"Think 'heavy metal' and few bands come to mind as quickly as JUDAS PRIEST," reads a sentence from Greg Prato's liner notes from the 17-disc box (literally) set titled "The Complete Albums Collection". And who could argue that point with any semblance of a logical foundation? One could say the same about heavy metal vocalists and Rob Halford's towering iconic status as metal's number one glass-shattering front man. As far as guitar tandems go, how about K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton? Supreme master of the low-end Ian Hill is no slouch either. There is nary a word left to utter for the 14 studio and three live albums released by Halford-era(s) JUDAS PRIEST that hasn't been uttered countless times already, but we'll attempt a semi-succinct rundown just the same.
The story begins in industrial U.K. city Birmingham, the sounds of the machinery compelling K.K. Downing and… Just kidding; on with the review. Assuming you have that kind of time on your hands, listening to each CD, which are packaged in cardboard slipcases (or "mini-LP sleeves"), in sequential order is one heck of a heavy metal history lesson that newcomers and diehards alike will find stimulating and informative. Listen to the 1974 Rodger Bain-produced "Rocka Rolla" debut (originally released on Gull and with a new remastering here) followed by 2008's double-disc swansong studio album "Nostradamus" and those otherwise uninformed would wonder if it was the same band. But listen closely and you'll hear the faint sound of seeds being sown on that international introduction to JUDAS PRIEST. Recording issues and friction over the "Rocka Rolla" track selection/sequencing gets much of the attention in conversations about a release that saw the band mixing and matching styles, whether blues-infused hard rock or progressive indulgence, but songs like "One for the Road" and "Never Satisfied" were big first steps on the road to heavy metal stardom. Many years later the epic metal bloat of "Nostradamus" left many fans puzzled and some outright distraught, but there is no mistaking cuts like the title track as identifiable only as JUDAS PRIEST.
It was the next two albums, 1976's "Sad Wings of Destiny" and 1977's Columbia Records debut "Sin after the Sin" that saw a band finding its footing and gaining momentum. "Sad Wings of Destiny" in particular is notable because it featured legendary staples "Victim of Changes" (with writing contribution from former vocalist Al Atkins) and the Tipton-penned "The Ripper", as well as "Tyrant" and "Genocide", all of which would figure prominently in the success of 1979's live "Unleashed in the East". The title track from "Sinner" would become a minor classic and the cover of Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust" would be made JUDAS PRIEST's own, but it was the über-heavy "Dissident Aggressor" that prove to be JUDAS PRIETS's dive into the deep end of the heavy metal pool. That it served as the ideal cover choice for SLAYER speaks volumes.
Then in 1978 came a behemoth called "Stained Class" that was so far ahead of its metallic time and so far ahead of "Sin after Sin" in terms of sonic violence that it can still shock the system when played at high volume in 2012. "Exciter" was the first of many dyed-in-the-wool JUDAS PRIEST speedsters, while "Beyond the Realms of Death" would serve as a template of sorts of the deep, dark heavy metal power ballad, even though its sheer weight makes "ballad" seem less than accurate.
An album called "Killing Machine" (changed to "Hell Bent for Leather" for stateside release) jumped the band's songwriting to a new level, one that combined the fierceness of "Stained Class" (the title track is an all-time devastator) with a more muscular and groove-based approach ("Delivering the Goods", "Evil Fantasies", "Burnin' Up") and that experimented with different cadences ("Take on the World"), ballads ("Before the Dawn"), and a newfound sense of melody ("Evening Star"). And of yes, another cover — this time FLEETWOOD MAC's "The Green Manalishi (With The Two-Pronged Crown)" — would surpass "Diamonds and Rust" as the best song JUDAS PRIEST never wrote and become another in a long line of classics. The excellent "Unleashed in the East" live album would spread the word of JUDAS PRIEST even further, the album's version of "The Green Manalishi (With The Two-Pronged Crown)" waking many from their rock-induced slumber.
The year 1980 marked the dawning of a commercially successful new era for JUDAS PRIEST. The songs of "British Steel" were stripped to the bare essentials, many of which became FM radio and MTV darlings, including "Breaking the Law" and perhaps the most recognizable JUDAS PRIEST song ever recorded, "Living after Midnight". The album also features a few monsters of the most metal kind as well, including "Metal Gods", "Grinder", and "Rapid Fire". Bare-bones sing-along "United" was the logical follow-up to "Take on the World".
Never ones to stay stuck in a stylistic rut, "Point of Entry" would be looked upon with mixed opinion, but nevertheless produced a pair of diamonds in "Heading Out to the Highway" and "Desert Plains", not to mention the no-bullshit punch of "Hot Rockin'". The short of it on this one is that Side A crushed Side B.
In more ways than one it would be 1982's "Screaming for Vengeance" that would set the heavy metal bar higher than any previous JUDAS PRIEST album. A far fiercer affair than "British Steel" or "Point of Entry", yet featuring the second most recognized hit "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" and one of the greatest heavy metal show openers in intro "Hellion" and out-of-this-world anthem "Electric Eye", "Screaming for Vengeance" was another defining moment for the band. Much praise is due to another example of ahead-of-their-time heaviness in the title track and "Riding on the Wind". The calculatedly more commercial "(Take these) Chains" — written by Bob Halligan, Jr., would also write "Some Heads are Gonna Roll" for the next release — was a bit of an odd fit, but a keeper nonetheless.
"Defenders of the Faith" continued the legacy in a similarly bellicose fashion, at least on Side A. Speed demon "Freewheel Burning" and underrated all-time great "The Sentinel" joined "Jawbreaker" and "Rock Hard, Ride Free" as arguably the most resolutely metal LP side of any JUDAS PRIEST album. Considered a favorite of many fans, its second side nonetheless was too varied for its own good, yet offered a terrific pair of cuts in the slow-burning "When the Night Comes Down" and the experimental "Love Bites", which would offset tepid radio single "Some Heads are Gonna Roll" and an exercise in trying-too-hard known as "Heavy Duty" and "Defenders of the Faith". The suggestive "Eat Me Alive" boasted plenty of firepower, but is unessential in the larger scheme.
Shield your eyes from pictures of the band during the "Turbo" era and several of these tunes don't sound so bad, "Turbo Lover" and "Out in the Cold" in particular. Though guitar synths abounded, some of the core songwriting basics remained the same, albeit with a greater emphasis on good-time 80s commercialism. That might have resulted in some of the cheesiest material of JUDAS PRIEST's career, but still made tracks like "Parental Guidance" good fun. Besides, it's not like "Living after Midnight" or "Hot Rockin'" was deeply metaphorical in their lyrical brilliance anyway. Come on now; it's JUDAS PRIEST, not friggin' OPETH.
"Priest…Live!" was another calculated move to capitalize on the successful "Turbo" tour and had the feel of an album of studio cuts with piped-in crowd noise. The double-disc worked fine as a live retrospective, but lacked the urgency and electricity of "Unleashed in the East". Regardless, there really isn't a great deal to dislike about it. Disc number 17, "Touch of Evil – Live" at least offered a good 21st Century representation of the band and a final performance snapshot.
Then came a return to form of sorts called "Ram it Down" to which history hasn't been all that kind, and unfairly so. A few middling cuts do nothing to detract from some anthems of pure steel, including the vaunted "Blood Red Skies", as well as the up-tempo "Hard as Iron". And let's face it; the title track is not all that dissimilar to "Freewheel Burning", even it didn't get anywhere near the same amount of love. And there ain't a damn thing wrong with "Heavy Metal" or the metalized version of "Johnny B. Goode".
In fact, "Ram it Down" served as a transitional album between "Turbo" and 1991 classic "Painkiller", which more and more folks have dubbed among the best of the catalogue, if not the best in an overall sense. Drummer Scott Travis' powerful and dexterous ways made a huge impact, especially on songs like the heavy-as-fuck title track. There isn't a mediocre cut on the album. It is full-on, hammers-up, pedal-to-the-floor JUDAS PRIEST heavy metal; "A Touch of Evil" the only — for lack of a better term — departure of any consequence (the 56-second "Battle Hymn" doesn't really count). And that's only because "A Touch of Evil" had more of an epically produced, melodically centered quality about it. And next to the title track it's the one most people reference during "Painkiller" discussions.
Since nothing more really needs to be said about overly ambitious concept album "Nostradamus", that only leaves "Angel of Retribution", the 2005 release that welcomed Rob Halford back into the fold. Though it leaned more toward the band's more traditionally metallic end (if you can really call any one album "traditional"), albeit with a few departures, most notably the 13-minute "Lochness". Sound as much like Halford's namesake band as JUDAS PRIEST, both "Judas Rising" and "Deal with the Devil" (the only one with an outside contributing writer in Roy Z) are still unmistakable in their PRIEST-ness. On the whole, "Angel of Retribution" is a solid album.
Obviously, those 17 albums don't actually complete the collection since JUDAS PRIEST also released 1997's strong "Jugulator" effort ("Cathedral Spires" and the title track gems) and poorly received, though inclusive of some decent material 2001 release "Demolition" with Tim "Ripper" Owens on lead vocals. The "'98…Live Meltdown" album was a Ripper-led disc too. But those were non-Sony products and "The Complete Albums Collection" is what many would argue is the "real" JUDAS PRIEST with Halford at center stage. Amazon.com has it for $131.68, which comes out to $7.75 per album; a pretty good deal. Those that already own all or most of these titles wouldn't gain much benefit from "The Complete Albums Collection" and the bonus material (several live and previously unreleased songs) and a 40-booklet that is mostly album info outside of Prato's two pages of well-written liner notes, doesn't enough value to make it a mandatory purchases for the loyalists. Regardless, this is a definitive Halford-era(s) collection filled to the brim with anthem after anthem from the quintessential heavy metal band, JUDAS PRIEST. What's to knock?