If memory serves, in contemporary times, Defenders of the Faith was considered good but not as good as Screaming for Vengeance. It was a down-ratchet in terms of tempo and intensity. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that both albums are near-equals in quality.
It begins with a bang. “Freewheel Burning” is borderline thrash, with the kind of high octane tempos they do so well. Racing metaphors are paired with a lightspeed lead Rob Halford vocal, syllables flowing so fast that only a seasoned rapper could keep up with his flow.
Look before you leap has never been the way we keep, our road is free.
Charging to the top and never give in never stop’s the way to be.
Hold on to the lead with all your will and not concede,
You’ll find there’s life with victory on high.
Without a lyric sheet, there was no way you were able to follow the words.
After an adrenaline rush like that, Priest wisely shifted the throttle back a few gears with “Jawbreaker”. Though not slow, it’s also not mental like “Freewheel Burning”. The pace is determined. It would not be controversial to say that Dave Holland isn’t as complex a drummer as Les Binks was. Still he and Ian Hill do lay down a pulsing, robotic metal beat.
Third in line and backed by regal guitars, “Rock Hard Ride Free” sounds like an anthem. “Rock hard with a purpose, got a mind that won’t bend. Die hard resolution that is true to the end.” For context, in the 1980s, being a metal fan was like choosing to be a neighbourhood pariah. Many of us appreciated upbeat, encouraging messages like “Rock Hard Ride Free”. We believed in something, and it wasn’t what the teachers and preachers thought it was. That’s what “Rock Hard Ride Free” is about.
The first side closes on “The Sentinel”, a mini epic. A street battle is taking place in a shattered apocalyptic landscape. It could very well be the same world inhabited in “Blood Red Skies” or “Painkiller”.
Amidst the upturned burned-out cars,
The challengers await,
And in their fists clutch iron bars,
With which to seal his fate.
Across his chest in scabbards rest,
The rows of throwing knives,
Whose razor points in challenged tests,
Have finished many lives.
A multi-parted dual guitar solo animates what the rumble must look like. Rob tells the story with the necessary urgency. In the end it’s a scream-laden metal triumph.
Ominous echoing bass notes ring as soon as the needle drops on Side Two. “Love Bites” was a single, an unusual song with a very spare riff. Its simplicity is its weapon as it bores its way into your brain. Halford sounds absolutely menacing. Then they go turn on the afterburners for the very naughty “Eat Me Alive”, a song which got them a bit of trouble in the 1980s. It was one of 15 songs the Parents Music Resource Center wanted stickered for “explicit content” . “I’m gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive” sings dirty Rob, as the parents of America weep in their Cheerios. Not an album highlight, except in terms of pure aggression.
Much more interesting is the slower, menacing “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll”. A great deep cut. Dave Holland could have been a drum machine for what it’s worth, but this song is a champion. Interestingly they followed it with the even slower “Night Comes Down” which might be the album ballad (albeit a heavy one). Great pulsing bassline by Ian Hill on this track. It’s a more sensitive, thoughtful side of Rob. “Call me and I’ll wait till summer. You never understood that I would wait forever, for love that’s only good.”
The album closes on a dual track: “Heavy Duty” / “Defenders of the Faith”. “Defenders” itself is an epic outro with “Heavy Duty” being the main part of the song. As it implies, this is a heavy duty stomp. The highly processed drums are accompanied by a repeating riff until Rob breaks into the outro. Though “Defenders” itself is only a minute and a half in length, it’s among the best minutes on the album.
Not a perfect album, but even though this is a simpler Judas Priest for the 1980s, it still commands respect. Defenders of the Faith is undoubtedly an 80s album. It’s aimed at a wider demographic that wouldn’t necessarily get their earlier more complex material. Defenders does it well, with some truly timeless riffs, and great song after great song.