” Deadly As The Viper, Peering From It's Coil… ”
By 1984 Judas Priest were superstars. With their previous album “Screaming For Vengeance” the band had broken the US market and lengthy tour across the stadiums of America had cemented their position as the leading group of the NWOBHM. Everyone was now watching their next step with bated breath.
Song writing for the new album had begun almost directly after the US Festival appearance in May 1983. Priest entered the studio with familiar producer Tom Allom in following August and worked through fall keeping up tight pace.
LP was finished well before Christmas and to warm up for big events ahead, Priest undertook a short European tour before release. During this trek the band played in front of TV cameras in Dortmund, Iron Maiden were also on the bill. Released in January 1984, “Defenders Of The Faith” remains underrated album (only “ The Sentinel” has featured regularly in the Priest set-list since 1989), yet many including this writer view it as one of the definitive Judas Priest records. “ Defenders” showed a band at the very top of their game, belting out fast and furious metal anthems one after another. This was signing an end of an era for heavy metal as well, by late 1980's experimentation started to take over within the core of the movement, first glam and later thrash metal took hold of the field. Judas Priest would of course lead the charge again, but that's part of another story.
“Defenders'” first single “Freewheel Burning” kicked off the proceedings manically with plenty of rubber planted on the road. Straight after it ended in a blistering chaos of guitars, came the song we are talking about here: “Jawbreaker” – a classic no holds barred heavy metal with glorious “kerrang” sound. For those not familiar with it, it is the sound of razor sharp guitar slamming out power chords, combined with in-your-face production. Or better yet don't take my word on it, take out “Defenders Of The Faith” and listen to it yourself, it will soon become clear.
Following few striking chords to set the mood, the guitar riff that opens “Jawbreaker” takes no prisoners and leaves listener breathless in its wake. After the speed of “Freewheel Burning” it seems more in control and – to quote it's opening line – “deadly.” Rob Halford takes command of the song with such drama and precision, it is hard to keep image of the cold merciless machinery out of your head. Same kind of shivers were already sent through the spine 8 years earlier with “The Ripper” and it is clear and present throughout “Jawbreaker” and rest of “Defenders Of The Faith.” Listen to Rob pronouncing “ Piercing eyes that flash are shimmering” (followed by a hit of cymbals enhancing the statement) during the second verse, it hauntingly brings back the figure from “Electric Eye” couple of years previously.
By 30-second mark, the drums join in and hereon the track never lets you out of its grip. The chorus is nicely executed with two separate syllables, “jaw” - several Rob's on backing vocals - and “breaker” with one Rob again. This greatly adds to the overall drama. So does the barely heard whisper of “breaker” shortly after second chorus.
The riffing before guitar solo is intense and builds up tension even more. K.K. Downing plays the lead break and it is rightfully one of his classic moments, one that was found suitable to play over index of this web site as well. It combines his usual run-throughs with tasteful melodies in the middle (2:06- and again from 2:24 onwards) and end setting up the stage for final chorus. In a shorter Priest songs, this solo is relatively long lasting approximately 45 seconds. The last few “Jawbreaker!” - lines are done with Rob – who so far has kept his voice in lower and colder register – screaming “breaker” four times and stretching the last one for several seconds ending it – and the song with it, on a whisper. Also note the low whispering backing vocals here during final screams, another small detail further increasing the dramatic appeal. Now the attack is no longer being planned, it is taking place right here and right now! The last “breaker!” is truly sinister in its message of total destruction.
Then it is all over. The key term here, besides the “kerrang” already mentioned is definitely dynamics. Not a single note, vocal chord or a drum beat is out of place. And yet it sounds loose enough to give the band room to bite into it a bit differently live. This was of course not the only example of the devastating power of Judas Priest at the time. The almost mournful guitar that opens the next song “ Rock Hard, Ride Free” is yet again something completely different and still tied together by perfectly executed production and musicianship.
Back to “Jawbreaker,” now in retrospect it is probably easier to see the somewhat dubious nature of the words. Back in 1984 however, there was no question. The lyrics spoke of another monster gathering up its strength and preparing to attack, very likely this was the “Metallian” pictured on the cover of “Defenders Of The Faith.” Thus this to some was almost the real title track of the album unless one considered “Metallian” to represent a Priest fan defending the faith.
Feeling very confident of their new album, Priest played it almost completely on their world tour. Only “Eat Me Alive” was left off the set-list. “Jawbreaker” was slotted logically to the second place right after concert opener “Love Bites.” Like most of the “Defenders” -material, this song worked perfectly in a live setting. Halford's piercing screams towards the end and final “Jawbreaker!!” brought great response from the crowd. It was played faster compared to studio version and Rob was able to improvise more on the vocal delivery as some of the dramatics done originally like the backing vocals were not re-created live.
The culmination point of the “Defenders“- tour were arguably two shows performed at Sports Auditorium in Long Beach, California 4-5 th of May. The second of these dates was recorded live for ABC Rock Network and broadcasted live on radio. Audio quality is excellent and several of the tracks were used as bonus live cuts for Priest remasters in 2001. The dynamite live version of “Jawbreaker” was tagged onto the end of “Sin After Sin” and I must admit sounds a bit out of place there, between 1977 and 1984 musically Priest had changed considerably. Regardless, “Jawbreaker” live is a killer and makes one long for a complete remastered release of the Long Beach show. For the “Fuel For Life” – tour 1986 Priest played four songs from “Defenders Of The Faith” but “Jawbreaker” was not among them. It has remained off set-list since 1984.
Cover versions and legacies
While the band who created the song have not played it live in concert for over 20 years, some other notable versions do exist.
Rob Halford resurrected the song for his solo tour in 2000 and kept it in his set list for next few years. This one has a more roughed-up approach to it, more clearly with Rob's deeper vocals. However, the famous screams were still intact and impressive. Halford's take on the song is featured on the “Live Insurrection” double album released in 2001. Note the ending is similar to original studio version as opposed to Priest's live cut from 1984 which had extended finale.
One cover worth mentioning comes from legendary German power metallers Rage and is well worth seeking out as this version is truly neck-snapping in its intensity. It was first released on 1996's “Legends Of Metal – A Tribute To Judas Priest” and Rage's own “Higher Than The Sky” EP (Japan only) during that same year.
Now defunct Swedish band Siebenburgen did a death metal (guitars crank up no heavier than the Priest-original though) interpretation, and it can be found on Nuclear Blast's “A Tribute To The Priest” (2002) release and the group's somewhat hard to find studio album “Plagued Be Thy Angel” (2001).
More obscure is a cover pulled straight from Estonian tribute CD “Worship Judas Priest” (2001) by a band titled Shower. And last but not least, Finland's premium Priest tribute act Priestone have done another great cover of this, as proven through several informal live recordings. Audio clips are also presented on band's website.
With acknowledgements: Judas Priest Info Pages