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IRON MAIDEN VS. JUDAS PRIEST: Why Not Both?

Added 21 March 2018, 4:06 PM
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  First, let me publicly state that this is as ridiculous of a question as there is out there. It could be as bad as “Freddie vs. Jason.” But, I see the question posted all of the time in metal forums, so I am up for the challenge. In the end I say “why not both,” but if I am committed to answering this debate, I can choose a side, and will. To start with, the comparison is difficult, as their careers did not intersect until JUDAS PRIEST were already well established. Sure, both band are from the UK, have a twin guitar attack, had two of the best singers of all time, and are absolutely iconic in the history of Heavy Metal. Both bands are also still alive and well today…but with some pretty obvious differences now, which I will get to.

By the time IRON MAIDEN was forming and making ever-shifting line-up changes, JUDAS PRIEST had already released two masterpieces in “Sad Wings of Destiny” and “Sin After Sin.” Take a listen to what is surely one of the best Heavy Metal songs of all time, featuring a crushing riff and the dominating pipes of Rob Halford:



While MAIDEN was recording their punk-infused debut…PRIEST released what they might be best known for in 1980…”British Steel.” At this time, they were indeed the “Metal Gods,” and leading the NWOBHM movement which was in its infancy. With six albums under their belt at this point, it gives them a huge leg up in the argument. Too large of a chasm to close? Well, there’s a lot more to the story.



Were they in fact an influence on IRON MAIDEN? I think all signs would point to this being the case. The band was already well established when MAIDEN was in their early form, so I have no doubt. Does this automatically make them the better band? It does not necessarily, but it establishes them as THE hot band at the time. However, MAIDEN was soon poised to strike, and made a quantum leap by parting ways with DiAnno and moving forward with “The Air Raid Siren” voice of Bruce Dickinson, for one of the greatest Metal albums ever with “The Number of the Beast.” Right out of the gates they burn you alive with the fast moving “Invaders,” showing adept riffing, the dexterous bass work of Steve Harris, and the rich, screams of Bruce Dickinson:



At the same time as this album came out, JUDAS PRIEST released another masterpiece into their “Screaming for Vengeance.” The tones of the title track could have been an early pre-cursor to the Thrash/Speed genre, as PRIEST dialed up the pace and set ablaze the Metal world. My favorite song on the album has always been “Riding on the Wind.” It has a memorable sound, and one of the best back-and-forth lead breaks from Tipton and Downing I have ever heard.



They were the Lords of all creation following this release. Meanwhile, MAIDEN was gaining momentum, while PRIEST were the undisputed reigning kings of Heavy Metal, playing for millions at the famous “US Festival” in California with some more known American bands that they had to open for. But anyone watching that concert could see that PRIEST dominated the stage and you were witnessing history as it was evident that they would go on to outlast the peers that they shared the stage with.

In 1984, PRIEST delivered another blow with “Defenders of the Faith,” arguably their best album. “Freewheel Burning” was enough the knock the socks off of your Aunt Connie, and Halford went for broke with his lightning fast vocals. Now nine albums into their career, this machine showed no signs of slowing down.



But, their paths were destined to intersect this year, as IRON MAIDEN released arguably their greatest album of all time with POWERSLAVE. Progressively tinged and noticeably different than previous works, they were hitting a songwriting mark that had not been done before. Obviously, the thirteen-minute epic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was that mark, though the title track on the album was the one that grabbed me by my high school balls and told me that music was more important than girls. The guitar solos in this song are brilliant. Murray and Smith both showed how technical they are as guitarists, but also how well they can inject emotion into their playing. The Egyptian themes of the album would later go on to represent their stage show on the “Live After Death” tour, which at the time was the greatest and most significant tour that had ever been done.



At this time, it you would be hard pressed to say what band was “better” than the other…which band was more significant, more relevant, more influential. But destiny beckons. In 1986, JUDAS PRIEST released Turbo, and IRON MAIDEN released “Somewhere in Time." Though both bands embraced synths on these albums (Steve Harris reluctantly), here is where the chasm between the bands started to widen. For PRIEST, the album contained some great fun and poppy songs such as the title track and “Parental Guidance,” which showcased the band’s more commercial sound, to the pleasure of all of the fans, myself included.



Meanwhile, IRON MAIDEN was focused on more sophisticated and intelligent songwriting, with equal doses of contrasting writing styles of Smith and Harris in particular. One listen to the epic and vocally demanding “Alexander the Great” shows you where they were at that time, moving forward smartly and taking their craft to the highest level. Perhaps the opening lyrics of “my son, ask for thyself another kingdom, for that which I leave is too small for thee” sums up best the kingdom that IRON MAIDEN would ultimately inherit.



When we hit the year 1988, both bands released new albums again. This time, PRIEST started to lose some steam with “Ram it Down,” while MAIDEN widened the gap with the masterpiece concept album “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.” In many ways, though more commercially tinged, it could have been their most ambitious album to date. But, disaster struck soon thereafter, as Adrian Smith departed the band. It was an amicable split but was rumored to have been partly caused by the direction his writing was taking the band, as Harris was interested in returning to their more classic sound.

1990 was a turning point for both bands. With Smith gone, MAIDEN went back to basics in “No Prayer for the Dying,” which for me was a very underrated album and contained a lot of quality songwriting, though some fans left them behind at this point. Meanwhile, PRIEST did a 180, in an apparent attempt to stay fresh with the Power/Speed Metal sound of PAINKILLER. Bringing drummer Scott Travis on board to handle some of the percussion demands, most fans were delighted at the change. Halford never sounded better, hitting some notes that would shatter glass. Was JUDAS PRIEST re-taking the reigns at this point? It would seem to be the case.



However, the tables would soon turn again. In 1991, Halford left the juggernaut PRIEST, citing tensions with the band. It would be seven long years until they would release a new album with replacement singer Tim “Ripper” Owens. The band released two albums with him on vocals, the second coming in 2001. He was a very capable replacement singer, but the two releases were lackluster in my opinion. Meanwhile, MAIDEN released their classic “Fear of the Dark,” in 1992, and the title track became a live staple that fans just demanded to hear.



But, destiny would strike again, as Dickinson left the band, and Harris chose a poor replacement in my opinion with Blaze Bayley. Though the two albums with Blaze were pretty good, many fans never warmed to his voice, which just didn’t quite fit the music. So, during this darker time for both bands, the chasm closed again, and it was back to even for me. PRIEST re-united with Halford in 2003, but MAIDEN had already struck the first blow when Bruce and Adrian returned for one of the best comeback albums of all time in “Brave New World.” The songwriting on the album showed that this band was re-invigorated, and still had a lot left in their creative tank. With this release, MAIDEN had re-taken the spotlight and left PRIEST in the dust. Take a listen to the powerful and emotional classic Harris penned track “Blood Brothers.”



PRIEST would go on to release two more albums before the year 2010, while MAIDEN released three. During these years, both bands showed some decline, but MAIDEN was still consistently releasing more memorable material, while PRIEST were relying on re-treaded, trite riffs that didn’t show much in the area of dynamism. Live shows played a key in this argument as well. I had the pleasure of seeing IRON MAIDEN in 2010, and I can say that the experience of watching them perform was one of the best things I have ever experienced. The energy they showed on stage was un-matched. Nearly 30 years into their career, they put on a show that was as great as any they had ever done. PRIEST live during this time were…well…a bit boring. Halford was having trouble remembering lyrics, and his voice had deteriorated quite a bit. His stage presence was not the larger than life person he used to be.

Taking us to the modern day, PRIEST released two more albums, one just a few weeks ago, while MAIDEN was out of the studio a bit while Bruce battled cancer. When his voice recovered, their “The Book of Souls” release in 2015 showed that the band were still in top form. It was a very ambitious effort, and although some of the song meandered a bit for me, it showed a depth in songwriting and passionate vocals that proved the band still had a creative drive that showed little signs of slowing down. Meanwhile, PRIEST’s most recent effort had peaked many of their longtime fan’s interest. Some are calling it a comeback masterpiece. For me, I found it to be mostly bland, and still lacked in a lot of areas, riffs being the biggest.

So, as we are considering all of the information presented, where does that leave us in the argument? Let’s look at the bands’ entire careers, individual members, and discographies as a whole.

Who is the better singer? Oh man you could debate this for decades. Both had amazing voices, but different as well. Rob had the screeching pipes, while Bruce’s voice was more rich, and soulful. Both could hit impossibly high notes, but Rob lost a lot of his firepower much earlier than Bruce. He is older, so that has to factor in as well. In the end, I’m giving Bruce the nod by a nose.

How about in the guitar department? Tipton and Downing created the twin guitar assault in the genre. Both are technically very good players, with Downing having the slightly better pyrotechnics for me. In fact, technically speaking, Downing might be the best of the four in question. But where this duo falls short is in harmony, phrasing and progression. Murray and Smith wrote more memorable riffs and solos; plain and simple. Murray’s legato assault was usually something free flowing, and his solos would often change a bit when he played live. Smith on the other hand, played calculated solos that were all about the melody and emotion. His sense of feeling when soloing makes him one of, if not the, best of all time in that craft. Nor should I fail to mention Gers, who might be technically the best guitarist in their three-guitar assault. He plays with passion and great skill, and his stage presence is one of the best parts of the band’s live shows. MAIDEN put guitar harmonies first, a style that would go on to be replicated by literally thousands of bands that followed, including the ENTIRE Melodic Death Metal genre. In many ways, the guitars in the two bands is the crux of the argument.

When it comes to bass and drums, there is really no comparison. Scott Travis is an excellent drummer, and the addition of him to the lineup in 1990 allowed PRIEST to explore faster areas of their music that they were limited in before his arrival. But McBrain is a master behind the kit and remains one of the most underrated and not often mentioned drummers in Metal. Steve Harris? Simply one of the best bass players and musicians of all time. PRIEST never really figured out how to use Ian Hill in the music, other than holding down a steady sound that never ventured out.

Relevance and influence? It’s a tie for me, though MAIDEN probably influenced a wider variety of bands than PRIEST. Discographies as a whole? Very close, but MAIDEN’s work was simply more creative and more memorable. For me, I can’t say that I like one band more than the other however, which is what made taking on this argument so hard. PRIEST’s early 70’s albums can’t be touched, but MAIDEN made more consistent and intelligent music as a whole. In the end, with all things considered, I have a 51-49 measurement, and am choosing IRON MAIDEN as the better band.


Edited 07 July 2022
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