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Judas Priest’s ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ Turns 40

Judas Priest - Sad Wings Of Destiny

I think of Judas Priest’s history as two distinct eras: the first ran from Rocka Rolla to Stained Class, and the second is everything afterwards. The first era comprises the time when they wrote great songs, combining Black Sabbath’s heft and Wishbone Ash’s twin guitars with hard rock, progressive rock, the blues and a singer unlike any the genre had yet heard. In the second era, they realized that stardom wasn’t coming unless they wrote great songs with pop appeal. Today, Sad Wings of Destiny, band’s first great LP, a pillar of heavy metal, my favorite LP from their first era and a flawed masterpiece, turns 40 years old.

Those flaws are now part of the album’s lore. The original Gull pressing of the record begins with Side B, which makes more sense. Ought not “Prelude” come first? Subsequent pressings put the sides into their present track order, even though some claim that listening to side B and then side A makes for a more solid listening experience.

In a parallel universe, it’s possible that Sad Wings might’ve been far less than it is, or perhaps we should say that Rocka Rolla could’ve been far greater. Certain songs were left off of Rocka Rolla and later appeared on Sad Wings. Cull the best from each album though and we’d be left with the best Judas Priest record of all time. Where that might’ve led is best left to alternate history theories.

“The Ripper” is one such song cut from their debut. Packed full of little details, “The Ripper” the most cinematic song in Priest’s discography. That opening guitar figure, so uneasy, a harbinger of death, and then Halford’s piercing falsetto, just one word: “Shock!” Here Priest’s early grasp of high drama (see “The Hellion,” “Sentinel,” and every track on Painkiller) first comes to bear. That’s the exact moment the Ripper grabs his victim, stabbing her right after her final shriek of terror. At 1:32 the early-onset solos end, and we hear one guitar playing a creeping, muted guitar line, with the other guitar squealing and feeding back like a screaming victim. The finale shows off Halford’s range, ending as it began, with a falsetto scream—he plays both characters in the drama, the Ripper and his victim, during the same song.

More dramatic is the bicameral “Victim of Changes,” also cut from Rocka Rolla. In hindsight, it’s hard to understand why; it’s arguably Priest’s greatest song, and yet the lovely, lilting guitar intro is faded in, cutting about 10 seconds of playing. Listen to the version on Unleashed in the East to hear the full piece of music. Otherwise, it’s a flawless song with maybe the greatest vocal performance in metal history. The final version as heard on record is a combination of “Whiskey Woman” and “Red Light Lady”, two previous songs. In lesser hands, it might’ve gone all wrong, but this is Judas Priest in 1976. Everything you could want in a metal tune is present, the multiple builds and releases, the scorching solos, Halford wailing and crooning, and at 7:28 into the track, the kind of growl that would feature so prominently in death metal.

“Victim” is Halford’s strongest performance, but “Dreamer Deceiver” isn’t far behind, and it showcases his famous falsetto better. Artless singers have a monotone falsetto. One person’s might be angry, another’s romantic, and a third person’s ethereal, but Halford evokes different tones with falsetto voice, and “Dreamer Deceiver” is the best example. This first era of Priest is before the years of touring and drinking changed Halford’s voice. It’s before he was the Metal God, before he was the Painkiller; instead he’s the former choir boy, preternaturally talented, with a voice like an angel.

Listen to “Deceiver” and “Tyrant” and you can visualize the young men who’d form dozens of forgotten New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands taking notes. They’d cop the sound, but not the quality. I’ll admit to not loving “Genocide”, though…until I heard the live version from Unleashed in the East. It’s the second flaw on the album after the fade-in to “Victim.” The live version of “Genocide” crushes the Sad Wings version because the quicker tempo accentuates the groove. I used to have a burned CD of Sad Wings on which I substituted the live version of “Genocide.” It’s that much better. So a flaw, but we’re still talking in relative terms here, and few bands will ever write a single song as good as “Genocide.”

The third and final flaw is “Epitaph.” The Queen influences are obvious, especially in the vocals. But after a pair of tracks like “Tyrant” and “Genocide,” “Epitaph” kills the album’s momentum. The track’s dull. “Island of Domination” closes out the album with playful and suggestive imagery.

Remarkably, the album was recorded on a budget of just £2000, or roughly £13,000/$18,700 in 2016 currency. Today that would purchase a more than adequate rig for all-digital home recording, but in 1976, it meant the band recorded at night to reduce costs and stretch their funds. Given the talent on both sides of the recording console, it hardly mattered. Chris Tsangarides, later a prominent producer and engineer, was present and was recording a band for the first time. The result was spectacular, as Sad Wings is heavier sounding than the two following records yet just as clear, all without being polished and cleaned up. It’s also intricately produced, with an eye on details only revealed after close listens. If it wasn’t so good and so heavy, we’d probably call it fussy and overproduced.

For as brilliant as Sin After Sin and Stained Class are, they don’t recapture the sound of Sad Wings. The blues and progressive rock influences wane with those albums, and the heavy metal is amplified. That’s all part of what makes Sad Wings so special; the band would never sound exactly like it did. For all of its artistic triumphs, the record fell flat commercially, and the band, fed up with their independent label’s lack of support, would sign to CBS Records, only to find their Frankensteined sophomore endeavor to be revered as one of the most beloved entries in their discography. “Victim of Changes” is still a staple of their live set, so much so that Godsmack chose to incorporate it into their medley inducting Judas Priest into VH1’s dubious and short-lived Rock Honors celebration. Put another way: even Sully Erna knows that Sad Wings of Destiny is one of the Priest’s finest sermons.

—Richard Street-Jammer

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