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Review

Judas Priest – British Steel 40th Anniversary Review

Band: Judas Priest
Album: British Steel
Label: Epic Records
Genre: Heavy Metal
Country: England
Release Date: April 14th, 1980

What is a classic? A classic is something that is exemplar. An ideal model. Something that is unique and yet it defines how everything else that follows is going to be.

Then “British Steel” is perhaps one of the ultimate models, among the likes of “Black Sabbath”. It’s a classic because with its apparent simplicity it has become the blueprint for classic heavy metal, setting the standards both for the music and for the visual aspect of a band.

“British Steel” came out in 1980, exactly ten years after the birth of heavy metal (assuming it was in 1970 with the release of the first Black Sabbath album), in the middle of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – which gave birth to Iron Maiden, whose historical debut album came out on the exact same day as the one we’re talking about here (then why are we talking about “British Steel” and not “Iron Maiden”? Because I prefer Judas Priest and I’m the writer). During these ten years, metal had started to consolidate its place, and many bands had been founded, bands that were to become successful during the ‘80s. And this very year was going to be a year to remember with many great albums released during these months (“Wheels Of Steel”, “Blizzard Of Ozz” and “Aces of Spades” to name a few). “The start of something beautiful…”

As Scott Ian from Anthrax said, “British Steel” stated what heavy metal was (and still is) because everything else before had contained element of blues; this statement might be debatable, but it is overall correct – especially if we consider the very blues-y roots of Black Sabbath. Also, everything is metal about this album; and not occult – like Sabbath is – but truly metal: the title? Steel. The album cover? A razor blade. The lyrics? About metal. The band photos? Covered in studs (and we’ll get back to that later).
“British Steel” made metal (noun) metal (adjective); it made the music more direct, and it gave its face.

But to be a classic, as we’ve said, you also have to be imitable, meaning that the others must be able to take inspiration from you.  And here lies the other, great quality of “British Steel”: its straightforwardness. The songs are short (the longest one, “You Don’t Have to Be Old to Be Wise” is 5:04), and none of them is excessively complex, the dry sound is obtained without too many stratagems. Yes, this is not the first Priest album with these sound qualities, but it is the one where they came into their own (“Point of Entry” was already a downturn, and with “Screaming for Vengeance” a new sound was being developed).

Everybody can play these songs – and we all did; every beginner guitarist has learned “Breaking the Law”, every drummer has jammed along “Living After Midnight”. But not everybody can write these song, not everybody can be Judas Priest, and “British Steel” can be imitated but not copied, because our singer’s voice will never be Rob Halford’s voice and our guitar player is not K.K. Downing. And the sound is dry yes, but polished and carefully planned, giving the impression of simplicity. If we look closely, every element of this album appears uncomplicated, but of course it’s done on purpose.
Such double-face kind of feature makes this album an ideal model: ideal, because no sound can be perfectly imitated, but a model nevertheless, because when a new band, one that’s just starting out, is looking for its sound, the musicians will start to do so by looking at simple examples, such as this album. Mind you, Slayer started out as a Judas Priest cover band, which is clearly audible in “Show No Mercy”, where we can also see where that band was headed…

The same things can be said about the look; with this album Judas Priest (actually, Rob Halford) actively became a model and dictated fashion, with studs, denim, and leather. We have of course to mention that this attire was already in use since “Hell Bent for Leather/Killing Machine”, released in 1978, and it was already known (see the aforementioned Saxon album with “Denim and Leather”), but “British Steel”, a much more successful album than its predecessors, greatly contributed to its diffusion.
This new look is already visible from the album cover too: simple yet effective, communicating only what is needed – metal, of course. Steel, actually; and it’s no surprise that the “British Steel” album cover has become of the most famous symbol for (classic) heavy metal music, pictured on countless shirts and patches (just look at Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell during the “Cowboys from Hell” music video).

And when we get to the songs, there’s more. The nine tracks featured on the album are all anthem-like songs, perfect to be sung at shows while headbanging, with lyrics that are easy to be remembered, and a clear structure.
It obviously appears how this is a commercial album – but this doesn’t make it worse in any way, at least in my opinion; a commercial album can be enjoyable, and an album in order to really become a classic it has to be, at least partially, commercial, because the public has to buy it, listen to it, appreciate it. In this optic, some songs (“Grinder” for instance) perform better than others (“The Rage”), leaving a more lasting impression, but overall it’s hard to find a bad song; and two of said tracks are ultimate classic, the best known Judas Priest songs, played at each and every show.

Other than all these historical opinions/facts that come to mind when thinking «damn, “British Steel” is forty years old this year», there’s another thing that I personally like to remember, and that is, everyone has some memories related to this album. Inevitably, and usually very early on, while discovering metal music, Judas Priest is encountered, probably because we’ve heard “Breaking the Law”. Or maybe, “Rapid Fire” was played during the intermission at one show. Perhaps we did a cover of “Living After Midnight” with our friends.

“British Steel” came out forty years old this year, and it has been “pounding the world like a battering ram” ever since, making history and changing metal music forever.

Tracklist:

  1. Rapid Fire
  2. Metal Gods
  3. Breaking The Law
  4. Grinder
  5. United
  6. You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise
  7. Living After Midnight
  8. The Rage
  9. Steeler

Total Playing Time: 36:10

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