Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Judas Priest - Ram It Down (1988)

Though it's not one of my favorite full-lengths in the Judas Priest backlog, and I found the songs marginally less hooky than its direct predecessor Turbo, there is something Ram It Down did VERY right. Essentially, it would steer Halford and company back on the path they had abandoned with their divisive '86 record, and seemed the perfect staging for what would follow, the band's almost entirely unexpected, more aggressive masterpiece Painkiller. This album certainly curries a lot of the elements that seem to point at a Priest who had awoken from an oblivious torpor, shucking aside a security blanket and realizing that they weren't getting any younger, but they could still get HARDER, and thus assimilate themselves against the evolving metal landscape without betraying the traditional sound that they were so critical in helping create in the first place.

Perfect it is not, but heavy it most definitely fucking is, at least in comparison to the band's output up to its release. The guitars feel more pronounced and potent, the leads quavering, intense and more acrobatic than many others in their discography, and Rob's voice was becoming more dynamic and defined than even his youthful years. All the experimentation with the guitar synthesizers has been cast to the curb and they've gone for straight, ballsy songwriting with the huge vocal hooks that have immortalized them. Interestingly enough, they kept on long term producer Tom Allom here in conjunction with several of the band members, and though this is one of his last appearances in that role, he's managed to help get them back on track. For if I've got any complaints at all about Ram It Down, the actual studio sound is not among them, this is one of the finest 'sounding' albums the band have ever released to date, voluminous and balanced to a cutting perfection.

Where I don't strongly succumb to its charms is in the songwriting. Most of what you hear on this record was actually intended to be released with the Turbo material as a double disc which would mix and match the heavier and more glam/pop inspired material, but it eventually was decided that they'd separate the two aesthetics into their own entities. Ram It Down clearly still has a few of the hard rock songs present, like Zeppelin-groove heavy screamer "Love Zone" or the melodic cover of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode". "I'm a Rocker" would have fit in quite fluidly with Turbo since it has that same sort of percussive guitar rhythm beneath the chords, and the same might be said for the nearly 8 minute, escalating "Blood Red Skies" which adheres to the heavy use of synth from the '86 album, though effectively. "Love You to Death" wouldn't have been out of place for KISS or Jimmy Page. Strangely, though, while I liked the summery party aesthetics of Turbo, none of these particular tracks have ever really stood out to me...

But then, the rest of Ram It Down is really quite good. "Come and Get It" is one of those classic mid-paced hybrid hard rock/power anthems which would influence about a hundred German bands not the least of whom would be Primal Fear (or U.D.O.'s solo works). "Heavy Metal" opens with some flashy, frivolous leads before evolving into some of the best Halford screaming lines on the album, not to mention a chorus so dark and catchy that it compensates for just how goddamn obvious you knew it was going to be. "Hard and Iron" and "Ram It Down" itself both serve as the foreshadowing of Painkiller, what with the driving double bass in the former, the scathing and effective leads, the more aggressive sting on the vocal effects and the general sense of added majesty, anger complexity that the band would pursue on tunes like "Leather Rebel", "Metal Meltdown" and "All Guns Blazing". Had this album never existed and those tracks were bonus material on the 1990 effort, they'd fit in quite fluidly, even though the payoff of the chorus hooks is nowhere near that level.

"Monsters of Rock" was another interesting piece, with a slow build to it that I would expect from a band like Manowar, and vocal elements that also match such a manly aesthetic. Even though the chorus (like a lot of "Rock"-titled tunes) is almost laughable, this song is perhaps the most individually distinct stylistically when compared to its neighbors, and I imagine Dave Holland must have had a lot of fun laying out those resonant, warlike drums which feel like you're in some alternate universe Sign of the Hammer. In general, though, this album is rather well balanced. You've got your non-ballad power-ballad epic, your mighty and crushing pieces, mid-gait fist smashers and rapid fire accelerations. It's not difficult to understand why so many fans breathed sighs of relief when it first arrived, having had negative reactions to Turbo. I think, pound for pound, that record had more songs I enjoy in the long term, but only because of the memorable chorus sequences.

In retrospect, 1988 was perhaps my favorite overall year in metal music, with an enormous amount of acts boiling over from the underground that took the genres of speed, thrash and power metal to new heights. Like its predecessor, Ram It Down could hardly compete with what else was happening. Albums like Riot's Thundersteel or Sanctuary's Refuge Denied walked all over what I heard on this record, and some of the exciting European speed/power records like Scanner's Hypertrace, Rage's Perfect Man and Running Wild's Port Royal remain among my favorite in all of music and examples of NWOBHM/power influences taken to a greater level of musicianship and bolder conceptual extremes. Operation: Mindcrime had vocal hooks that created orgasms in my eardrums. Even Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son matured better than this record. But those comparisons aside, Ram It Down does not age poorly, and it's still fun to break out once in awhile. I mean, if you can't weight train to "Monsters of Rock", "Come and Get It" or "Hard As Iron", you are no hesher, in which case you should go listen to Adele or cuddle up to some butter-free microwavable popcorn and watch Dancing with the Stars. 'But I LIKE "Rolling in the..." SHUT UP.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (thousands of cars and a million guitars)


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