Judas Priest is a heavy metal band formed in 1969 in Birmingham, England, by Ken “KK” Downing and Ian Hill. The band’s classic line-up consists of vocalist Rob Halford, guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, Ian Hill on bass guitar, and Scott Travis on drums. They epitomize the classic heavy metal genre, particularly the NWOBHM (“New Wave of British Heavy Metal”) movement, and have influenced hundreds of musicians and bands. Their popularity and influence earned them the nickname, “The Metal Gods”.
One of the originators of heavy metal, Judas Priest is best known for their twin-lead-guitar sound and the complex guitar duets of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton; and for Rob Halford’s high-pitched screams, and lead vocals. However, the band’s biggest musical innovation is the dual “rhythm guitar”, i.e. the accompaniment, or riff, which plays an essential role in all hard rock genres and especially in heavy metal.
Although Wishbone Ash and the Scorpions have had two guitarists each and to some extent did play harmonies and dual leads prior to Judas Priest, none had played dual rhythm consistently as an integral part of their music.
Dual rhythm consists of two guitarists playing the same exact melody (riff) simultaneously, often on the same exact octave, which is slightly different from traditional harmonies. There may be minor differences in sound, tone, tenacity, and an occasional deviation from the melody for a very short period (like a short improvisation, or insert - just a few notes). Since Judas Priest
introduced this new style of rhythm guitar with their first release, Rocka Rolla
, it has become a standard feature of heavy metal. Another important aspect of their style is inserting very melodic solos, or “lead breaks” - between fast riffs (e.g. “The Sentinel”, “Electric Eye”, “Night Crawler”, “Hellrider”).
Many people, including influential musicians and members of prominent hard rock and heavy metal bands, believe that the foundation for what would define “pure” heavy metal were three early Judas Priest albums: Sad Wings of Destiny (1976), Sin After Sin (1977), and Stained Class (1978).
The band played louder and faster than most rock groups at the time and brought a more “metallic” sound to their guitars. The songs varied from extremely simple and straightforward tunes (e.g. – “The Ripper”, “One for the Road”, “Starbreaker”) to fairly structured, changing from fast and loud to slower tempo and softer tunes in one song (e.g. "Victim of Changes”, “Run of the Mill”, “Beyond the Realms of Death”).
Their 1978 album, Killing Machine (retitled Hell Bent for Leather and released in 1979 in the USA), saw a slight change of direction towards shorter, more “poppy” or “Americanized” songs, especially lyrically. The following release, British Steel, took an even sharper turn in the same direction, and was perhaps the first heavy metal album to record radio-friendly songs with pop hooks, in a concise format, pioneering an approach used by many others (Quiet Riot, Dokken, Twisted Sister, Accept, Def Leppard) to taste commercial success. All of them used dual lead guitar. However, Priest is perhaps the only one of these bands to retain a definite heavy metal sound, despite the commercial twist to it. Songs like “Living After Midnight” and “Breaking the Law” are excellent examples of this style.
Their next effort, Point of Entry (1981), is harder to define - the sound was very “raw” (minimal sound manipulation) and the songs were somewhat moody, and paced at a slower than usual tempo. Subsequent albums, Screaming for Vengeance (1982) and Defenders of the Faith (1984) once again set high standards in intensity and production, and continued to influence the sonic shape of heavy metal. Turbo (1986) found the group introducing a “synth-guitar” sound to their metal template (much to some fans’ dismay), but Painkiller (1990) found them successfully exploring speed metal. Their latest release, Angel of Retribution (2005) also contributed to the current revival of classic heavy metal, after the fade of grunge, alternative, thrash, indie and other temporary trends. It contains songs in their classic style like “Judas Rising” and “Hellrider”, as well as mid-tempo songs with clear and prominent drums and less prominent guitars (“Worth Fighting For”, “Wheels of Fire”), a ballad, and an over twelve-minute epic - something they haven’t done since their concerts in the early ‘70s.
Judas Priest has influenced countless musicians in three musical generations, both in sound, technique and image. Many bands including Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Manowar, Mercyful Fate, Venom, Slayer, Children of Bodom, Dokken, Helloween, Eudoxis, Stratovarius, Poison, Napalm Death, Dream Theater and Pantera cite Judas Priest as an influence.
K.K. (Kenneth) Downing and Ian Hill knew each other almost since birth, as they lived nearby, attended the same nursery and school. Their friendship drew closer in their early teens as they shared similar musical interests (Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Yardbirds) and both started to learn playing an instrument.
In 1970 a fairly well known local ensemble named Judas Priest (after Bob Dylan’s song, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”) broke up and the band’s singer, Alan Atkins, approached Downing and Hill who accepted him as their singer and adopted his former band’s name.
With Downing in control, the band moved swiftly from their original bluesy tunes towards what later would be defined as heavy metal. This trio, with various drummers, continued extensive touring of Birmingham and the surrounding areas, sometimes supporting Budgie, Thin Lizzy and Trapeze, until 1974. Financical difficulties and problems with their management, Tony Iommi’s company, IMA, lead to Alan Atkins’ and drummer Alan Moore’s departures.
At the time, Ian Hill was dating a girl who suggested her brother, Robert Halford as singer. Halford was admitted in the band, and brought with him drummer John Hinch from his previous band, Hiroshima. This line-up toured heavily in the UK, often supporting Budgie, and even headlining some shows in Norway and Germany.
Before the band entered the studio to record their first album, the record company suggested another musician should join them. Reluctant to add an organ or trumpet player, Downing settled on another guitarist - Flying Hat Band's Glenn Tipton. According to the band, there were some technical problems during recording, but the record company refused to address them, and their debut album, Rocka Rolla, suffered from “horrible” sound quality. Management problems also prevailed; according to the band, producer Rodger Bain, (who was an established professional, having produced numerous albums for famous groups such as Black Sabbath) had too big a say in the production of the album: he left out stage classics: “Tyrant”, “Genocide”, “The Ripper” and “Caviar and Meths” - the latter being cut from an eight-minute song to a two-minute instrumental.
With their next album the band had gained some more experience and confidence, fully participating in the production, as well as choosing the producers. The result was Sad Wings of Destiny (1976), considered a cornerstone of heavy metal. This album featured mostly old material, including the aforementioned stage favorites and an epic, “Victim of Changes” - a song combining “Whiskey Woman”, a stage classic since the era of the first Judas Priest (Al Atkins’ band) and “Red Light Lady” brought by Halford from his previous group, Hiroshima. All these songs are now considered to epitomize the very essence of heavy metal.
Three subsequent albums—Sin After Sin (1977), Stained Class and Killing Machine (aka Hell Bent for Leather) (both 1978)—further explored the possibilities of heavy metal genre, employing such talented drummers as session player extraordinaire Simon Phillips and Les (James Leslie) Binks. Killing Machine marked a new turn in the creative direction Judas Priest was taking: the songs were shorter and had commercial appeal, yet were performed with a lot of metal punch. This emphasis on simple, albeit relentless and powerful beats that needed to be performed live with equal power led to Les Binks, a jazzy type of drummer, leaving, and Dave Holland (ex-Trapeze) becoming their new drummer.
British Steel was a breakthrough album, with its revolutionary dark, heavy yet hook-laden approach. It showcased the newcomer’s excellent timekeeping and power.
Throughout the 80s, Holland’s drum parts enhanced the rhythmic structure of Tipton/Downing/Halford-penned compositions without a hint of overplaying, this leading to Holland being referred to as “Charlie Watts of heavy metal”. With Dave Holland on the drums, Judas Priest reached great commercial success. Arguably a more technical oriented drumming, like that of Neil Peart’s would have detracted from the blistering metal anthems Judas Priest was releasing at the time.
Yet many fans to this day accuse Holland of “underplaying”, dismissing his drum parts as overtly primitive, borrowed from old school rock and hardly applicable in metal context. Fan favorites are double kick masters, Les Binks and Scott Travis, who joined the band when Holland quit in 1988, citing health and family issues.
Judas Priest with Halford at the helm recorded twelve studio and two concert albums to different degrees of critical and financial success. Overall, the band has sold in excess of 35 million albums globally.
After the end of their highly acclaimed and successful “Painkiller” tour in 1991, Halford left Judas Priest due to several years of internal tensions in the band. Rumors started to circulate as early as September of 1991, although Halford collaborated with the band in the release of a compilation album, entitled Metal Works: ‘73-’93, to commemorate their 20th anniversary. He also appeared in a video by the same title, documenting their history. His departure from the band was officially announced later that year.
This line up released two albums, Jugulator and Demolition. Critics and fans alike accused Judas Priest of “selling out” - following the current trends of thrash metal and grunge. The band vehemently denied following any trends, claiming that they were simply sounding “up-to-date” and “keeping up with the joneses”. However, very little material from these albums was played live, and in concert it sounded much more like their traditional rock style.
After almost twelve years apart, Judas Priest and original lead vocalist, Rob Halford, announced their reunion in July 2003. They immediately embarked on a live concert tour in 2004, and co-headlined the 2004 Ozzfest, being named as the “premier act” by almost all U.S. media coverage of the event. Both tours were extremely successful. A new studio album, Angel of Retribution, was released March 2005 (U.S.) on Sony Music/Epic Records to critical and commercial success. A global tour in support of the album is currently underway. Judas Priest and “Ripper” Owens parted amicably, and Owens is now the singer of Iced Earth.