Columbia Records, 1980
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/27/2009
There are countless instances in the history of popular music wherein certain genres remained underground, unable to grab a more populist foothold. Yet all it takes is one album to succeed in the all-important “crossover” and suddenly the whole ballgame has changed. Imitators quickly try to parley off the success of the successful, and before you know it, albums that would have failed to sell a hundred copies two years prior are debuting in the Billboard Top Ten.
It may seem relatively quaint by today’s standards, but British Steel holds an important place within the pantheon of heavy metal albums in that it represents one of the first heavy metal records to gain widespread acceptance with the public. While Priest’s greatest success would occur in the following years with records like 1982’s Screaming For Vengeance, British Steel kicked open the door for heavy metal to begin its move towards ‘80s dominance.
It would be prudent to mention before delving too deeply into the record that British Steel certainly falls short of being Priest’s best album. There are a handful of other contenders for that title, but that is an argument for another time. What this release does so well is encapsulate the genre of heavy metal, clearly identifying the various key components that would be expanded upon by countless bands in the years to follow.
Judas Priest would never be as obsessed with death and destruction as groups such as Slayer and Mercyful Fate, but that doesn’t mean there was a lack of a mean streak defining Priest’s writing. Their boasts of defiance are much akin to the exotic images of James Dean or Marlon Brando à la
Rebel Without A Cause. It is no coincidence that over the years, Rob Halford has utilized a motorcycle onstage, a longstanding symbol of noncompliance.
The major hits from the record, “Breaking The Law” and “Living After Midnight,” tap into the adolescent desire to defy the rules that their parents or society have laid down for them. While not exactly detailing wanton acts of destruction, the implied message is one of rebellion. “United” serves as a rallying cry; for what exactly is never stated, but again, Priest sets themselves up as a bastion of “freedom,” though this is less romanticized than it sounds. Punk attempted to spread a similar message, yet tended to learn more towards anarchy, which led to it burning out in the span of a few short years. Heavy metal moved in a different direction, with much greater success.
By 1980, Priest had spent years honing their sound, and British Steel was the fruit of their labors. Whereas early metal did contain more bluesy elements (i.e. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath on occasion), by the early ‘80s things were moving towards the sound many metal fans are familiar with today. The twin guitar attack, barreling over the listener with its speed and fury, never ceases to excite on tracks such as “Rapid Fire” and “Steeler.” Rob Halford became a legend for his amazing range, though he demonstrates more restraint on British Steel, which may have aided in the record’s mainstream acceptance.
The foundation for heavy metal may be omnipresent on this album, but individual moments find a group attempting to play off their image with little creativity or fanfare. “Metal Gods,” while accurately depicting countless science fiction movies from the ‘80s/’90s, nevertheless fails to develop its concept. The violence inherent in Priest’s catalogue comes to the forefront with “Grinder” a plodding, vague number that fails to inspire much feeling of any sort. Playing to their audience, Priest delivered “You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise,” a sentiment shared by many, but such philosophical discussions are better when delivered with a hint of subtlety.
Judas Priest would go on to great success, almost becoming an arena rock band in the process before hitting their slump in the late ‘80s. By that point, however, Priest’s legacy was intact, as demonstrated by the heavy metal groups that went on to expand upon the work Halford and Co. had put out. British Steel marks an important step in the development of the genre, and for that it will be remembered.
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