There’s little more annoying on this planet than the immoral majority telling you how essential, transcendent and (huh-huh) seminal a particular extreme album is, when you know that it’s overrated as fuck. Hence, our new Wednesday morning column, “Disposable Heroes,” in which one brave soul sails against the current to inform all you clones why you can’t spell classic without “ass.” This week, Adrien Begrand stands in not-so-silent opposition to Priest’s not-so-unassailable Screaming for Vengeance.
When it comes to a lot of bands, especially the more seminal acts, your favorite album tends to be the first one you heard. It certainly is the case with me. Rush? Grace Under Pressure. Iron Maiden? Powerslave. Slayer? Haunting the Chapel. But there’s one band where that theory doesn’t apply at all.
When I was 12, I had a harsh introduction to metal before I even started listening to it. Moving from a tiny isolated little town to a small city more than 10 times bigger might not seem like much, but in early 1983, I was a kid who had never heard never heard FM radio in his life, who grew up in a place whose only record store was a single rack of LPs in the back of a sporting goods store. So, during those bewildering first few weeks in a new junior high, I was floored by all the kids wearing baseball-sleeve shirts featuring a) garishly designed logos of bands I had never heard of, and b) some pretty darn scary artwork. Back then, there were three very popular shirts at school: one that said “Bark at the Moon” by some fellow named Ezzy Esbourne (that’s how I saw the logo), one that had the enigmatic phrase “Piece of Mind” with “Iron Maiden” down the sleeves and a wickedly cool monster on the front, and a particularly menacing one featuring a crazy robot eagle with a band name that sounded badass, and for a Catholic school kid, kind of blasphemous: Judas Priest.
I would quickly learn the name of the album that had the crazy robot eagle (Screaming for Vengeance), and like everyone else, would quickly become familiar with the album’s big single, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.” A year later I had given in fully to the lure of heavy metal, partially for its rebellious nature, partially to escape the hell of school, devouring any new heavy music I could borrow or afford. For all the great bands I discovered in 1984 (Maiden, Slayer, W.A.S.P., Ratt, Twisted Sister), when it came to Judas Priest, Screaming for Vengeance just didn’t click. Defenders of the Faith was the record that won me over, but as the years wore on, I still could only stomach two, maybe three songs from Vengeance, despite the fact that so many people of my age group cited it as their favorite Priest album. But it wasn’t until my late 30s when I came to the realization that, yes, Screaming for Vengeance does indeed suck.
A lousy album can have a great song or two on it. It’s happened plenty of times before (Bark at the Moon, anyone?), and it sure happened in this record’s case. In fact, when you consider Vengeance’s influence on a generation of metal fans, I’ll even go as far to say that it ranks as one of the most top-heavy albums in heavy metal history. Two songs are classics. That fact is not debatable. “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” is the kind of gloriously dopey anti-authority anthem that kids fall for every time, not to mention a perfect pop single from start to finish. “The Hellion/Electric Eye” (I refuse to call them two different songs) is probably the smartest song the band has ever written, with lyrics that temporarily ditched the clichés in favor of themes that feel both perceptive and prescient. One other, the vicious “Riding on the Wind,” is nearly as brilliant, although Rob Halford’s vocal phrasing after the 2004 reunion is actually superior to the original.
After that, though, the drop-off in quality is staggering, and many of the tracks totally fly in the face of the popular notion that this was Judas Priest’s big return to full-throttle metal. “Bloodstone” is on total autopilot, featuring one of the more boring choruses in Priest’s discography. “Pain and Pleasure” might play up Halford’s S&M image, but it’s far from edgy, a flaccid, hookless exercise that felt tacky even more than 25 years ago. “Fever” is pure AOR schlock tarted up with heavy metal adornments. Steve Perry and Journey might have been able to take this rote rocker and sell it better, but Priest sounds absolutely unconvincing, borderline uncomfortable.
Songwriter-for-hire Bob Halligan, Jr. would eventually pen some unforgettable metal classics including Helix’s “Rock You” and Priest’s “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” on Defenders of the Faith, but not before contributing a patently forgettable tune in “(Take These) Chains,” a saccharine love song that remains a very awkward fit alongside the rest of the album. “Devil’s Child” is just plain moronic. What the hell does Halford even mean by, “Eat my diamonds?” Plus, “I believe you’re the devil, I believe you’re the devil’s child”… well, Rob, which one is it? It can’t be both! And don’t get me started on the title track. “Screaming for Vengeance” might have a decent riff, but it’s totally ruined by the single worst vocal hook Halford has ever recorded. “Hook” is actually too generous a word, as the chorus contains one of the most repellent melodies Priest have ever written.
After Defenders made me a Priest fan for real, as my peers continued to heap praise on Vengeance , I soon discovered that 1981’s Point of Entry, not the most well-received album of Priest’s classic era, is so much better than Vengeance. How could they create such gorgeous, classy rockers like “Desert Plains” and “Solar Angels” and then lose their way with garbage like “Fever” and “(Take These) Chains)”? Hell, I’ve played “Heading Out to the Highway,” “Don’t Go,” “Hot Rockin’,” and “Troubleshooter” more in 27 years than anything on Vengeance, save for “Electric Eye”. Those who are closely attached to Screaming for Vengeance, I can definitely understand. It was probably their introduction to the band and today it brings back fond memories of the most exciting era in heavy metal’s history. That’s wonderful. They can listen to it all they want. I, on the other hand, after writing this piece, will go back to ignoring this horribly overrated record. That is, until the world wets its pants over its 30th birthday, when I’ll probably be respectfully restraining myself from declaring that Screaming for Vengeance is awful for the bazillionth time.