Friday, November 26, 2010

Ram It Down: A Point Of Entry For Judas Priest To Deliver The Goods

After spending time, once again, debating with the best man at my wedding over the merits of Iron Maiden versus Judas Priest, I decided to commit: I'd listen to the nominal entirety of Judas Priest's discography, since, as a Maiden Man (uhhhh..) I was LESS familiar with the collective work of Priest. Granted, the tone of my analysis was not unbiased, since I was essentially comparing Priest, who I don't know really well, although I really like them, to Iron Maiden, who I already know I love. But I figured all it would do is make me like Judas Priest more, since I'd be more familiar with them, right?

So I dove in. On Thanksgiving. Five days after my wedding. Seriously. We drove to Thanksgiving dinner rocking out to Stained Class. Loud.

I love my wife.

So... here's my take this week in the case of Priest v. Maiden.

If each of these bands were a movie trilogy, Priest would be Max Max. Hot, sweaty, vaguely futuristic, most certainly surly, a little violent, but rooted in greasy machines. It will start out great (Mad Max/Sad Wings Of Destiny-Sin After Sin), get over-the-top awesome (The Road Warrior/ Stained Class-Defenders of The Faith), then peter out while doing the things you love in a familiar but tired way (Beyond Thunderdome/Ram It Down-Turbo). Iron Maiden, on the other hand, would likely be Lord Of The Rings -- probably went on too long, had lots of stages you could have done without, but when you're done, it's usually the more awesome stuff I remember.

For ME, I think my preference for Maiden comes from two things: context and production. Judas Priest sounds dated to me, thanks to their attempts to stay contemporary. A forgivable sin in the early 1980s, when all the technology to MAKE those sounds was new and wild, but now all that chorus on those guitars smothered in gated reverb remind me of the soundtracks to a million Saturday afternoon movie closing credit themes. Defenders Of The Faith is a particularly egregious example, which buries some of the band's best "hard era" songs in a digital reverb din that makes it impossible to separate from inages of Remo Williams duking it out with Action Jackson on top of a half-finished skyscraper. Maiden had their own production problems, to be sure (some of the synths on the post-Powerslave era are a bit airy to belong of an Iron Maiden record), but it seems like they held out LONGER for one reason or another, with simply a greater percentage of their so-called "classic period" sounding less specifically of its time.

The worst effect of this is on the dueling guitars that made each act so brutally awesome. Whomever it was that botched so many production jobs for Priest certainly owes K.K. Barrett and Glen Tipton their apologies. "Here's an idea for you, audio scientists: if you're going to have dueling lead guitars, why don't you give each of the players identical tones, so you can't distinguish between who's playing what!" Oh wait, you did that, and dampened the brilliance of one of the best twin-guitar lineups since Scott Gorham and whoever else was in Thin Lizzy at the time! Maiden's albums seem to have a distinction in tones between Dave Murray and Adrian Smith that allows you to hear another aspect of the guitaring that differentiates the two even further: melodies. Downing and Tipton RULE, alright? And while I would love to be in the front row banging my fucking head while they rip up some guitarmonies, on (overproduced) record, too much of that same tone turns into sort of a chorus-y, phased mush. It's to the players' credit that this isn't noticeable unless you're listening with a critical ear. Their soloing is astounding, and the riffage and melodicism of the solos is brilliant, but poor production harms it, and I've even listened to the remasters for this comparison. It's hardly the band's fault, and again, I'm sure that in the room it's practically a religious experience, but on record, and that's all anyone really has to go on, it's a little same-y. Maiden seems to utilize counterpoint melodies in the lead guitar parts, rather than intricate harmonies on the same melody. Which is a different beast, really, with a different number. But if you're doing an apples-to-apples comparison... I prefer the intertwining melodies version.

I wouldn't be stupid enough to compare Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson to Judas Priest's Rob Halford though. That's a fool's game. Both these dudes are as good as metal/rock vocalists come, and that one's strictly down to preference. However, we can talk lyrics. Maybe that's where my "mid-80s rock tone" pre-condition jumps in. Because honestly, my "bands to trilogies" metaphor up there didn't come out of nowhere. Judas Priest were bad boys, singing about cars and sex and being badasses (leather-and-studs image notwithstanding). Iron Maiden's Steve Harris was a nerd, through and through. He wrote about history and fantasy literature... a song based on the 1960's pop-art TV show The Prisoner? Dork. While the lyrics on either band's oeuvre of dust sleeves are all pretty silly, the macho strut of Priest somehow (and I don't pretend to understand why) comes off as sillier. Which makes me a complete nerd, but if you've read this far, you're pretty comfortable with that fact.

But the obsession with say, "hot rod metal" vs. "dragonslayer metal" has one other hidden facet -- the fact that they had different ancestors. Sure, they can both be traced back to early proto-metal like Sabbath and Zeppelin. But Maiden leaned a lot harder on European musical influences, while Priest was undoubtedly more fueled by American music. The boys in Maiden were more likely to incorporate some classical passages in with their galloping sound, with phrases that recall what many 20th century ears hear as the "old fashioned" central European sounds of movies featuring wizards and warriors. Add to this the scales of the British folk tradition (of which you can certainly hear shades in some of Iron Maiden's mid-period albums), there's a foreign medieval-ness to their sound that appeals to me. It's got just a little more of that "Battle Of Evermore"/Jimmy page version of Olde English folk to add a different texture. Judas Priest, on the other hand, are basically a blues act. Blues as filtered through John Lee Hooker's electric guitar, Elvis' frenzied gospel intermingling, Keith Richards' simplification of technique, Jimi Hendrix' amplification of sound into an almost physical element, and the giant scope of Zeppelin. But make no mistake, despite a few proggier moments on their earlier records, had they not discovered that their strengths were speed and aggression, they could have made a string of albums that sounded like Foreigner. Thank god they didn't, and once they found that recipe around the time of Stained Class, they transformed into a piston-pumping machine of greasy, full-throttle open road juggernaucity. (Nice, huh?) Of course, Maiden aren't off the hook either. Original vocalist Paul DiAnno often gets the blame for the less-than-awesome vibe of the first two Iron Maiden records, but it's lazy to attribute it solely to him. Bassist and songwriter Steve Harris was writing interesting songs that showed the path they would later take, but let's not mistake "interesting" with "very good". I like them, they have their charm, but each of these bands is allowed a few early missteps. I'm looking at you Rocka Rolla.

So ultimately, the bands certainly share some characteristics, but were separated by several years in making their first albums and really didn't sound all that much alike to music nerds. Once again proving that we're all wasting our lives, because in the grand scheme of music history, I don't see why I should even be able to distinguish between the two bands.

So, in short, I'm really, really glad I plowed through all that Judas Priest. i discovered at least 4 absolutely awesome records (Stained Class, Hell Bent For Leather, Unleashed In the East, and the almighty Screaming For Vengeance), none of which are marred by awful production. Incidentally, the last great Priest album, unmentioned here, is Painkiller, where the band finally caught up with the '80s thrash scene that they influenced. Brooooootal. I still prefer Iron Maiden, but I like my "epic fantasy rock" more than I like my "cars, sex, and being awesome" badass anthems.

Of course, Kiss annihilates both these sets of wimps with one giant ball of fire, but that's another column.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this article. Especially the last line.

    I came to know Judas Priest after their glory days were long past, and Halford had come out of the closet. I was aware of the mega hits from the '80s from my childhood, but I didn't really start listening to them in earnest until my college days were wheezing their last gasp. I don't really think much about the guitar tone, or necessarily care who is playing what. All I know is that there are some dudes seriously rocking out and playing tightly written, catchy tunes about being awesome, which makes me happy. And I giggle a little every time sex comes up in one of their songs, thinking about all of the homophobic metal head dudes who I went to school with, who must have been so confused when Halford came out.

    Maiden is OK the way Led Zeppelin is OK. If it comes on, I'll listen to it, but the swords and sorcery stuff just isn't my bag. They have this meandering sound that comes with epic-ness, and like Zeppelin, it's just not focused enough for me. The songs have great moments, but you have to sit through a lot of other stuff to get to it. Like "Run To The Hills" has a great chorus, but then I have to sit through the verses about Indians to get to the rocking out. Priest is all about the rockin', and that suits me just fine. I have a short attention span, I guess.