Al Atkins 'Heavy Thoughts' (2003, Market Square Records)
Al Atkins- vocals; Paul May, Simon Lees- guitar; Pete Emms- bass; Mick Hales- drums; Paul Hodson- keyboards;
The name Al Atkins will be familiar to heavy metal loyalists, he was Judas Priest's original vocalist, leaving the band in 1973 as the band had yet to record an album, a situation Atkins saw as unacceptable. Atkins went on to form Lion later in the 70's before dropping out of the scene altogether until he emerged solo in 1989 with 'Judgement Day', followed by 'Dreams of Avalon' a few years later. 'Heavy Thoughts' was originally recorded in 1995 for Priest's original label Gull, only to be shelved, before Market Square rescued it, at last letting it see the light of day. Along with the eight 1995 tracks are two new recordings 'Cradle To The Grave' and Sentenced'. The cover illustration shows Atkins engaged in 'heavy thought' indeed, perhaps wondering what might have been had he stayed with Priest.
The title track is fascinating listening as it was partly finished back in 1973, prior to Atkins final tour with Priest. In its final form it's impossible to tell that it comes from that period, as it's generally modern heavy metal for the 1995 period. Atkins sounds uncannily like Paul Dianno at odd moments, with a gruff vocal style like Dianno himself. One can only wonder what this would have sounded like in its original state. 'Turn Around' is an acceptable ballad with noticable use of the hammond organ, with some segments that promise heaviness which never materialise, the song generally staying in low gear. A strange cover ensues with The Everly Brothers 'Price Of Love', which in this updated mode, could pass for late 80's LA hard rock, especially with the use of horns. 'When Love Steals The Night' sounds like AOR to die for, instead opening with some thrilling metallic riffs that revert to a melodic chorus, heavy with keyboards and a very Zeppelin like breakdown mid song. Possibly the high point of the album. Well paced is 'A Void To Avoid', that wanders off into some acoustic tangents periodically, creating nice tonal shades between soft and harder moments.
This direction is explored further with 'The Deepest Blue', loud one second, quiet the next, but with excellent work from May on the guitar. Atkins himself is the total opposite of Rob Halford vocally, and his deep throated growls might have better suited Priest. More predictable is 'Little Wild Child', faceless hard rock mainly, but better than Priest's 'Jugulator' anyway. 'Caviar And Meths' of course appeared on Priest's debut 'Rocka Rolla' in 1974 as a brief insrumental, but here Atkins, who wrote the track (and 'Victim Of Changes') recorded it the way it was meant to be, seven minutes long and far more intriguing, with nice surging runs among the atmospheric acoustic breakdowns. Who knows how far Atkins could have taken Priest then? Maybe not in the far fetched direction they pursued later on. The new tracks do not differ much from the 1995 material, both competent and aggressive metal, that once again sound better than anything Priest have recorded lately, re 'Ripper' Owens. Maybe they should have hired Atkins back.
'Heavy Thoughts' was worth the wait. Like Paul Dianno always re-recording Maiden tunes, Atkins probably feels obliged to tack a Priest track on to remind people who he is, but he has at least put a different spin on them, 'Caviar And Meths' hardly resembling the Priest version. With the fury of 'Sentenced' especially, Atkins still has much to offer, and it's a shame he spent so long out of the music scene. By all rights he should be in a loftier position than he is. As a purist I'd be more curious to hear him with Priest han the returning Halford. They could use music this strong right now. Furthermore Atkins seamlessly blends metal, AOR and hard rock into one, making it accessible at the same time. For anyone interested in hearing the man responsible for a metal legend, this is almost a must hear.
four out of five