The punk rock revolution had reached its zenith as Judas Priest prepared to record their fifth studio album in the summer of 1978. For the album – the last one for 12 years not to be produced by Tom Allom – Priest gave reins to James Guthrie. Guthrie had produced the song “Better By You, Better Than Me” for Priest’s previous record “Stained Class.” Nowadays he’s best known for his work with Pink Floyd. Guthrie has worked on one of their biggest selling albums, “The Wall” as an engineer and co-producer, and has subsequently worked with the band and its members in some form or another on all future products. During the 1980’s he also produced Queensryche’s seminal “The Warning” album.
Despite earning his credentials as a progressive rock/metal producer, no sign of it was heard on “Killing Machine”. The somewhat cold soundscapes of “Stained Class” were now replaced by a much heavier, sharper sonic wall. “Killing Machine” in many ways was Priest’s first pure heavy metal album in all essential areas: songs, delivery and production. Of course with “British Steel” the metallic horizons would be taken even further, but for its time “Killing Machine” was a groundbreaking moment. Falling in between “Stained Class” and “British Steel,” it unfortunately often gets overlooked.
While “Stained Class” would achieve more legendary status later, at that time it was obvious next album would need to be a step up to another ladder. This meant a shift was coming in both music and image, for a while the band was bordering somewhere in the middle. Rob Halford had already made some changes abandoning the earlier flamboyant costumes for a more simpler straight ahead look. In the back cover of “Killing Machine” the four band members are pictured in distinctly defiant poses, similar concept was used on Priest’s debut “Rocka Rolla” but here the difference in both the look and the attitude is striking.
After its release in Europe “Killing Machine” was deemed as too dangerous of a title. Ironically the album was then re-titled “Hell Bent For Leather” in the US with an exclusive bonus track, a re-worked take on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi” slotted in. Ironically because the images created by “Hell Bent For Leather” were arguably more dangerous than “Killing Machine” if you want to use that term. Back in those days heavy metal was yet to attain its bad reputation, but censorship still marched on. By the next studio album “British Steel” the original idea of blood dripping from the hand holding the razor was abandoned for being too controversial.
The production on previous album was also something clearly improved on this time. The versatility of the newly written material demanded a production that was both smooth and heavy at the bottom end, not an easy goal to achieve. As seventies were drawing to a close, Priest were already innovators in trying out different styles and frameworks within the genre.
From the rip roaring opener “Delivering The Goods” to anthem like “Take On The World” to the very song we are talking about here; “Before The Dawn,” the LP like most of Judas Priest’s catalogue, moved around from one end of the spectrum to another. This becomes even more interesting when you consider their debut was released mere four years earlier. Priest had evolved enormously from one record to another, while never giving out any other impression than natural growth during the process.
Before flipping to record’s B-side “Evening Star” had already given listeners some time to breathe in between heavier, nastier rockers. Its single potential was obvious. “Before The Dawn” follows one of the albums neck snapping anthems, “Running Wild.” That song ends in chaos of guitar sounds, a short silence (very short, almost like someone drawing in a quick breath) before the acoustic refrain begins – the effect here is astounding. After “Running Wild” the song first seems like nothing resembling heavy metal but the atmosphere is in its purest, rawest form is razor sharp. Judging by the sheer emotion alone, this could be the heaviest song on the whole album. Such is the effect it instantly creates. It is also incredibly beautiful, the shifts in chord structure in between verses are good examples how one can create wall of sound with just soft guitars, keyboards and a human voice.
Keyboards carry a melody behind guitars at the beginning and bass comes in at the same time Rob starts singing, he stays in mid-range throughout creating haunting, a bit laconic surrounding that perfectly fits in with the musical backdrop. Listen to his vocals slightly cracking during “as if to summon up my leaving” – cleverly used effect to further pinpoint the moment in time the story takes place, in the very early hours of morning as the sun is beginning to rise.
After the first verse keyboards strike back with increased power and the voice responds with extreme desperation. Halford’s voice in its clarity bridges a gap between earlier slightly progressive elements in “Dreamer Deceiver” and later in more dramatically enhanced material “(Take These) Chains” and “Night Comes Down.” Especially “Chains” in its opening verses has similar vocal technique, production and arrangement of course differ more drastically. We arrive to second theme, which sees music moving on to another gear. For example note the bass line behind “now you’re leaving.” This is effective and is quickly followed by the use of cymbals right before the solo, adding to overall atmosphere nicely as otherwise drums are absent from the track.
Guitar solo follows. K.K. Downing plays a lead somewhat atypically melodic for him, yet retaining an edge that feels closer to his usual style and provides an interesting counterpoint. Lead break is simply awesome, melody is portraying the both sides of a broken relationship with series of weeping chords, there is no winner here. Once again forward comes the absolute mastery of Judas Priest’s musicianship, the guitar has a voice of is own, it becomes a full character in the story. There is a missing verse not spoken but heard in the notes. What exactly it is that this character says, listener can interpret in his/her own way. Personally I’ve always felt the beginning of the lead (up to 1:54) is the person leaving and from 1:55 onwards it becomes the other begging him to stay – listen to mournful sounds at 2:07-2:10. The music now forms a picture in your head and doesn’t let you go.
Bridge is repeated with keyboards slowly taking over the sound picture, Rob sings with enormous mid-range power at 2:36. Some other singers would go way higher at this point, and Rob himself could certainly pull out a scream but clearly it is not required here. The way he uses his voice only strengthens the impact. For the final verse we return to the beginning, but note the increasing power of the keyboards kicking in at 2:48 and Rob pronouncing the words differently. Although the words he sings are the same, the emotion is strikingly different, of a more desperate nature. Whereas on the first verse, the protagonist the singer is referring to is seemingly still holding on to a glimmer of hope, pleading the other person to stay, towards the end the bottom line is stated as more of a post script – dawn is here upon us and now I’m leaving (or he has in fact, left), and there it ends. Fascinating as the words are the same, but the feeling they now convey come from a separate angle. The song ends with a single keyboard note, powerful and dominating first fading then rising back up again before gradually fading out leaving complete silence in its wake. As it is, the finality of character’s departure could not go any deeper. Literally there is nothing more to say.
Lyric speak of longing and almost unbearable desolation, but in the undercurrent they also carry a fragile beauty. The song begins right as the sun is preparing to rise. This narrative here is interesting as in the first verse the character is the one who is actually leaving, and the set-up switches around for the second verse where the other person is begging for the other to stay. Both verses are sung twice thus creating a dialogue between two partners.
At first the person leaving is still sleeping but already in his dreams he seems to know he simply has to go. The reasons for his departure are never mentioned, yet it seems he is reluctant to leave, it is something he must do. As for the other person, the song resonates with sadness, longing and deep despair. It seems the protagonist has waited a lifetime to find someone and now everything is being taken away.
On a general level the terms this track deals with – the birds singing, dawn breaking in, sleeping and someone whispering – once more create an obvious image in listener’s mind. “Before The Dawn” already in 1978 represented a new era in heavy metal ballads. It was a step towards more simpler, effective style of 1980’s, away from previous decade’s more colourful, progressive lyrical expressions.
The impact of “Before The Dawn” might not seem too obvious at first – during late 1970’s, power ballads were not yet the grandiose dominators of the heavy/hard rock scene – that would come few years later. Bands like Journey and Foreigner, who were to become pioneers of that particular sound were just starting off their careers in the late seventies – originally both were significantly more hard rock in their style. In fact were “Before The Dawn” released during the 1980’s soft rock era and perhaps in a more pompous arrangement it could have been a massive hit for the band. But then again, would it have remained such a honest, beautiful song or would its sincerity get lost? Probably. As it is, it remains a very special landmark in Priest’s recording output.
Priest had dabbled with ballads before – most pressingly on “Sin After Sin’s” “Last Rose Of Summer” – but not on this scale. In fact it would probably take until “Angel Of Retribution’s” poignant “Angel” before Priest again tackled anything within a similar frame. Of course one could make a case for “Night Comes Down” and indeed that song is a matter of another discussion. However, whereas former covered the different aspects of light and shade, “Before The Dawn” was purely a song about emotion.
Again the song only added to the album’s overall versatility. Somewhat understandably the song was not featured on the band’s following tour and has in fact never been played live. For collectors it should be noted that this track was issued as a promo single backed with “Rock Forever” in 1978. Priest themselves seem to have acknowledged the song’s importance by including it on the double “Metal Works” compilation 15 years later. And more recently it also appeared on 2006’s “The Essential Judas Priest” CD. As Glenn Tipton commented on the “Metal Works”- liner notes: “It’s something you’d never have expected Priest to do but it’s such a great song and shows another side to the band.”
The song remains extremely popular among fans, weddings and funerals have it playing in the background. It speaks from a universal standpoint, everyone of us have felt the emotions it portrays. Not just from a lyrical perspective but on a much more deeper level. The song sings to us and about us. For an artist to achieve this is very rare indeed, but Priest have done it on countless albums and tracks. That is why their music continues to stand the test of time.
Would the desolation of “Before The Dawn” work in context of a live setting? It probably would sound different, but then again Rob’s currently deeper voice could give it another dimension. If ever a Judas Priest unplugged album should surface, this song is a definite contender. Regardless of its possible live hearing, it should be a regular visitor in every serious music lover’s turntable thus giving this overlooked beauty attention it rightfully deserves. It stands head and shoulders above competition as one of the greatest heavy metal ballads ever recorded.
With acknowledgements: Judas Priest Info Pages
“Before the Dawn” stats
• Written by Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing & Rob Halford
• Recorded atUtopia, Basing Street and CBS Studios, London, England 1978
• Produced By James Guthrie & Judas Priest
• First released on “Killing Machine” album in October 1978
• Also released as promo single backed with “Rock Forever“ in 1978
• Also released on “Metal Works” in 1993 and “The Essential Judas Priest” in 2006
“As long ago as it was “Before The Dawn” still sounds as though it was recorded yesterday to me and I must say that my old trusty 67 Flying V really does make me want to get it out and dust the cobwebs from it.
I remember constructing the solo and to start with it was much longer but it was decided to cut it down so as to be more single friendly. I guess the original is on some old 2 inch tape somewhere but that tape has a habit of degenerating with age so I guess it’s gone forever.
I must say Rob’s lyrics are really cool and I do suspect that he had someone in mind at the time of laying down his vocals, as it does have great emotion and conviction to me.
The song structure although fairly simple, has use of the Bm6th in the verse and the E7th in the chorus. It gives the song a more musical texture, almost like we knew what we were doing! Anyway call it luck or call it skill I am certainly glad “Before The Dawn” is part of the catalogue of Judas Priest. Again many thanks to Ville for his expert correspondence on this romantic and enigmatic song.”
“Before the Dawn” lyrics
Before the dawn,
I hear you whisper
In your sleep “Don’t let the morning take him”
Outside the birds begin to call
As if to summon up my leaving
It’s been a lifetime
since I found someone
Since I found someone
who would stay
I’ve waited too long, and now you’re leaving
Oh please don’t take it all away