Hell Bent For Leather
REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/15/2005
By 1979, Judas Priest (JP) was riding high and gaining speed. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was barely a ripple, and still gaining momentum. Meanwhile JP was the uncontested leader of the pack. Bands like Motorhead, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard were just getting their feet wet, while JP was selling out venues around the world. Despite virtually no radio support outside their homeland, their legend was growing and sold-out shows were the norm in the U.S. and Japan, not to mention their already established fan base in Europe.
While they had established a successful formula based the influences of metal pioneers like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, and the theatrical hard rock of Kiss and Alice Cooper, they were still experimenting with different styles. On Hell Bent For Leather ( HBFL) they seem to be absorbing new influences, particularly the more melodic metal acts like UFO, Blue Oyster Cult, and Rainbow. This mixture of influences doesn't dilute their power at all, in fact it offers them broader and more diverse palate to work in, as long as they don't stretch too far from their signature sound.
On HBFL they manage to balance the styles very nicely. The macho cock-rock they do best is the focus of this set. One of the big steps forward I hear in this disk is singer Rob Halford exercising much more control over this voice. Halford, as powerful as vocalist as his is, has a limited range that he does well to stay within. On their previous release Stained Class, Halford spends most of his time in way up in his upper range, and it becomes almost unbearable by the end of the set. In contrast, on HBFL he wisely does most of his work in his lower, more natural growl, and the result is much more effective. This isn't to say we don't get a decent helping of the operatic howling he does so well, just a more digestible dose of it. Case in point is the title track. Halford barks out the lyrics and saves the climactic howls for the final verse where they have much more impact.
The bulk of the album treads the familiar territory of over-the-top, bombastic biker mayhem. Let's get real here; what they do best is big, dumb head-bangers. Muscular guitars, thundering percussion and Halford's barely constrained vocal assault are what made them such a success. That's what the fans want, and that's what they do on this album. The title track, "Burnin'Up," "Delivering The Goods" and "Running Wild" don't offer any surprises, they are just good, solid heavy metal songs that work well because they don't stretch too far.
Most of the tracks in HBFL hit the target solidly, but they do miss the mark a couple of times. "Take On The World" is not very satisfying track. It sounds like soccer-hooligan chant and would have been better relegated to a b-side. "Before The Dawn" is another low point. JPs insistence on dark ballads has never been their strong point, and "Before The Dawn" is an exercise in tedium. I mean really, what does a JP fan really expect? Some shmeg about lost love? Or a song about kicking someone's testicles up into his spleen and then running over him with your Harley? (With his chick riding behind you of course.) Yeah, you know what I mean.
The centerpiece of this album is another of their cover songs, something these guys have done very well. On HBFL, they rework the menacing "Green Manalishi (With The Two-Pronged Crown)." The boys pay homage to Peter Green's dark, brooding classic and despite the very heavy guitars, they manage to retain the subtle creepiness of the original.
A few missteps aside, this is one their best albums ever, and one that has been grossly overlooked. In between the shrieking, punk-like Stained Class and their commercial breakthrough British Steel, they laid down a powerful but restrained set that would be a template for their future. There isn't anything groundbreaking here, and most have these songs have never received any airplay, it's just a good healthy serving of classic Priest. If I were to recommend one studio album from their early years, this would be it.