For their second album for Gull Records Judas Priest knew they were in a crucial position. After “Rocka Rolla” it was obvious the band needed to fulfil their true potential if they wanted to move ahead and gain proper foothold in the metal market. Some of the material used for the album was already an established feature in band’s live set, such as legendary “Victim Of Changes” and “Dreamer Deceiver.” A bulk of it was apparently written while band was touring the endless circuits of British clubs, hungry to survive and determined to make it.
“Sad Wings Of Destiny” emerged in March 1976 and the difference between it and Priest’s debut album were measured in light years. Although Gull did not promote the band properly nor gave them enough support to produce the album properly, the results were still devastating. While Priest would shape their trademark metallic variety in future releases such as “Killing Machine” and “British Steel,” “Sad Wings Of Destiny” was a heavy metal album in all purposes. Its production could not hide the sharpness of compositions or the neck-snapping delivery. At the time of course few noticed this, when in fact the term “heavy metal” was still sparsely used.
Right off from the classic cover depicting an angel apparently fallen from above in the middle of flames spoke a different language, it reflected the dramatic nature of the music. “Sad Wings Of Destiny” also marked the beginning of Judas Priest as versatile metal band. While opener “Victim Of Changes” combined metallic fury to progressive elements as did “Dreamer Deceiver,” “Epitaph” brought out positive Queen influences. And the album closer “Island Of Domination” was altogether different beast. In between these Priest rolled out fierce, hard hitting material in the shape of “Genocide,” “The Ripper” and the song we are talking about here: the monstrous “Tyrant.”
“Tyrant” is preceded by Glenn Tipton’s mostly piano-led intro piece “Prelude,” which sets the scene in grandiose fashion. Its melancholic keys then quickly evaporate as “Tyrant” kicks in. The song begins with a fast paced guitar riff, catching listener’s attention fully before launching into tight rhythm.
Rob begins singing and the use of echo and double tracked vocals carry the track forward interestingly. For someone more grown with the live version, the use of doubled vocals on the chorus might seem a bit strange but in reality they work perfectly. The line “Tyrant” is delivered with low doom-like voice almost resembling a chant. This is instantly followed by higher range Rob Halford delivering the rest of the chorus lines. Again the clever use of voice in different parts of the track make the listener nod his head approvingly. On the last “fall” – line of the chorus Rob switches keys in the middle of the word, while again a small texture, it adds greatly to overall dramatics of the song.
The guitar and vocal answer/call right here at end of chorus are early examples of Priest’s storytelling power. Instruments are supporting Halford’s “everyman shall fall” with series of chord changes and move the gear up a notch for another round of verses.
The guitar riff that follows second verse and chorus before higher bridge takes over is a clear example of Priest influencing early power metal bands and preceding NWOBHM. It is basically the sound of “kerrang” in its purest and earliest form. The solo section is brief but resounding with wickedness and majestic emotion, check out fierce licks at 2:09 – 2:15. There was nothing like this on “Rocka Rolla” – yet it very much set the stage for future Priest releases. Guitar solo is followed by chorus and another riff spinning off into classic twin guitar harmony. Thus it begins and it is here, we now become witnesses to the birth of greatest guitar duo of all time. All credit to “Rocka Rolla’s” bluesy approach, but on “Sad Wings Of Destiny” Downing and Tipton truly found their common ground. Harmonies which dominate “Tyrant” (and indeed are all over the album) were quite unheard at the time. Sure bands like Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy were doing some great stuff with two guitars but it was also different type of music. Furthermore songs such as “Tyrant” began presenting guitars as separate characters in the story, if you listen to notes that are played they answer to lead vocals moving the song forward. Especially the harmony parts at 3:12 and 3:20 clearly are the oppressed few weeping, at least that’s the way it has almost always sounded to me. And some parts of it are looking at the story from Tyrant’s perspective as well.
Bridge follows again with melancholic and angelic Halford in duet, the effect is astounding. It probably was meant to establish full nation mourning and that it certainly does, but over the years the emotions it generates in a listener have moved way beyond that. The song in its purest form transcends you to another place, evokes a fighting spirit and gives one hope to survive, whatever hardships they are facing. Even if the song basically is about suppression and individuality crushing under it, the seeds it sows are exactly the opposite. Every single Judas Priest album contains similar moments. There are very few bands who can accomplish this and Priest were well into it on their second album. Amazing.
Another subtle colouring appears at 3.50, listen to short guitar lick before final verse and chorus kick in. As many people correctly praise the live ending of this track, one should also pay attention to the original studio version where Rob’s final scream lasts astonishing 11 seconds! Longer than any of the available live recordings. This is one of Judas Priest’s and thus of whole heavy metal’s finest moments, the soaring voice concluding itself and the song in such a devastating finesse, it is impossible to imagine any hope for Tyrant’s victims. They fall into the abyss along with the final chord. No wonder the next song “Genocide” begins almost immediately and is equally bleak in its message.
The lyrical richness in this song is absolutely one of the secrets of its enduring appeal. This, combined with Rob Halford’s dramatic delivery and music’s soaring power, we are dealing with one of the absolute classics in early heavy metal genre. Oppression of an unknown entity, rising against tyranny and strength of individual are themes heavily explored through Judas Priest’s history. In fact later on the whole “British Steel” album is practically a concept work of man’s individual power, self-awareness and fight against society’s rules. The same themes that began in “Tyrant” would later resurface in songs like “Steeler,” “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll,” “Bloodstone,” and “Between The Hammer And The Anvil.”
The song “Tyrant” speaks of an entity who has the people tightly in his grip, however whether it is a single person is never made clear and one could imagine this particular tyrant also being a government or a religious group. The chant-like voice in the chorus might suggest this. One of Priest’s enduring strengths was containing enough flexibility in their lyrics to make it suitable for various interpretations.
Until the second verse of the song it is Tyrant who speaks to his people, or in this case more likely slaves. His contempt towards them is clearly felt in the line “you spineless things who belly down to slither.” He holds their lives in his hands and snaps his fingers to end them. He also notices rather arrogantly that his servants will follow him till the end of the world just to be near him. This provokes another thought regarding songs origin, it could also be organized religions. “freedom choked in dread we live” was certainly part of life in dark middle ages when catholic church basically set all rules for people to follow.
Regardless of his nature, Tyrant’s legions are faithful to him until death, yet he will still kill them just to prove his upper hand. There is no hope for those summoned, and the suppressed “shall perish and scream as they are sought” brings home the message clearly. After this point, the final chorus brings doom upon everyone, Rob sounds almost moribund in his final “conqueror of all!”
Speaking about the lyrical content of “Sad Wings Of Destiny” in 1976, Rob Halford shed some light on “Tyrant’s” background:
“I wouldn’t say that there’s no fantasy at all in our lyrics. Our lyrics are firmly bound to the present, but there’s still a certain freedom in their organization which enables the listeners to include their own fantasy, their own experience, their environment. For example, I wrote a song with the title ‘Tyrant’. In this piece I expressed my aversion towards any form of control, that is very concrete, but still the lyrics are chosen in such a way that the listener is able to find his own frustrations of this problem interpreted within this framework…”
As almost all of “Sad Wings Of Destiny” had been debuted live even before album’s release, “Tyrant” got its deserved spot at the end of Priest’s set almost immediately. It is worth noting that on some of the original album pressings it was incorrectly marked as the opening track after “Prelude.” Many would claim it’s true power came through best as a show closer. And they would be right.
The live renditions especially after 1977 were naturally faster and heavier than original studio version as most Priest songs were at that point. Rob replaced doubled vocals with grittier, more aggressive delivery not saving on any of the high parts either. Verses also ran considerably faster thus slightly decreasing studio cut’s tight pronunciation. Guitars thundered in sharp as steel fashion and drummer Les Binks greatly improved on Alan Moore’s straight forward drum part adding some subtle fills and generally lifting the tempo to another level. As the song closed Priest live set, an extended ending was added with some powerful guitar solos tagged in the end. Even with the extension, the track barely lasted 5 minutes so it was over almost as quick as it began – just like all best encore closers are.
The most famous live version of “Tyrant” is unquestionably the one featured at the tail end of “Unleashed In The East.” This magnificent live release will be dealt more excessively later in these very pages, but for now let’s just say “Tyrant” came alive in such a spectacular way on the live album, this was most likely not perceived even possible at the time of “Sad Wings Of Destiny.” The years of hard road work, a band hungry to make it and several other factors contributed to this. Although after all one shouldn’t really compare the two versions. While “Sad Wings Of Destiny” was all about its songs, “Unleashed In The East” was about the concept and in that context “Tyrant” had never sounded so ferocious nor would it ever again. A classic show closer. On this version listen to the guitar harmony part and note the awesome work of Ian Hill during this section, the bass also sounds incredible due to Tom Allom’s fabulous production.
The song was played last time by Priest during the 1981 “Point Of Entry” tour. After more commercial sounding encores “Breaking The Law” and “Living After Midnight” it closed the show in metallic finesse and style. By the time of “World Vengeance-“ tour the following year it was sadly gone, somewhat inevitably as already at that point Priest had nearly 100 songs to choose their set-list from. The last live versions of “Tyrant” were slightly different in approach compared to those Priest offered in mid to late Seventies. On the three tours he played the song with the band, Dave Holland interpreted it again in slower style and Rob Halford toned down the higher parts using his powerful mid-range more than before. This probably set the tune in context with some of the material recorded for both “British Steel” and “Point Of Entry.” Regardless, when it stepped off the limelight, “Tyrant” was one of the highlights of Judas Priest concert extravaganza.
After almost 20 years, Halford resurrected the song on his solo tour in 2000, at its usual spot closing the show. This particular version was heavy, with Rob belting out the verses in style, the final scream somewhat cut down from original studio and live versions but it was very powerful nonetheless. A rougher edge in singers voice makes this an interesting counterpoint to classic live renditions some 20 years earlier. A professionally recorded cut can be heard on Halford’s 2001 “Live Insurrection” release.
After shows in late 2000 Rob dropped the song from his set and since then it has enjoyed another lengthy rest. Its timeless quality ensures it would never seem out of place in the Judas Priest concert set-list no matter what is played alongside. And as only “The Ripper” and “Victim Of Changes” have been regulars from “Sad Wings Of Destiny,” this track could certainly be a contender.
One might not instantly connect “Tyrant” to a movement that seriously began couple of years later, New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. After all, this was the era of punk which would reach its zenith next year. Yet the signs echo all over “Sad Wings Of Destiny” and especially two of its key tracks.
There is no question that “Tyrant” and “The Ripper” stand as predecessors of early NWOBHM, the dramatics, guitar harmonies and vocal melodies in both would be heavily used by a lot of metal bands during the following decade. Thus it’s even more interesting that for their next two albums, Priest themselves would step away to explore other areas.
The legacy of “Tyrant” also goes way beyond the music. Song’s message as it was, during the next decade became a staple in heavy metal bands agenda. And it is still very strong part of it today, the examples are too numerous to list but for further education, one should at least listen to Gamma Ray’s “Dethrone Tyranny” and Black Sabbath’s “Mob Rules” although few are quite as intense in their delivery as Judas Priest’s 1976 take.
The famous guitar harmony would be later recycled by several other bands in both traditional heavy metal and speed metal genre, groups like Megadeth and Metallica openly borrowed from NWOBHM, but it is obvious their influences go further towards the music Judas Priest was making as early as 1976. 40 years after its release “Sad Wings Of Destiny” remains a benchmark of early heavy metal.
There’s no doubt quite a few Priest tribute acts have given this majestic number a shot at various rehearsal rooms and stages all across the world. Overkill recorded an excellent cover version for the Priest tribute album “Legends Of Metal Volume 2” (1996). It also appeared few years later on their “Coverkill” record. Their take on the song is faithful enough sustaining the original cut’s devastating power adding some of their trademark grittiness into the mix.
Whole bands have taken their names from various JP titles and as usual this also applies here. An Australian band called Tyrant made some waves in the charts over there in the mid-1980’s, later on reforming to much success in their country from 1998 onwards. And there is also a group by the same name operating in Japan. Another case of a song becoming larger than life.
With acknowledgements: Judas Priest Info Pages
• Written by Glenn Tipton, & Rob Halford
• Recorded at Rockfield and Morgan Studios, December 1975 – January 1976
• Produced By Jeffrey Calvert, Max West & Judas Priest
• First released on “Sad Wings Of Destiny” album in March 1976
• Also released on “Unleashed In The East” in 1979
• Also released as Gull 12 Inch single 1983
Behold ’tis I the commander
Whose grip controls you all
Resist me not, surrender
I’ll no compassion call
(Tyrant) Capture of humanity
(Tyrant) Conqueror of all
(Tyrant) Hideous destructor
(Tyrant) Every man shall fall
Your very lives are held within my fingers
I snap them and you cower down in fear
You spineless things who belly down to slither
To the end of the world you follow to be near
Mourn for us oppressed in fear
Chained and shackled we are bound
Freedom choked in dread we live
Since Tyrant was enthroned
I listen not to sympathy
Whilst ruler of this land
Withdraw your feeble aches and moans
Or suffer smite from this my hand
My legions faithful unto death
I’ll summon to my court
And as you perish each of you
Shall scream as you are sought