Black Sabbath‘s debut? The definition of classic. Iron Maiden‘s first album? Beloved. Metallica‘s Kill Em All? Killer. Judas Priest‘s initial release? Mediocre. What? Today, September 6th 2014 is the 40th anniversary of Judas Priest‘s first outing, Rocka Rolla. It is largely forgotten and not discussed much compared to Priest‘s other, more classic albums. As mentioned at the beginning, most bands’ first album often is one of the most remembered. So why is Priest’s practically lost in time?
This record represents the early Judas Priest and what they could have become. It is not so much heavy metal, as it is blues and hard rock. It is by no means bad, but lacks the originality and direction of subsequent releases. They sound similar to other bands of the time, and lack distinctness. Some of these problems are due to the producers and label executives. They had more control over the album and what went on the record. They went for a more safe, radio-friendly approach, which ended up back firing, making the band sound generic. “Victim of Changes” was a live staple of the band early on, but was not included on this record (which may have been for the better). The record almost shows an alternate history where Judas Priest was just another obscure British band from the 70s.
Despite mediocrity, there are still highlights. Rob Halford does his falsetto screams occasionally, but not nearly as often as subsequent releases. This is partially due to the fact that some of the songs were co-written by Al Atkins and were more fitting for his vocal range. The title track has catchy riffs and melodies, with a story about a badass chick. “Cheater” has a nice rhythm, and features Halford on harmonica. “Winter” and “Deep Freeze” have a heavy, almost doom metal riff. Following those two tracks is “Winter Retreat”, which has an eerie trance that makes you feel like you’re in a blizzard. It was the most psychedelic the band got. There are some softer moments too, a common aspect to 70s hard rock albums.
An odd complaint I have is the track listing. “Winter”, “Deep Freeze” and “Winter Retreat” are basically one song and should be combined as such. Additionally, in the middle of “Dying to Meet You”, it transitions to another song, “Hero, Hero”. These were strange decisions made by the studio, though are very minor issues.
Another point is the album art. The bottle cap image was originally designed for a Rolling Stones album, but was used here instead. Later in 1987 the reissue used a different cover, this time with some kind of demon in the air launching rockets with the band’s gothic script logo. I prefer the original artwork, as it is different stylistically from the rest of their discography, like the music is. Also, the band logo used on the original cover was never used again, further differentiating itself.
The band has rarely played songs from this album since the mid 70s, which is understandable. For their Epitaph tour a few years ago, they played at least one song from every album, including this one. They played “Never Satisfied”, which is one of the weaker tracks. “Rocka Rolla” or even “One For the Road” would have been better, more energetic choices.
Ultimately, the album showed that the band had potential, but wasn’t quite there yet. Their follow up, 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny was a huge improvement from Rocka Rolla, and is my favorite Priest album. It was probably the studio that got in the way of their creativity. They were also a young band, so their songwriting abilities may not have been quite there. Sad Wings feels like a more tightly knit piece of work than Rocka Rolla. They just needed more time to find their success.
1. One for the Road
2. Rocka Rolla
4. Deep Freeze
5. Winter Retreat
7. Never Satisfied
8. Run of the Mill
9. Dying to Meet You/Hero, Hero
10. Caviar and Meths
Rocka Rolla line-up:
Rob Halford – Vocals, Harmonica
Glenn Tipton – Lead Guitar
K. K. Downing – Lead Guitar
Ian Hill – Bass
John Hinch – Drums