Fight Fire with Fire is an ongoing series on our site where we pit two classic genre albums against each other to definitively figure out which one is better. “But they’re both great!” you’ll say. Yes, these albums are the best of the best. But one is always better. Plus, we love these sorts of exercises, and also love watching you battle each other to the death in the comments, so how could this possibly end poorly?
We thought it was time to explore some live albums in this column, so we went back to a prime era for concert records—the mid-to-late-’80s—with a couple of the bands who laid down some of the most classic live discs of all time: Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
Priest had dropped their first live album, Unleashed in the East, in 1979; in 1986 they put out their second live platter, which we’ll be looking at today, the double Priest… Live! Maiden released their debut live album, which is being featured in our showdown, the double Live After Death, in 1985.
This was a good time for live albums: metal was on top of the world, the double live album was a legit release and creative juices were spilling out all over the place. (Sure, Priest were touring on the back of their much-maligned Turbo album, but I can pretty easily defend, like, two-thirds of that album.) And as far as live spreads go, these right here are two of the classics, the album covers that pop up in all our minds when the term “live metal album” gets tossed out there.
But which one is better? Which one is really going to make us scream for them? Which one is, uh, in need of parental guidance? Forget it, crack a cold one, take some time to revisit these albums and read on as we figure out which of these two releases takes the title.
A judging note here before we go on: no live album from this era—or any era, for that matter—remains as untouched as some of us would like them to be. It’s like being a KISS fan: you just have to suspend disbelief a lot of the time in order to sleep at night. So I’m not going to get into which of these two has more overdubs than the other, and instead just focus on the end result, whatever studio magic brought us there.
Judas Priest – Priest… Live!
Recorded in Atlanta and Dallas in 1986, Priest… Live!, with its famously… brown cover art, catches the band not really at any peak but actually in a bit of a Turbo-era slump, but, because Judas fucking Priest are Judas fucking Priest, the album is still awesome. (And, as an added bonus, it shows how at least some of the songs off that album aren’t as bad as we all remember them being.)
Opening with slow-slow-burner “Out In the Cold” is actually a great idea, although it threatens to be a buzzkill before things even get started. But it doesn’t, and Priest establish a mood right away here: it’s a bit restrained, a bit subdued, but there’s tons of atmosphere instead of pure party and pure metal. And following it up with “Heading Out to the Highway”? Brilliance. Now the party’s started.
“Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” is excellent here, as is the brisk “Breaking the Law.” By the album’s midpoint—the irrelevant “Private Property,” the exhausting (but, I’ll admit it, pretty fun) “Rock You Around the World”—a bit of lethargy seems to be creeping in, though. And “Parental Guidance” is grim, but, again, it’s pretty undeniably fun for a stoopid rocker. The more I listen to this song here, the more I like it.
Things pick up near the end, though, “Living After Midnight” getting the party rolling again and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” ruling, as always, bringing things to a great close.
This album is merciful in that it doesn’t submit us to any extended guitar or drum solos, and only a bit of agonizing “repeat after me” stage banter. The performances are solid, but my only nagging complaint about Priest… Live! is this feeling that the band is sort of operating at 90 percent for a lot of it, the lifeless brown of the album cover enveloping the sonics in a murk that the band break out of for much of the album but then sink into at other points.
Still, Priest were more or less kings in 1986, and this live album is a fun document of that. Even the crap like “Parental Guidance” is a blast to listen to, especially keeping the context of the time in mind.
So, we get a legendary band during a non-legendary era putting on a mainly-legendary performance, every player sounding top notch, the band even keeping (or adding in!) one squelch of feedback, a small reminder of the beauty of imperfection of even the hugest rock concerts. I find this album incredibly endearing, warts and all.
Iron Maiden – Live After Death
Now, while Priest were going through a bit of an uninspired period when they recorded their live disc featured in today’s competition, Maiden weren’t, riding high off of ’84’s Powerslave. And Live After Death—recorded in California and London in 1985 and 1984, respectively—showcases the band firing high and hard, energy totally off the charts, Maiden making Priest look positively sleepy at points during this lengthy double-live album.
The band start strong, with “Aces High,” “2 Minutes to Midnight” and “The Trooper” getting things going in grand fashion. What hits immediately about this album is what should hit immediately about live albums: it feels like you’re there. It’s exciting, it feels like an unstoppable train moving forward, and you’re along for the ride. The entire original side A of this one just shreds, the band just barely going over six minutes for a couple songs but otherwise keeping things pretty concise and rocking.
Maiden absolutely kills it with the mighty, epic “Hallowed Be thy Name,” then lays down the punk-metal of “Iron Maiden” and classic metal sounds of “Run to the Hills” in a great one-two punch of brisk Maiden energy.
Sure, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” never shuts up, but that’s just how it goes; “Running Free”’s extended singalong section sucks to listen to repeatedly, but they make up for it with a shredding “Wrathchild.”
It goes without saying that all the players are in fine form here, Maiden never allowing a slacker along for the ride, everyone more than pulling their weight through every hysterical, enjoyable moment on Life After Death.
Like Priest’s album, here we are mercifully spared the agony of extended drum or guitar solos, although the album as a whole pushes it with its runtime. Maiden are never ones to know what the goddamn word “edit” means, and this one does feel like it goes on for a few songs too long, unlike Priest’s, which is pretty much a perfect length. Then again, Maiden’s songs are often a few minutes longer than Priest’s, so what are ya gonna do?
Life After Death is an extremely accurate representation of all that is great about live metal, and about Maiden: it’s a high-speed adventure with band curating and audience eating it up. It’s thrilling, it’s exhilarating and it’s damn impressive. In 2020, these albums serve as a great reminder of what was and of what will be again soon enough.
Scream for me, Decibel readers: the winner in this one has gotta be Bruce Bruce and the boys, Maiden laying down a damn near essential live platter in Life After Death. There’s a reason they screamed for him then and we scream for him now: in an era of double-live albums, this one is peak double-live, balls-to-the-wall classic metal, embodying all the energy and pure sonic inspiration that the best live metal has to offer.