Monday, April 16, 2012

Judas Priest - Turbo (1986)

Turbo has always caught a bit of flack from a segment of metaldom due to its ridiculous levels of accessibility, but let's be honest about this: Judas Priest, bless their hearts (up to and including 1990) has never exactly but Public Enemy No. 1 in terms of the aggression they incorporate into their music. Nonsensical accusations of subliminal messaging aside, they've always had a knack for the huge, friendly chorus parts that thrust them into the spotlight alongside the rest of the popular hard rock/metal radio of the 70s and 80s, and while their music might have seemed edgy in '78, hits like "Breaking the Law" and "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" always held an appeal to a wide cross-sampling of society, from the rich to the poor to the young to the elderly to the black brown white yellow green purple or whatever other compartments we place ourselves in.

So it's not really hard to believe that Priest would follow up the success of such pieces with an album that is largely wrought of a more 'commercial' party rock aesthetic that might have been generally associated with but not limited to KISS and Twisted Sister. For me, Turbo has always been THAT album, that cutting loose of the more serious elements you'd heard on most of their prior efforts and a focus squarely on catchy rock tunes that could appeal to the average high schooler of its day (or middle schooler, in my case). Granted, 1986 was the year of such lauded monoliths as Master of Puppets, Somewhere in Time, Reign in Blood, Fatal Portrait and Awaken the Guardian, so it might not have been in Priest's best interests to pursue this course when such quality was emerging from the underground (or from their own British peers). When held up against any of those records, or many others, Turbo seems trite, silly and juvenile by comparison, but in of itself I think this is still a fun record for a road trip to summer camp, arms and legs flailing out of the bus or your parents' station wagon en route.

If I've got any complaints, they'd revolve more around the actual production of the record and the fact that, despite nearly every song having some catchy sequence somewhere in the vocal progressions (Judas Priest was not a band known for much 'filler' on their early albums), not all are equally memorable in the long term. This is perhaps the most 'synthetic' sounding of their full-lengths, with the guitar synthesizers sounding immensely cheesy dowsed in their post-prog relish (the intro to "Out in the Cold" being a prime example), but in general the guitar tone does not feel adequately vibrant or powerful to really carry its hooks into infinity. The songwriting is of course meticulous, with tracks like "Turbo Lover" perfect sequences in alternated verse-chorus pop bliss, and very little flair or flash to the guitars beyond their measured, muted verse riffing, emboldened power chord chorus escalations and the requisite leads, but in retrospect I think the sound Judas Priest and Tom Allom settled with here might have benefited from actual fucking balls, as opposed to the timid tones of a turtle half afraid to emerge from its shell.

As for the consistency of the cuts, I will say that it's hard to tell Turbo was extracted from the theoretical double LP that the band initially proposed (Twin Turbos). All of the tracks seem to flow smoothly, the first half loaded with memorable choruses like the instantly recognizable title track, the desperate and uplifting "Locked In", the beefy mid paced rocker "Private Property" with its clapping electronic percussive strikes and the youth anthem "Parental Guidance" which felt like a more constrained lyrical alternative to Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It". As the album progresses, you get some moodier, slightly more serious pieces like "Out in the Cold" which might have been a passable Journey, Foreigner or Triumph track sans the slicing timbre of Rob Halford, or the ballsier "Wild Nights, Hot & Crazy Days" which is total cock rock that could just as well fallen under the banner of KISS, Mötley Crüe or the Scorpions, but catchy nonetheless. Some of the later tracks, "Hot for Love" and "Reckless" don't exactly stand out to memory, but they're flush enough stylistically with their lead-ins.

The individual performances on Turbo are enthusiastic without hinging on the provocative. Rob clearly paves the way, his melodies the most impressive on the album, but Downing and Tipton throw in a few good, curving hooks while the rhythm duo of Holland and Hill keeps pace like a team of horse-drawn metronomes. The guitar synthesizes, which are careening and cavorting about the structure of the songs as if they were just testing the ice and afraid to go skating, can prove distracting in places, and the leads in tracks like "Locked In" and "Rock You All Around the World" are worthwhile if not their most memorable. But as usual, they practice enormous restraint in their performance, with no undue fills or excess wanking (aside from perhaps the over use of the synth atmospheres), letting Halford run the show, and for this reason the divisive reaction of some of the metal audience to Turbo, or Priest in general, is not unsubstantiated, even if I happen to disagree due to the typically great hooks the band tended towards.

After Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith, two of the better albums in their entire canon, Turbo did and still does feel like a mild disappointment, but only in the way that this was the first point at which they felt like they were not keeping current with what was happening elsewhere in the genre. The momentum seemed to grind to a halt, even if they were still able to elicit some fun from the songs. With thrash, speed and power metal exploding, death metal just on the horizon, Turbo feels like an evolutionary step backwards, and Judas Priest weren't really able to reinvent or reinvigorate themselves until the explosive, and unforgettable Painkiller which stood out even against a far heavier landscape of thrash. As far as its song selection, I do prefer this record to its successor Ram It Down, of which a few tunes were also drawn from the 'Twin Turbos' writing sessions, but when held up against their greater legacy, Turbo doesn't emerge a favorite. A sunny, melodic and lighted hearted romp that I'll break out seasonally, fun for the whole family (including the girlfriend, who will generally rock out to at least "Turbo Lover") but nothing exemplary is happening and it doesn't feel like a direction I'd want Priest to further explore.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (you'll know you're defenseless)

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