“SIN AFTER SIN, I have endured, but the wounds I bear are the wounds of love.”
This lyric from “Genocide” on 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny would have been little more than a throwaway, if Priest didn’t recycle the words “sin after sin” for their next album title. Though the song may have appeared to be the same, much had actually changed. For the first time, they had a producer that understood that kind of aggressive rock that the young band were trying to create: Roger Glover, ex-Deep Purple, who had already recorded several albums for Elf, Ian Gillan and Nazareth. Perhaps even more significantly, for the first time they had a serious drummer creating the beats: the not-yet-legendary Simon Phillips, who had still already played on a Jack Bruce album. This was just a session for Phillips, but it enabled Priest to break the shackles of rhythm and really start exploring.
Opener “Sinner” might have been the same kind of tempos that Priest were working with before, but there is a new slickness to the drums; an effortless drive with increasingly interesting accents. With a solid backing, Priest sound more vicious. “Demonic vultures stalking, drawn by the smell of war and pain.” The apocalypse has never sounded cooler. As Phillips drops sonic bombs left and right, KK Downing goes to town on what would become his live showcase solo. His growls and trills sound like a beast inflicting wounds on a struggling combatant. At almost seven minutes, “Sinner” is the album epic, and it’s the opening track!
Priest previously recorded a cover of Joan Baez’ “Diamonds and Rust” for Gull records; that early version can be acquired on The Best of Judas Priest or Hero, Hero. The Glover-produced track is the more famous and better of the two. Radio play for “Diamonds and Rust” helped push the album to eventually sell 500,000 copies. Rob Halford’s high pitched harmonies gleam like polished silver.
Ironic observation: I hope by now we all know a light year is a measurement of distance, not time. It is the amount of distance that light can travel in one year (9.46 trillion kilometres). So, really really far. Joan Baez playfully used it as a melodramatic measure of time in “Diamonds and Rust”. (“A couple of light years ago”.) On the next track “Starbreaker”, Halford refers to “light year miles away”, a crudely worded hyperbole for distance. So with Sin After Sin, you get it both ways. Regardless of scientific accuracy (or not) “Starbreaker” is a good track with a slightly flat riff. Though Phillips is brilliant, it could just use a little more pep.
Like with Sad Wings of Destiny, you gotta have a ballad in there somewhere, and on side one that’s “Last Rose of Summer”. This softie isn’t bad, though Priest have done and will do better. Using a ballad to close a side isn’t always wise either, but on CD nobody really notices except us nerds.
“Let Us Prey/Call For the Priest” is a pretty epic side two opener, with harmony guitars playing an opening instrumental anthem. Then a choir of Halfords joins in, and the band break in to what could be their fastest song yet. From the wickedly fast dual guitar solos to the powerful rhythm, this song is a blitzkrieg of metal trademarks. It’s relentless and all over the board, something that 80s Priest rarely was.
Side two keeps getting better with the groove of “Raw Deal”, which was Rob’s real “coming out” to fans in the know. Today he calls it a “heavy metal gay rights song”. It’s actually one of Halford’s best lyrics. Instead of mashing together science fiction words and singing about battlefields, this time Halford paints a hazy picture of what is probably a gay club in Fire Island, New York. It’s vivid but vague: “The mirror on the wall was collecting and reflecting, all the heavy bodies ducking, stealing eager for some action.” It’s also backed by some seriously cool Priest music, almost funky but always heavy. “The true free expression I demand is human rights – right?” It was all there in the lyrics all along.
A second ballad, the dirge “Here Comes the Tears” brings a cloudier mood. An ode to loneliness, “Here Comes the Tears” is the one to play when you just can’t take it anymore. When Halford starts givin’ ‘er at the end with the wildest screams in history, it sounds like an exorcism. The guitars howl, a hint of piano can be heard, and there is an underlying choir of Robs singing sadly in unison. Finally “Dissident Aggressor”, famously covered by Slayer, concludes the album on a violently fast note. “Stab! Fall! Punch! Crawl!” This song is not for amateurs and might be the heaviest thing Priest have ever done. There are plenty of contenders, but “Dissident Aggressor” must be in the Top Five Heaviest Priest Songs Ever. But that being said, they still have the balls to end the song with another multi-layered harmony of Halfords.
The 2001 Sony remastered CD has two bonus tracks, and the first is the best in the entire series: “Race With the Devil”, a cover of a track by The Gun. This version, recorded for the next album Stained Class (Les Binks on drums) could easily have been a B-side all this time. Why it went unreleased until 2001 is unknown. Perhaps it was lost, but now that it has gotten a proper mastering job it is available on CD. This is un-retouched, which cannot be said for other unreleased tracks in the Priest Remasters series. “Run With the Devil” is raw, riffy, fast, and wicked. All it really needed to make it album quality is a better guitar solo. The second bonus track is a live “Jawbreaker” (Dave Holland on drums) from the Defenders of the Faith tour. Out of place, but an excellent song regardless.
Incidentally, Sin After Sin is the last album before Priest adopted the first version of their current logo design.