Betamax player.
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