Monday, December 2, 2013

Rocka Rolla

Judas Priest - Rocka Rolla - 1974

First riff of the album makes you think "Here Comes One Bad Motherfucker."  That theme continues throughout.

Rocka Rolla is the first album from speed metal heroes Judas Priest.  It's not what you expect if you've even listened to their hits.  This album is mostly not fast and more reminiscent of Black Sabbath than what lay down the road.  It has a general lack of the brag-and-swagger style of later material, a more introspective tone.

Lead song "One for the Road" has guitars that are jagged and crusty at the same time.  Similar to punching your fist through a pane of glass and what comes after.  The feel of this one is angular and steeped in funk.

Title track "Rocka Rolla" starts off promising enough with a dark, down-tuned, heavy guitar; yet another good lead-off riff.  Without the words it would be far less corny.  The musicianship has some nice twists and turns; it's catchy enough that you'll be humming it later in the week.  It's classic rock pumped up by Halford's power pipes.

"Winter" sounds like it leapt straight off of an early Soundgarden album (but in the time-continuum, the opposite is likely true).  Interestingly, this song is referred to as a "cover" as it was written and presumably recorded by the band's original leader/vocalist Al Atkins.  Penned before he left the band (they weren't making any money yet, he needed to support his young family so he decided to go get a job in the straight world) and replaced by operatic howler Rob Halford.  The song creeps in with a swirling low-end whisper of vocals that rockets into a grunged out Black Sabbath-y death-riff and Halford yelping towards the end of the world.  All promising and over far too quickly as drums take over and all alone set the somber rock tone for the remaining guitar flurry.  In comes Halford again belting line after line about the suffering of a seeming homeless wanderer.  It's over quickly and we're left with "Deep Freeze," which nicely circles back to the beginning echoey entrance of "Winter."  This section sounds like a slow motion buzz-saw fed through a blender.  It could easily be the guttural grunting and huffing of a savage beast.   Spent, it then leads to the cooler and more mellow "Winter Retreat" which would fit in easily on Pink Floyd's Meddle.  It's a brief repast that serves to heighten the skanky-metal touch of "Cheater," the last portion of this song suite which opens with yet another dark riff.  Hail Satan!!!  Ok, not really, but it sounds evil, so he might have been involved.  Halford doubles up here on muscular vocals and some keen harmonica.  Guitarist K.K. Downing does his level-best to throw in quick and nasty licks at just the right spots.  It's inspired blues metal of the highest order.

"We're never satisssFIED!"  Some juicy lyrics and a pummeling bass make "Never Satisfied" one of the strongest tracks on the album.  Very reminiscent of T. Rex's The Slider from two years prior.  It's a simple song that encapsulates the potential Judas Priest to come.  Coming soon to an arena near you.

The bluesy "Run of the Mill" sounds at times like a melancholy Floyd tune.  At 8:30 it is the longest track on the album and this is a good thing.  The patient unveiling of all the various tempo and instrumentational shifts is rewarding.  As it slowly churns on, it becomes more sad and evil.  The mournful cadence, searching guitars, and Halford's yearning vocals all come together beautifully.  Psychedelic guitars and bass interweave bringing you into a cathartic release of operatic yowling from Halford (these are not the proper words to do it justice).  You owe it to yourself to check it out as nobody makes sounds like this guy.  He is simply soul crushing as he hits those high notes; hits them through your skull.  And you will like it.

This can only be followed up by Halford doing something completely opposite than soul-crushing falsettos by dropping it down a few octaves in "Dying to Meet You."  Another dark and nasty one?  Yes.  The tune is pretty downbeat, but halfway through, the song seems to end.  Instead it busts out into a more speedy full on double-guitar riff.  This mid-point tempo shift makes it a very strange track with the beginning and end totally unrelated.

"Caviar and Meths" is brief and you have to wonder; where is the rest of it?  Apparently there is fifteen minutes more to hear, just not on this record.  One of several reasons that the band stated they were disappointed with how the record company handled this release.  Not knowing this stuff you might just shrug at the last song on the album.

Jury's out as to the connection between the bottle cap cover art and the actual music.  C'mon, it's not that clever a connection: Rocka-Rolla -- Coca-Cola.  Seems like the 1987 re-issue cover with an in-flight monster dropping bombs more appropriately fits the music. VVer #1 had a video game in the 90's with the same cover art.  Neat-o!

Reviews of this record have been pretty middle of the road, but both VVers could not disagree more.  Sure, it's not what they became to sound like and there are some moments that could stand some polish/remastering.  Ultimately though the musicianship and raw talent on display here far outweighs any of that poo-pooing.  Bravo.  Twelve stars.

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