By the end of the 1977 "Stained Class" was looming, abetted by the best drummer Priest ever had (Les Binks, ex-Glam Pop group Fancy, who had a hit with a cover of `Wild Thing') and it was arguably the best album the band ever made, rivalled only by "Sad Wings of Destiny". After playing these albums for 35 years, I still can't decide which is the best.
1978 opened with "Stained" and closed with "Killing Machine" which spawned three singles, including the hits that broke Priest commercially in Britain (`Take on the World' and `Evening Star' - the best single, killer ballad `Before the Dawn' not charting, which is just criminal, as it's a superb song and should have been number 1 worldwide, being both commercially spot on and artistically impeccable). But despite its status as the hitmaker, "Killing Machine" heralded the end of Priest as the thinking man's metal band. "Stained Class", however, manages to be both thoughtful and ass-kicking in the extreme, pleasing anyone who likes rock music to be both fierce and intelligent.
At this point, the production sound Priest had always needed was finally nailed : fizzing, spitting electronic suzz, a little sheeny clean, a little scuzzy noisy, consummately perfect sonically. This, at last, was THE definitive sound of heavy metal -twin lead guitars, earthshattering vox, thudding bass/drums, electronic effects present, but enhancing the tonal qualities of the music, melding with the overdriven amps. This, more than anything else, is what makes `Stained Class' the album that fans who can't cope with early Priest (the fools!) agree with the rest of us that the band had no flaws by this point.
And then there's the songs. Opening the album with its twin-bass drum skeleton (Dave Holland couldn't play this number, nor did Scott, the guy from Racer X, ever manage it properly either as far as I could tell), Les Binks heralds the coming of the finest lineup of Priest, which sadly only lasted three albums (one a live set). `Exciter' is a rock and roll monster, a quasi-religious exhultation of heavy metal as a faith that everyone who loves rock music can buy into - ecstatic, breathtaking and engineered like a jet engine designed by T S Eliot, this is classy rock and roll writ large...and one of the founding songs of proto-thrash metal. Without this, there'd have been no `big four' in the eighties. `White Heat, Red Hot' is more of the same, with some sidebar comments that suggest the dangers of nuclear doom, but it has to be said that this is the fun part of the album. The solos are magnificent (you can even sing KKs, and he always bent toward the jammy, acidy, Hendrix freak outs, leaving Glenn to play the melodic-blues Blackmore role...but let's be fair, KK and Glenn write better melodies than both of these guys and technically never had any peers; unlike most metal guitarists, they could compose, not just improvise any old fret-bothering at speed to make us think they had something to say..instead, they SAID it).
A blistering cover of Spooky Tooth's `Better By You' is next, a failed single but an artistic triumph (much better than the original version), and it's a hymn to bitterness all rejected male lovers can relate to -dark, brooding, passionate stuff, belongs in every great rock collection of singles.
Then things get even more serious. The title track is a great Priestian meditation on man's fall from the state of grace he occupied before civilisation - or maybe this is about original sin, the hypocrisy of corrupt straight society and its rules in place to keep us all in our places...this is heavy metals' outsider, Miltonian philosophy expressed obliquely but tellingly: `Long ago when man was king/his heart was clean/now he's stained class/time has slashed each untouched thing...'. It's deep stuff, expressed feverishly in a sparking electrical package. Rock don't come more interesting or exciting than this.
`Invader' is a great bit of science fiction songwriting, a little light relief, the opening synth/guitar pedal effect used by the band in gigs to introduce `Starbreaker'. In the middle eight, Halford's ability to bring pleading drama into a song and make it high art comes when he sings `When they come to take control/every man must play his role/they won't take our world away..' - it's the blues meshing with golden age SF, just sublime. `Saints in Hell' (what a title) is high-register screaming, wormwood-riffing rock and roll lava, all Dennis Wheatley/Book of Revelation demoniac fury - its' lurid, but perfect. I bet Sabbath were jealous of this...and certainly generations of Black Metallers love it too. Short, punchy and glittering, `Savage' depicts the suffering from disease and exploitation indigenous people were subject too in the aftermath of culture shock when encountering white explorers and colonialists - Iron Maiden, of course, based `Run to the Hills' on `Savage', but play the two side by side and the Maiden number is like a kids' cartoon compared to the ferocity and vertigo of `Savage' a vastly underrated number in my opinion.
Then Les Binks sits in the studio, turns an acoustic guitar upside down (he's left handed) and plays the verse chords of `Beyond the Realms of Death'. Halford double-takes and writes what may be his most eloquent singing and an utter, absolute masterpiece is born. The ultimate expression of Priests' rejection of the worlds' fundamental unfairness and immorality, `Beyond the Realms' is stunningly beautiful and crushingly tragic - if you're not moved by this song, you're made of stone.
Closing magnificently with `Heroes End' (a paen to James Dean, Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix) that is one of the bands best, least understood songs, its chorus line sums up what was to come : Priest would go commercial and despite some great moments, would never again write such wonderful songs as they had in their first four albums. Truly, `It's a shame a legend begins at its end.' Fame and fortune beckoned, but their era of genius was over.