Stained Class is about to turn 40 years old — that's hard to believe when you are reminded of just how relevant and powerful it still is today. In retrospect, it's obvious that Judas Priest's beloved fourth album saw them fully grown into the style they'd been hinting at previously, announced by the first appearance of their now instantly recognizable logo on the front cover, was unmistakably heavy-metal. Stained Class laid the groundwork upon which Priest and countless other bands would build and expand upon for decades to come.
I discovered Stained Class in my early teens thanks to Kerry King. Growing up in small-town, conservative Christian Oklahoma, a great deal of my adolescent years were spent holed up in my room where I would practice guitar, listen to metal and punk CDs, watch the Pantera home videos and adorn my wall with posters torn from the latest issue of my favorite magazines (for the record, I read Revolver, and even got in the "Ask Vinnie Paul" section around this time ... but I digress). In one guitar mag, I saw a list of Kerry King's favorite albums. And while I can't remember any of the other albums on the list, for some reason Stained Class stood out to me. I already knew Judas Priest's hits, like "Livin' After Midnight," "You've Got Another Thing Coming" and "Breaking the Law," but the songs on Stained Class were something else entirely. I could tell it was the same band, but they just sounded tighter, meaner and more pissed off. In the same article (I believe), Kerry King discussed how he used to like Iron Maiden more than Priest but that at some point in his life, his feelings on the matter had shifted. In the 15 years since reading that article, I have to agree and it's because of albums like Stained Class.
Judas Priest play hard music, and I don't mean technically astounding. These guys are from Birmingham, a hard place — the same place that took Tony Iommi's fingers. Priest's music has a swagger, realism and an underdog attitude that is disparate to a lot of the more fantastical, over-the-top posturing that saturated the heavy metal of the era. The track "Saints in Hell" is a perfect example of this attitude: These fellas sound like they're going to kick your ass. And when Rob Halford sings, you believe him. Even when he sings about mysterious cosmic monsters and giant space robots, or whatever the fuck he's talking about on songs like "Exciter" and "Invader." No disrespect to Ronnie James Dio, Rob Halford is the greatest metal singer of all time, and Stained Class is the album that solidified this fact early on.
Stained Class was the tightening of Priest's songwriting. Progressive and sometimes meandering explorations found on previous albums are almost entirely absent — at least, partially attributed to producer Dennis MacKay, brought in by CBS Records. The older I get, the more I realize that as a songwriter, this is the way to go. It's crucial to do what's best for the songs, and more often than not that means playing a part fewer times, or not at all. The song itself is paramount. What's not is showing your prowess with an instrument or what a "genius" you think are. The ultimate goal is to make people feel something, and if the song is good enough they'll know you're a genius anyway.
Every song on Stained Class is great — a stand-alone master class on how to craft an incredible heavy-metal composition. Anyone who wants to learn about or just experience badass riffs, epic guitar harmonies, a rhythm section that appeals directly to your reptile brain, vocals that are aggressive and tortured in equal measure and songs that are structured in a memorable, meaningful way, look no further. But as good as every song is, it's still easy for me to pick a favorite, and that's "Beyond the Realms of Death." Several years after discovering Stained Class, I saw the band play this song in the middle of a freak thunderstorm, and it changed my life yet again. (Speaking of which, can anybody that went to Ozzfest 2004 in Kansas City confirm or deny that it started pouring rain when Priest played their first note, and stopped when they played their last? Because that's what I remember.)
Stained Class is one of the greatest Judas Priest albums, which by default makes it one of the greatest metal albums of all time. Any year that it could be released, it would still probably be the best album of that year. It is the type of honest, forward-thinking, legitimately heavy album we should all strive to make. But probably never will.
Nathan Garrett is the guitarist of death-metal band Gatecreeper, who recently released a split EP with Iron Reagan, and doom outfit Spirit Adrift, who are still supporting their acclaimed 2017 album, Curse of Conception.
Below, see Rob Halford break down the lyrics to Judas Priest's 2018 single "Lightning Strike."