This year marks the 30th anniversary, and Judas Priest celebrates with a new remastered three-disc edition of the album, which also includes a 21-song live set from Long Beach Arena in 1984.
It doesn’t take long to remember that Judas Priest was still at the height of its game as album opener “Freewheel Burning” comes raging out of the speakers. It’s a classic, high-speed Judas Priest number with vocalist Rob Halford screaming like a demon and hitting some of his biggest notes. After a year or so of listening to last year’s exceptional Redeemer of Souls, it’s an instant reminder that as good as Halford sounds now, he was that much more impressive in his prime.
The energy continues with the pummeling “Jawbreaker” before fans finally get a chance to come up for air on the third track, “Rock Hard Ride Free,” more of a classic hard rock tune in the vein of some of the band’s earlier work.
Then comes what has become for me at least, the centerpiece of this album, “The Sentinel.” It’s kind of funny that, in its day, this song was never a favorite of mine. I always liked it, but I tended to gravitate to other tracks. A few years ago, however, it came up in a shuffle — and for some reason, it finally connected with me. Since then, the song has been elevated to one of my favorite Judas Priest tunes ever, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out now why it wasn’t always one of my faves.
It’s got everything that a good Judas Priest tune needs, opening with a big, heavy dramatic riff, then kicking things into crunching high gear for the verse and choruses. After a couple of verses we break down a little for the guitar solo and then drop in for a quiet, but dramatic climactic scene in the lyrical story, which tells an apocalyptic tale of a an unbeatable warrior who cuts down all foes with his throwing knives. What’s more metal than that? Finally we wind things down for a few repeats of that big, powerful chorus. It’s classic heavy metal and classic Judas Priest.
It was usually around this point that metal albums from the 1980s included their love song. Judas Priest, I suppose, is no exception, but, well, “Love Bites” is not exactly the conventional love song. A vampiric sex anthem, the tune is one of the simpler on the album, but also features one of the most memorable choruses.
The second half of Defenders of the Faith is more of a mixed bag, though there’s definitely not a lousy song to be found. The best of the bunch is the hard-hitting “Some Heads are Gonna Roll,” which as a teen was easily my favorite tune from this record, and still finds me playing air guitar to the riffing of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing and snarling along with Halford’s menacing vocal.
The weakest would be the ballad “Night Comes Down,” but then I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of many Judas Priest ballads, even those that others consider classic. It’s just not what I want from the band that pretty much perfected the classic metal sound.
Somewhere in between are the other three tracks.
The blazing “Eat Me Alive,” which was a favorite in my early days, is still enjoyable, but doesn’t hold up quite as well with me now. “Heavy Duty” has this huge guitar riff that’s one of the coolest on the record, but lyrically it leaves something to be desired, being the typical headbangers against the world tune that was also a standard of the times. Finally, there’s the operatic title track that fades the record out, playing on “Heavy Duty” in the riff and pounding drum line, though it’s not quite as in your face.
The second and third discs feature the high-energy 1984 performance which showcases most of the songs on Defenders of the Faith, as well as a host of favorites from the band’s previous records. Most fans will already have multiple live and studio versions of all of these songs, but hearing a great live Judas Priest performance never gets old, and this one qualifies.
It’s been a while since I’ve sat down and listened to Defenders of the Faith in its entirety, and the thing that strikes me most about this 30th Anniversary Edition is how well the songs hold up. They’re just as vibrant and powerful as they were in 1985, and the album itself sounds classic rather than dated. Though British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance usually get the praise, Defenders of the Faith is their equal, and there’s no better time than an anniversary to rediscover it.