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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

Judas Priest

Rocka Rolla

Review by Gary Hill

I know there are a lot of people who just plain disregard this Judas Priest album because the sound is so different. That’s a mistake. I also remember that way back when I used to think that the first Black Sabbath album was that group interpreting Cream and this album was Judas Priest interpreting the first Black Sabbath disc. There is a certain amount of truth to that analogy, but it is certainly over-simplified. Both Priest and Sabbath cut their teeth on the same bands in their formative times. They bumped around with the same musicians. These things lead their first discs to have definite similarities. The Priest sound that we came to know and love on subsequent releases shows up throughout this album. Sure the production might be a bit understated. Halford’s vocals are too low in the mix. There is some great music here nonetheless. I highly recommend that anyone who enjoys the music of Judas Priest should check this one out – not just because it’s a great historical document, but also because there is some great music here. It might not feel like Judas Priest at times, but it’s still excellent stuff. I should also mention that this album has been released in several different formats and with two different covers. For some reason I’ve always liked this one best – although the other one is more typical Priest.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
One for the Road
The bluesy elements are all over this. It has a definite Black Sabbath feeling to it, but there are definite signs of the Priest that was to come. The vocals are too far down in the mix for a Judas Priest song, but there are some trademark Halfordisms here and there.
Rocka Rolla
The riff that makes this one up is more typical of what Judas Priest would be doing on the next few discs. In fact, minus the bluesy touches that are on this (including the harmonica) and with a more pronounced vocal line in the arrangement I could imagine this fitting onto something like Hell Bent For Leather (Killing Machine for those non US folks). This is one of the strongest cuts on the disc and I love the fact that there are points where the guitar is soloing alongside the vocals (not put off into its own little compartment).
Winter/Deep Freeze/Winter Retreat/Cheater

This epic suite is lain out across several tracks on some copies of this CD while it is one track on others. Either way it leads off with weird backwards tracked and processed textures and voices. It screams out after a time in a slow moving jam that feels like it could fit on Sad Wings of Destiny. A crescendo gives way to a short drum solo and then the guitar comes in with a decidedly Sabbath-like riff – of course, it’s still got a Priest sort of feeling to it. They bring it back to the song proper from there after a while. Around the two and a half minute mark this is worked out into a weird sort of feedback and distortion laden jam that’s a bit like the center portion of Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snowdog” meets the noise section of Priest’s “Sinner.” This gets very strange (but also very cool) as bits of sound come across feeling like the growling of some savage beast. In a stark contrast the group move into a melodic balladic motif from there with sung vocals. This again feels like early Priest meets Rush. This has an almost prog rock texture to it and serves a great contrast/grounding in comparison to the odd elements and harsh nature of what came before. This gives way to the straight-ahead Priest does blues rock treatment of “Cheater.” We get more harmonica on this one.  It may be unusual for Priest, but it’s also very tasty.

Never Satisfied
This bluesy rocker is slow paced, but quite cool. After the verse it jumps to a short riff that has quite a meaty texture. The chorus is a chord driven segment that derives its oomph from Rob Halford's vocals. The band jumps into an intriguing jam after the first chorus, then they move it back to the earlier verse segment. They follow through as previously, but then slow the jam way down for the closing title sung by Halford.
Run of the Mill
They start off with an intricate and rather pretty guitar melody here. They move out into more of the blues tinged version of what was to become a classic Priest sound as they carry forward. Somehow this song has always been one of my favorites here. Don’t ask me what makes it so special, but it just seems to work exceptionally well. I like the lyrics and cool vocal delivery. We get an almost psychedelic jam mid-section. As this is moved forward they bring in some of that noisy effects sounding guitar like we heard in the earlier suite. This grows up gradually and in a very satisfying way. When they bring it back out to the chorus Halford has some of his most impressive vocal work of the disc. He really drives this section, despite being too far down in the mix. This extensive outro gets some trademark Halford screams and is very much in keeping with some of the stronger material on Sad Wings of Destiny.
Dying to Meet You

They start this off with a classic Priest crunch riff. Then it drops back to a mellower motif to continue in a bluesy rock ballad motif. The vocal delivery is a bit different from what Halford typically does, but it’s also quite cool. There is a section – repeated a couple times here – where Halford puts out the longest note I’ve ever heard anyone hold. If it were any other singer I’d assume that it had to be a studio trick, but with Halford I think it might have been all him. If so, that’s incredibly impressive. There’s a false ending and then the song is reborn into a more typical Judas Priest jam that’s just plain awesome. The combination between these two sections reminds me of the “Dreamer Deceiver” / “Deceiver” twofer on Sad Wings.  This might not be as epic or powerful as those tracks, but the effect is similar. I love the lines, “Hero, Hero you have done so well / Now sit back and lick your wounds because you will go to hell.”

Caviar and Meths
This is an atypical, but pretty, proggy instrumental. While I wouldn’t normally think of it as a great closer, somehow it works to bring us back to earth after the fury of the closing section of “Dying to Meet You.”
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