Heading back to the highway
Two decades have raced by since Judas Priest's heyday, and suddenly you are the business-suited Mr. Dull that Rob Halford is sussing out in "Parental Guidance," urging you to slip on his leather jacket before you get too old. (Let's rock & roll!) As the flattening four-CD retrospective "Metalogy" proves, that jacket fits as well as it ever did -- maybe better.
Oh, there's some rust with the diamonds. Disc One is sincere but spotty, showing a workingman's band shaking off a Sabbath/Purple hangover on the way to forging a unique identity. And Disc Four chronicles Priest's sad decline into self-parody, with Halford replaced at the mic by starstruck fan Mark Wahlberg. (Hey, I only know what I see in the movies.) But the second and third discs, which chronicle the incredibly fertile period between 1979's "Hell Bent for Leather" and 1986's "Turbo," find Priest at the absolute apex of their art, turning out an unbroken string of meticulously crafted, hypermelodic metal that can still get any "reformed" dirtbag's heart pumping.
All the hits are here: "Living After Midnight," "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" and a live recital of Beavis and Butt-head's mantra, "Breaking the Law." Yet "Metalogy" is just as useful as a vindication of the group's supposedly lesser outings. Take 1984's "Defenders of the Faith," considered a mere "Vengeance" clone in its day but here revealed as a hotbed of symphonic, meticulously orchestrated compositions that almost deserve to be considered suites instead of songs. The rich, swelling chords that introduce "The Sentinel," "Some Heads Are Gonna Roll" and "Eat Me Alive" find Priest reveling in the majesty of rawk technology, setting a standard for guitar opulence that's yet to be beat. (As for the latter track's notorious lyric, "I'm gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive," notice how innocuous it now sounds, given our 20/20 hindsight that Halford was singing about a guy. Notice how that shouldn't make any difference. Notice how it does anyway.)
Sound was inseparable from style in the Priest canon. The telepathic harmony work of six-stringers Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing didn't mask their distinctive individual approaches; Downing's bonking tremolo work in particular has only improved with age. Over it all, Halford roared a good line in fantasy, filling us in on the doings of dark characters like the Exciter, the Starbreaker, the Jawbreaker, the Painkiller ... and of course the Grinder, who is both "looking for meat" and "wants you to eat."
Dumb? Sure. But it's a great, harmless-fun kind of dumb, and that's what sets it apart from the present-day Big Stupid that has nü-metal noodlers spewing endless verbal vitriol against their daddies. For all the leather in their wardrobe, Priest were remarkably unself-conscious, eschewing conceptual and instrumental masturbation to focus ever outward -- like into the audience, where their perfectly timed riff-drills were guaranteed to provoke a Pavlovian, fist-shaking response.
You can see evidence of that on the live DVD that rounds out the boxed set: a full concert from the 1982 "Vengeance" tour. Though plagued by inconsistent audio and the video editor's recurring fantasy that he is remaking "The Song Remains" the Same, it's a fairly representative sampling of Priest's in-arena commitment.
But for the genuine effect, you'll have to rely on the CDs, which put you and the Jawbreaker alone together in the dark one more time. Try bullshitting him that Priest only sounded great when you were 16, and you'll realize that "Metalogy" works best as a litmus test of whether you still have the ability to experience pleasure directly, as opposed to ironically. In other words, it's a chance to find out if you're still living -- after midnight or otherwise.