Judas Priest seemed pretty lost in the late 80s. They were bigger than ever, but they lost focus of their musical direction. Producer Tom Allom had cursed them with a robotic plod, far removed from the lively firepower of yesteryear. When they released Turbo in 1986, they had gone as far down those roads as possible. It was am ambitious departure, but 100% a product of the 1980s.
For Turbo, Priest had written enough songs for a double album. Twin Turbos, as it was to be called, was supposed to reflect all facets of metal, but the record comany got cold feet and a single disc was issued. It contained the most techno-commercial tracks, while Priest held onto the rest for another day. That day came in 1988 when Priest (again with producer Tom Allom) released Ram It Down, largely made up of Turbo outtakes. The album was hyped as a return to the heavy Priest of yore, and this was at least partly true, but fans were unconvinced by it. In comparison with Turbo, yes, Ram It Down was heavier. But Priest had gone as far as they could with Allom. Ram It Down was too sterile and bogged down with filler.
Certainly the title track opens Ram It Down on a thrash-like note. As if to silence to critics, it was a proud metal statement with an opening Rob Halford scream that curdles the brain. The weakness is drummer Dave Holland on his final Priest outing. Only when Scott Travis joined Priest in 1990 did they acquire a drummer who could play the kind of beats at the speed they needed. On Ram It Down, Priest were held back by the drummer and clunky production, two mistakes they fixed on 1990’s Painkiller. The lyrics also seem dumbed-down for the 80s. “Thousands of cars, and a million guitars, screaming with power in the air,” is cool but cliche.
“Heavy Metal” is more of the same lyrically, an ode to the power and glory of power chords. Rob Halford’s performance is fantastic, and the man has rarely sounded as fantastic as he does on Ram It Down. You can’t say the same for the words, the highschool equivalent of poetry. On the music front, Priest were now following rather than leading. They were on the same clunky metal trip as bands such as Scorpions at the same time. There audible Kiss and Whitesnake influences on the album, with Rob sometimes sounding like he was trying to write a Gene Simmons tune. “Love You to Death” on side two sounds right out of the Demon’s closet. The embarrassingly terrible “Love Zone” and “Come and Get It” both sound as if Coverdale co-wrote them on the sly. Whether Priest were consciously copying other bands or just lost, who knows. (“Love Zone” is one of the few songs that Halford almost seemed to write gender specific. “With your razor nails and painted smile” are not specifically referring to a female, but certainly that was the general assumption.)
There are definitely a few cool tracks that deserve mention. The first is “Hard as Iron” which had to be one of the fastest Priest songs to date. It’s still held back by the production, but has some serious energy to it. Like metal espresso injected right into the brain! The other standout is “Blood Red Skies”, a forgotten highlight of this album and indeed of the Priest catalog in general. (I actually used “Blood Red Skies” in a poetry project for school. A girl liked it so much she asked for a copy of the lyrics.) Using the synth effectively, “Blood Red Skies” paints a Terminator-like future with humans hunted by beings with “pneumatic fingers”, “laser eyes” and “computer sights”. Halford pours power and anguish into it, as a human freedom fighter. “As I die, a legend will be born!” Cheesey? Absolutely. Priest perfection? Yes indeed!
There are also two mis-steps on Ram It Down that must be addressed. The first and most obvious is “Johnny B. Goode”, from the 1988 movie Johnny Be Good starring Anthony Michael Hall and some guy named Robert Downey Something. This track should have been kept off the album. As a novelty single, sure, you can dig it. It’s a stereotypical cliche-ridden metal cover, and that’s fun for a goof. As a Priest album track, it only serves to completely destroy any momentum that Ram It Down managed to build. Then there is “Monsters of Rock”. This awful excuse for a song is only 5:31 long, but seems twice that. It is the prototype for the even more awful “Loch Ness” from Angel of Retribution. Most buyers probably didn’t finish listening to the album because of this bloated and aimless track.
The Priest Re-masters collection had two bonus tracks per studio album. Ram It Down provides two completely unrelated but great tracks: live versions of “Bloodstone” and “Night Comes Down”. The liner notes don’t state when they were recorded, but live versions of either are always welcome in any Priest collection. It’s interesting that bonus tracks from these actual sessions, such as “Red, White and Blue”, were used on other CDs but not Ram It Down.
Priest may have known Ram It Down wasn’t the metal album they hoped to make. They cleared house afterwards. Dave Holland and Tom Allom were done, and there is no question that Painkiller was superior to Ram It Down because of that.