Saturday, January 24, 2009

Freewheel Burning by Judas Priest

So the Tanuki got in one of his infrequent metal moods last night (maybe it was all that thinking about Billy Joel) and found himself listening to Judas Priest.

1. Like, I guess, most boys of my generation, I went through a Heavy Metal Phase. I had the good fortune to go through mine in suburban Maryland, the very area immortalized in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. I went to high school with these kids, or some just like them. Glen Burnie was just over the hill and through the woods from me, as was the Cap Center. That accent! The way that girl says "hell yeah" and "jump his beauns!" The way this guy enumerates the good stuff and the bad. C'est moi! Actually, c'est the assholes I used to avoid on the bus 'cause they wanted to beat the shit out of me for being a nerd. I guess that, too, is part of the fun of this video for me. They're forever ambered at seventeen. I got to grow up (sort of).

They were right about one thing, though: Priest rules.

2. Specifically a song like "Freewheel Burning". There's just too much to love here: a drum part that sounds like Keith Moon's most intense three seconds sampled and repeated, classic precision riffing, and Rob Halford at his most psychotic. Check out what he's singing from about the 3:15 mark.

Precision is the key here, I guess. Some metal bands - Sab, Zep (don't bother to tell me Zeppelin wasn't metal: I don't much care about taxonomy) - tried to sound dirty, but Priest's aesthetic was all about cleanness. Notes weren't bent, but ramrod-straight; time wasn't stretched, but neatly subdivided and sub-subdivided. Sounds were loud and abrasive but always clear, always discernible. It's all very modern, industrial even. Which all makes it sound, in a way, very safe, and indeed on one side this kind of thing tended to the frazzled classical graspings you hear in the guitar solo (Yngwie Malmsteen, of course, was the god of that sort of thing). At their best, though, Priest balanced that pristine order with a neurotic, frenzied disorder, which usually crept in through Halford's vocals. Again I'll refer you to the 3:15 mark.

Sometimes the music doesn't really support Halford, and he's left trying to make something wild out of a tame pop record such as "Love Bites," and then he just sounds silly. (Even their pop stuff could rule, though.) But sometimes it all comes together and you have a big slab of awesomeness like "Freewheel Burning."

3. Back to the parking lot. That kid is soooo insistent that Priest and punk have nothing to do with each other. I'm not so sure, and neither are a lot of other writers; it's something of a commonplace now to observe the secret commonalities between metal and punk - grunge showed us how. And it's true that there's often a rage at the heart of both genres, and it's often aimed at the same thing: the corruption, hypocrisy, and limitations of mainstream society.

But for all the boundary-crossing of their contemporaries in Seattle, the kids in that Landover parking lot represent the conventional wisdom of their day in their perception that there was a fundamental difference between punk and metal. Not that they really knew what punk was - chances are their knowledge of it in '86 was about what mine was. Nada. A general impression of style: safety pins through the ears, plastic garbage bag dresses, etc. So were the heavy metal fans rejecting masochism in favor of sadism? Sullen misery in favor of hedonism? Or the vulnerable disorder of the Sex Pistols in favor of the near-fascist monumentality of Priest?

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