Goddamn it, I love this song. Morphology time.
This is a very typical '70s Heavy Metal riff, as devised by Sabbath, Zeppelin and perfected by Priest. Its characteristic is its fluctuating between the seventh, the root and the third (with a small variation including the fourth). For those of you that don't speak music theory, these terms are easy to explain in a different yet more verbose way:
Think of the root as the foundational stone of the piece of music. It's usually the first note you hear (though on this song you hear a slide chord from the seventh to the root but Priest are beautifully gay like that) and the one you hear the most. It's the note you subconsciously wish for your ears to return to, it's your safety net and your Ithaca, your dream destination. Music that deprives you of this safe return is in some degree cruel. Music that diverts you from this destination but ultimately arrives there is either toying with you or challenging you (more on how to tell which later). Either way, it is making you feel things. Much of established classical music theory revolves around how to set up a tonal way point first, and how to return (or, 'resolve') to it in an interesting, yet keeping with compositional decree, way. Here's the riff broken down to just the tonal shifts, no embellishments.
The third used here is a sad one, that is to say, a minor third, characterizing the scale of the song as a minor scale. Were it to be a single fret higher in pitch, you'd get a very different impression of this riff.
Kind of gross, right? That's not only due to the minor-to-major change of this particular riff but the way any minor riff behaves when literally shifted about like that. I mean to say that a smarter major interpretation would involve moving the three-one and four-three a step higher to four-one and five-four, but let's not too much into that.
The seventh is the last note of the scale before it repeats an octave higher (therefore, an 'octave' note, the eighth, is just the root note one whole repetition of the scale higher). It's a note that makes the listener long for resolution, for a return to the root. Judas Priest aren't modern classical, they return to the root evenly most of the time, but check out how the riff hangs on the fourth instead at the end of each fourth bar. Judas Priest like the tension of unresolved fourths, we'll see it again in the chorus. Also a word about the seventh in this song, it's quite interesting. In the beginning it sounds like a slide from seventh to root but it's really a hammer-on from a 'strange' chord to a full root powerchord. What's the strange chord? It's like a seventh power chord but without the seventh, instead the root. Guitarists can very easily understand this by playing a single finger barre chord at the seventh position like so:
and then hammering in the full powerchord
How is this 'disguised' seventh chord then different from a proper seventh powerchord? Well, it's somewhere in-between the journey, it's even more eager to resolve. It's half-there, the foot's on the shore, so to speak. Judas priest looove this trick. As do early Deep Purple, in fact. Think hard, where have you heard this exact voicing before?
But that's a diversion, isn't it? Guess where Judas Priest really got this from:
The moment you stop hearing this and you hear proper parallel fifth sevenths to roots is the moment NWOBHM breaks out. Iron Maiden do not do this, it's too wimpy for their linear riff-terror. Everything must parallel, forever. It's really a '70s thing. Tool are influenced by Sabbath and Zeppelin, not by Iron Maiden, you see.
All that said, this is a very simple riff. In fact, only AC/DC would conceivably find a way to play this riff with even less 'parts' to it. They'd probably remove the initial hammer from disguised seventh to root as they would remove the in between notes from first to third, cut out the swagger but add groove by involving the up-beat more. Something like this?
There's also an overall presence of the fifth note of the scale but not as part of the chord progression, but inside the chord voicings themselves. The hammer from seven to one in the beginning also has in there a fifth. The fifth stabilizes, but it also colors the sound as very 'metal'. Wherever you hear something that isn't a single note here, you're listening to parallel fifths (that is, fifths that are perfect to whatever note they're the dominant of) The power chord makes this riff metal. Were this to be played in a minor scale relying on the third more than the fifth, it'd sound something like this:
Weirdly different, huh? This is more emotional in a way, perhaps, but it's a grand characteristic of Heavy Metal music to *not* be played like this. In fact the moment you hear that sort of harmony in a HM song, you can date it to post 1985 at least. If you take this a step further, you're listening to ISIS, really.
The weird thing about this riff to me is that it's not very impressive on its own. It only starts to move when the band goes into a groove with it and eventually Rob Halford comes in with his vocal line on top. The emotion that's missing with all the parallel fifths in the chords is serviced beautifully with that violin-esque vocal line. Whereas a modern metal band would try to do both things with the choppy riffs, Judas Priest knew then how to not overplay and let their lead instrument tell the tale.
As to the chorus, I expected it to move to an inverted (that is, an octave down instead of higher in pitch) fifth as is very customary for this sort of early Heavy Metal, but instead it's an inverted fourth, the exact pitch the verse riff hangs on, then. Let's listen to it:
As you see this riff hangs on its own fourth, that it to the relation of the root, the seventh. Not only is the listener here anticipating the resolution of this verse riff's fourth into the somewhat-established but transient tonal, the return to the verse riff provides true resolution from seventh to root. It's beautiful and tidy.
The other interesting thing about this chorus riff is that it omits a lot of steps in an imaginary chord progression, instead adding in a wobbly tremolo tease. It's a playful chorus line that a lot of latter metal guitarists would instead pack with staccato trills and other flash, something like that perhaps
But that just doesn't move like the original. That's the sort of arrangement detail that only comes from a full band rehearsing material and being brave with changes. '70s Heavy Metal originators were innovators by virtue that there wasn't a 'script' to stick to to begin with. This sort of vitality is inherent in '70s Priest. No matter how many tight and complex riffs an '80s US Power metal band would later cram in a song, there's an excitement here that was lost in that the '80s US Power band already was well aware of the script that Priest laid down.
From then there's not much guitar to transcribe. There's a pause with just drums. Then there's open root power chords, and then the second guitar starts playing a series of minor third chords in an ascending melody. And then the song erupts.
From there it's a return to the initial verse riff.
The song structure is the following
A B A B C D A A
Which is generally speaking, a pop song structure. But there are so many little touches in here that are not simply embellishments. They are there to perform a function. The only way to understand that function is to look at the lyric, and where it ties in to the music.
They laughed at their gods
And fought them in vain
So he turned his back on them
And left them in pain
Now here come the saints
With their banners held high
Each one of them martyrs
Quite willing to die
Wake the dead, the saints are in Hell
Wake the dead, they've come for the bell
Cover your fists
Razor your spears
It's been our possession
For 8,000 years
Fetch the scream eagles
Unleash the wild cats
Set loose the king cobras
And blood sucking bats
We are saints
We are saints
We're going down
Into the fire
We're going down
Into the fire
The streets run with blood from the mass mutilation
As carnage took toll for the bell
Abattoir, abattoir, mon Dieu quelle horreur
For a time is was like second hell
Saints in Hell
The battle is over, the saints are alive
How can we all thank you, we felt so despised
Saints in Hell
To understand why this song is so awesome, we have to come to terms with at least a little of what mister Halford is telling us here. As usual with many Judas Priest lyrics, there's a lot of symbolism going on. The song seems to be about one thing, but it may be conveying a divorced sentiment. On the surface level this seems like a cryptic biblical tale, where a squad of saints-to-be (willing to die) descends into hell to recover the bell. I'm not too into Christian theology so I'm not sure what this bell's about, but what I get from the song is that it's a relic of importance for the faithful. So they descend into hell and there is a great battle. Curiously, it is the streets that run with blood from the carnage, our streets (as I do not believe hell is paved by the state) and we are informed it was like 'a second hell'. Hmm. Then, their objective accomplishes, the saints leave, alive (therefore not really saints). And the question hangs, how can we thank them, we felt so despised.
There's a thick layer of irony, I think, to this song. Self-appointed saints that go on a divine quest. Much suffering as a result and they leave as they came. We, the spectators are divorced from their cause, if anything the saints bring us hell.
What I think this song is really about is war. It's about a 'holy empire' going on a crusade against imaginary enemies, resulting in real casualties. It is the war torn felt despised, struck by the thunder of a brainless god.
Judas Priest are a smart band.
The verse singing is standard for '70s Priest. Halford's doing his 'dramatic Opera' soprano, with its beautiful vibrato and repeated phrasing. This voice is the voice of power. In the chorus we get a more rock n' roll extravagant phrasing that is also augmented by a cavernous guitar overdub. '70s Priest were very into theatrical mixing. Halford says 'the saints are descending to hell' and a Tipton hits a reverberating dive-bomb to punctuate the fact. If they were an orchestra, they'd use different instrument timbres to achieve this result, but as they were a Heavy Metal band, all they have are guitars and guitar effects.
In the second verse, where Halford calls for the 'scream eagles', listen to yet more guitar overdubs doing theater. The 'wild cats' are a pick scrape, the cobras a salient hiss and the bats a staccato swoop. How many other bands would go this far to illustrate their lyric? And especially the type of Heavy Metal lyrics by Halford that many were quick to describe as juvenile and throwaway?
In the break where Mr. Halrford informs us that the saints are indeed going down into the fire we get dramatic delay effects. This 'descend' is commented by the ascending melody in the guitars. In fact, the final sound effect before the battle breaks out is what sounds like a missile being launched (though its origin is probably a reversed cymbal crash). And then the tempo picks up dramatically. To me it sounds like superior firepower is in effect, like the battle that is happening is asymmetrical. Self-appointed holy men are reigning destruction down on heathens.
The streets run with blood from the mass mutilation.
Abbatoir, abbatoir mon Dieu quelle horreur.
Oh the irony.
We come back down from the battle high with many self-congratulations. The beautiful thing about the ending of the song, that quivering 'Saints in Hell' that is repeated is this: Mr. Halford puts to use a considerably difficult vocal technique, where he both uses timed tremolo (meaning, the 'period' of the tremolo in his voice is clear eights of the tempo, it's not just whatever tremolo he could muster) and he also slides from a note to another and then down again. Ask any trained singer, this is very difficult to do. He uses this technique to push the ironic message of the song home (for anyone paying attention, at least). All this melodrama is to serve self-appointed saviors. They're patting themselves on the back. We went to hell. We went to hell. We are Saints. They will love us for saving them from themselves.
What I want to keep from this whole discussion is something that I feel is missing from a lot of modern Heavy Metal, and which I would love to see restored. There is a dialog between composition and lyric here. There are meaningful choices being made on every level of this production that are commenting on what the song is about. There aren't just riffs and riffs and a solo (actually this song doesn't even have a solo). This song is very much about a thing, and everything about it is about this thing. It's impossible to study this song and not arrive to a thing, perhaps this thing, but certainly a thing. The thing that this song is about is not the song itself.
A long of great music has a program, as they call it. Heavy Metal used to be About Things. Now it's about Heavy Metal itself. It's about how extreme the music itself it. It's about how technical the players are. It's about self-congratulation. It's as if when you listen to modern extreme metal, you're looking at the self-proclaimed Saints descending to your level to pummel and disembowel you for your own sake. Do you like how our loud double-bass is fucking you? Do you like how my linear myriad of notes is flaying you alive? Do you enjoy being our little masochist? And then the saints leave. We felt so despised. It was a solution, for a time.
I want Heavy Metal to tell me a story that isn't about Heavy Metal itself. I do not love Heavy Metal because it's Heavy Metal, I love it because it's a powerful avenue for expression of higher ideals and lower desires. If Heavy Metal is just talking about itself, it's then merely a different type of hip hop, boasting about its beats per minute and palm muted trills and sweep-picked solos. It should be a challenge to modern metal musicians: if you don't have something of value to say, something you believe in, then find it. Find a thing. Describe the thing to me. Tell me why it's important to you. If you can't talk on the level that Judas Priest are talking - and keep in mind Judas Priest were and are widely mocked for much of their material's apparent vacancy - then, mon Dieu, quelle horreur, you're doing it wrong.