Retrospective: Judas Priest’s “Sin After Sin” Turns 35

By Avinash Mittur

Thirty-five years ago on April 23, 1977, Judas Priest unleashed their third studio album, Sin After Sin. As many know, Priest’s studio output during the 1970s is considered to be some of the most influential heavy metal ever recorded. Even though it has its flaws, Sin After Sin made a major contribution to the development of heavy metal and remains an important stepping-stone in the evolution of the genre.

In 1977 Judas Priest was a frighteningly different band compared to the one they became only a year later. Instead of leather and studs, singer Rob Halford was more likely to be wearing a matching white frilly outfit, and the rest of the band could easily be mistaken for the countless hard rock musicians of the seventies. On Sad Wings of Destiny, the band would be unafraid to follow a monstrously heavy track like Genocide with a melancholy piano dirge like Epitaph, or to cover an artist as different from themselves as Joan Baez. Simply put, Judas Priest circa 1977 was one very weird band.

Sinner, the first and longest track on Sin After Sin, remained a live showcase piece for guitarist K.K. Downing throughout the eighties, and along with Victim of Changes, can be seen as a precursor to progressive metal. Downing’s wild dive bombs and aggressive use of wah-wah throughout Sinner inspired countless young guitarists; Hendrix had done these same tricks in a psychedelic context, but Downing was the first to truly utilize them in within a relatively conventional hard rock song. His whammy screams and feedback would also grace the downright devastating Dissident Aggressor. With a monstrously heavy main riff, Simon Phillips’ cymbal crashes and double bass, Rob Halford’s blood curdling screams, and of course Downing’s crazy soloing, Dissident Aggressor was probably the heaviest song to have ever been released in 1977. Slayer even covered the song on their album South of Heaven. Even with a far better production, they just couldn’t match the sheer intensity of Priest’s version.

Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover’s production on this album was well, pretty weak in comparison to the sounds Judas Priest would attain on later records. Even though every instrument is audible and well recorded, Sin After Sin sounds somewhat limp and lifeless. Despite the subpar production though, Sin After Sin still managed to be one of Priest’s most daring and pioneering records. One can hear an early version of the galloping rhythm that Iron Maiden would later perfect in Diamonds and Rust, and Let Us Prey/Call For the Priest is one of the first double bass driven speed-metal songs ever recorded. Let Us Prey/Call For the Priest in particular is an absolute scorcher; it baffles me that this song hasn’t been given the credit for its role in the development of thrash metal that it deserves. While Downing was given plenty of time to shine on this album, and Halford let loose with his vocal histrionics, Simon Phillips gave an outstanding drum performance. Phillips’ aggressive feet and fill heavy style was perfect for this era of Judas Priest, and this album would not be nearly as innovative without him bashing away at the skins. Halford was in prime form on this record, even if he hadn’t found his signature mix of high wails and low bark quite yet. His multi-tracked screams are all over this album, from the echoed chorus of Sinner, to the choir-like intro to Let Us Prey/Call for the Priest and the ridiculously high wail that kicked off Dissident Aggressor’s main riff.

Unlike many other Judas Priest albums, the deeper cuts on Sin After Sin aren’t nearly as satisfying as the better known tracks. The two ballads, Here Come the Tears and Last Rose of Summer, while certainly not bad songs by any stretch of the imagination, are probably better seen as steps towards the band’s seventies masterpiece, Beyond the Realms of Death. Glenn Tipton’s bluesy solos are certainly a highlight of these songs; it’s a style that he would rarely revisit on subsequent albums. Starbreaker has always been a bit of an anomaly in the Priest canon. On Sin After Sin, the song is only a straightforward rocker with a cool dueling guitar solo from Downing and Tipton. Two years later on the band’s first live album, Unleashed in the East, Starbreaker truly came to life with an energy and drive completely unheard in its studio counterpart. Both Sinner and Diamonds and Rust would be heard in superior form on Unleashed in the East as well, but their studio versions are both fine in and of themselves.

In the end, Sin After Sin stands as an important album, even if it’s nowhere near Judas Priest’s best. For fans that grew up with Painkiller, Screaming for Vengeance or even British Steel, Sin After Sin is tough album to appreciate. Even if the songs don’t all stand the test of time, their significance to the development of heavy metal cannot be overstated. In 1977, there wasn’t a band out there that questioned the definition of heavy metal music like Judas Priest, and the daring and experimental tracks on Sin After Sin are the proof. You might not get it right away, but just put on Dissident Aggressor with the volume knob cranked a few notches higher than normal, and you’ll be transported to that same realm of heaviness that a young Kerry King once found himself in 35 years ago.