Review Summary: Electric ecstasy indeed.
It's pretty tough to find a rock fan who hasn't at least heard of Judas Priest. A key factor in what became the 80's New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), the band are one of classic metal's longest-enduring acts and continue to play music to this day. Between Rob Halford's charismatic vocal presence, fantastic guitar interplay as far as the ear can hear, and music that has (mostly) aged very well, Judas Priest are quite a "one-of-a-kind" act. While the band had already established most of their sound by the late 70s, as well as a sizable fanbase, Stained Class seems to be the album that really solidified their status as metal icons.
With Stained Class, the staples of the Priest sound seem to be firing on all cylinders. The album has a more refined sound production as well, the band's logo also having been changed around the same time. Either way you look at it, this record is sort of a new era for the group; while some might be a tad angry with the toned down atmosphere and overall changed vibe, Stained Class seems to feature more solid songwriting than most of the band's other 70s albums (or most of their other records in general). Speaking of songwriting, something unique about this record is that it's the only Judas Priest record to date to feature songwriting from every band member. While a few members don't contribute nearly as much as others (drummer Les Binks, for example, only contributed by creating the main riff of "Beyond the Realms of Death"), it's pretty nifty to know that everyone was lending a hand to the final product.
You know there are high expectations for a record like this when the phenomenal "Exciter" leads the pack. An iconic speed metal song to this day, "Exciter" immediately introduces the listener to the fast-paced drumming and high-as-hell vocals that define the band's sound. Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing capture the perfect balance between fast pummeling riffs and beautiful melodies; for instance, the verses in the song are pretty electrifying when the guitar duo have a heavy G-minor riff accompanying the fast drumming and Rob Halford's wails. But once you get further into the music, a gorgeous harmonic section soars over the other instruments as multiple key changes start going on. While the other songs on the record don't quite reach the brilliant heights of the opening track, they're really damn close. "Invader" continues the band's interest with developing toward their future NWOBHM sound while songs such as the ballad "Beyond the Realms of Death" and the bluesy cover of Spooky Tooth's "Better by You, Better Than Me" go along a more experimental route for the group. The former is particularly well-done, with the band showing more restraint and giving the listener a somber atmosphere. The acoustic and electric elements of the song meld extremely well, allowing for an emphasis on dynamics rather than all-out speed or bombast. The title track is great too, building a great distorted set of riffs off one very bluesy intro (presumably by Glenn Tipton).
Unfortunately, there is a misstep on the album as well, and it has to be at the very end. "Heroes End" is a particularly weak closer to an otherwise stellar record. While some parts work, such as the heavy slow breaks mid-song, the overall result comes off as uninspired. The mid-tempo riff is nothing new by the end of the album, and the bottom end (rhythm section in general) sounds a little thin compared to other songs. Luckily, the other songs really pick up the slack, especially around the beginning/middle of the record. What works here is absolutely amazing and propels Stained Class to a league of its own. This is some of Judas Priest's finest work; get it when you can. Hell, it's really cheap these days anyway.