JUDAS PRIEST – “Hell Bent For Leather” ’78 (CBS, Eng) – Interesting it is, the thoughts we have on going back and reviewing our own writing. At least I know for me it is. Sometimes in doing so, the ideas and tangents that come to mind are surprising. So it was with re-reading my review of JUDAS PRIEST’s “Nostradamus” opus, one of the truly great albums of 2008…and of the band’s career, in my opinion, that I noticed I’d made an allusion to not understanding those who place albums like “British Steel” & “Hell Bent For Leather” above such records as “Stained Class” and “Sad Wings….” In my reading, it struck me that while I continually hear numbers like “Breaking The Law” & “Living After Midnight” (“British Steel”) on the radio, it had been a damn long time since the grooves of “Hell Bent…/Killing Machine” had turned beneath these ears. Was it time to give this old warhorse a fresh listening? I thought so, and with that I felt it would be interesting to do a “Grand Halls” piece on a record that was not one I’d normally place in that category…and yet…. There are a few singularly interesting things about “Hell Bent For Leather” right from the get-go, the first being it’s dual title. The deal is that the record came out as “Killing Machine” in 1978 in England yet the US offices of CBS apparently thought the title too “violent” for America. I’ll let you work that twisted logic out for yourselves. In any case, it’s the “Hell Bent…” version we’ll take a look at here, as it includes one additional song and after all, you know any chance for me to be more wordy is one I’ll jump on any day. J Another cool tidbit concerning “Hell Bent…” is the fact that it is the 2nd of the only 2 studio JP albums to which Les “Feathertouch” Binks would lend his massive drumming skills. (Well, unless you consider “Unleashed In The…ahem…Studio”…but that’s fodder for another article!). At any rate, to paraphrase the age-old ad I remember seeing in Creem Magazine at the time, it’s time to tear off the cloth and put on the leather….
Upon looking at the cover art of “Hell Bent…,” there’s a difference apparent from the previous “Stained Class.” Where the latter featured an image of an elite, arty sort, this one is more direct and visceral. The image of the face with the bullet-shattered glasses and studded headband implies a far more aggressive tone, the logo & title placement indicate a direct connection with it’s predecessor from earlier that year. The band photos on the back of the sleeve show the 4 musicians looking about as expected. Lead singer Halford, however, looks completely different than ever before. Bedecked in a leather jacket, his hair, beard (!) and facial expression look more like a biker/pirate and the silk & satin days seem like a distant memory. On to the record itself and the beating commences immediately with “Delivering The Goods.” If the PRIEST were going to be losing their ability to do just that, it sure isn’t apparent in this tune. The immediate difference noticeable from “Stained Class”/”Sin After Sin” is the thundering bottom-end that’s present here as opposed to the surgical, space-age sound of the formers. Les Binks drums, while still a study in proto-jazz-metal craftsmanship (how could they ever have let this guy go?!) pack a wallop more familiar to the grand ol’ geezer Bonzo on this track & Glenn Tipton’s guitar solo utterly shreds. Next up is “Rock Forever.” Now here’s something different. Talk about a stripped-down approach compared to anything on the previous couple records, the “rock & roll” lyrics harken back to the title track of…wait for it…”Rocka Rolla” and the “Gimme a ride, boys!” before the Lizzy-like double lead solo mirrors a Steven Tyler-type cat-call. “Evening Star” opens with an acoustic guitar figure, almost like it could be another “Last Rose Of Summer” or (dare we hope) a “Beyond The Realms Of Death.” Soon, by the major chord melody and the insistent yet simple rhythm, it’s clear this is something a lot more accessible than either. Originally a song I would skip over (well, cue over in the old tone arm days!) on recent listens, I’ve been taken by the guitar solos, brief though they are by Glenn & KK here. In addition, Binks adds some deft percussion touches that remind me of the Sabs’ “Planet Caravan.” The title track starts like an explosion, with an absolutely crushing opening volley of power chords suspended on Leslie’s rolling bass drums. Then, Tipton announces the song-proper with a riff straight out of Ted Nugent’s top-shelf lost greats and it’s onto 2 ½ minutes of sheer greatness. The solo here by Glenn borders on the ridiculously great. Oh hell, borders my ass, it just is! Finishing Side One is something that has and still is my sticking point with this album, the anthem “Take On The World.” It was a wonderful thing that Queen did something like “We Will Rock You” but I honestly never understood why PRIEST had to do their own version of it. ‘Nuff said.
It’s without a whole lot of who-struck-John that JP get back on track to start Side Two, however. “Burnin’ Up” has always been one of my 2 favourite songs on “Hell Bent…”and on recent re-listenings, it still is. Apart from Halford’s new-found reality-based lyrical bent (i.e. sex, partying, etc.) this is as classic a Downing/Halford composition as there’s ever been. From the strutting funk/metal rhythm (KK’s Hendrix influence) to the searing melodic section, to the solo (you can almost see Downing, head thrown back, Flying V held to the sky), this is as good a song as PRIEST has ever done. Up next is the Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green) cover, “The Green Manalishi….” Part of the band’s penchant for including covers (“Diamonds & Rust,” Better By You, Better Than Me”) this number is given the full-metal-chugging treatment, complete with a slashing Glenn/KK lead trade-off. Following, we find the title cut of the British version of the record, “Killing Machine.” Like “Hell Bent…” itself, it’s short and therein lies one of the things that requires a large adjustment on the part of the listener moving from “Stained Class” to this one. On the latter, there were 5 songs that equaled or topped the 5 minute mark. On “Hell Bent…,” the “epic” is “Delivering The Goods,” at 4:19. Still, it’s pretty hard to deny “Killing Machine” with it’s pillage-heavy chorus and the solo from Glenn, so loud that it pushes the meters into the red. Another riff that could find itself enamouring Terrible Ted opens “Running Wild” and again, while not opus-like in length, this one is a bundle of energy, mirroring the “nightlife” I’m certain Halford has “moved among” many times. Up next is my other fave song on the disc and oddly, a ballad through and through. To say that “Before The Dawn” is a lovely, beautiful song may not be doing it the justice it requires. Having listened to it several times in the last couple days, the first time I’ve heard it in probably a couple years, I’m struck by how well it’s held up and is possibly much better than I even remembered it. This is one of (if not the) greatest vocals of Halford’s career and while he may have done a solo or two equal to this over the years, KK has never bettered it. Scintillating. “Hell Bent For Leather” closes with another complete oddity, for the band at this point, the slow & sleazy “Evil Fantasies.” Complete with a slide (!!!) solo by Tipton (I actually saw him do this live in 1979), this track reminds me of Sabbath doing a Bon-era AC/DC song, or maybe more accurately, something by the under-appreciated Aussie bunch, Buffalo. Is Glenn a closet John Baxter fan?
And so, there it is, JUDAS PRIEST’s “Hell Bent For Leather.” I will fully admit that on my first listen, my first appraisal back in 1979 as a 22 year old, I was aghast and hated it. “This was the follow-up to my beloved ‘Stained Class,’ the sci-fi-laced, embryonic speed metal, death-obsessed dark tour de force?" For years, I suppose, I began to slowly enjoy the album, acknowledging a grudging respect for it, especially in the face of abortions like “Turbo” & “Ram It Down” (and let’s not even get into the Ripper stuff!). But only recently, in reading back my interpretation of the band’s amazing “Nostradamus” masterpiece, it for some reason jarred me to see my own lumping of the record with “British Steel.” In a fit of fairness I also went back and listened several times to that commercial break-through and found the spirit of that & “Hell Bent…” to be completely different. While “British…” still sounds to me like an oddly mechanical, cleaned-up stab at the mainstream (albeit a very successful and, admittedly, listenable one), “Hell Bent For Leather” is an album that, while not the flat-out “10.0” of “Stained Class” or “Sad Wings Of Destiny,” is still one real “Killing Machine.” 9.5