Perhaps the definitive Judas Priest offering of the '80s, 'Defenders of the Faith,' their ninth studio album, was released on Jan. 4, 1984.

Yes, several other Judas Priest LPs of the decade obviously out-performed it, both in terms of press and raw sales figures. But considering the events, before and after, ‘Defenders of the Faith’ now feels like something of a creative dividing line in the band’s career -- primarily for the ‘80s, yet also relevant to their long slog through the trenches in the ‘70s.

Indeed, to older fans who had been following the band since those earliest days of ‘Rock a Rolla’ (1974) or ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ (1976), the then-new album’s Doug Johnson-designed cover art, featuring a colorful, transformer-like beast/tank/thing that the band decided to baptized as the “Metallian,” must have seemed a little childish, or even hokey.

But to younger, pre-teen fans who were just discovering the band -- not to mention heavy metal in general -- the creature described on the rear album sleeve as "Rising from darkness where Hell hath no mercy and the screams for vengeance echo on forever” effectively captured their attention, and then fired up their imaginations, as intended.

And, no matter where you stood as a fan, the next bit of text stating that “Only those who keep the faith shall escape the wrath of the Metallian... Master of all metal” ultimately connected the title of ‘Defenders of the Faith’ to Judas Priest’s career-long commitment to heavy metal.

After all and lest we forget, it was Priest alone among their original ‘70s brethren who showed enough courage to actually own their association with the “heavy metal” tag, while everyone from Led Zeppelin to AC/DC and even Black Sabbath consistently refuted it, in a futile attempt to pacify critics of the music.

Not so the members of Judas Priest, who, after building from strength to strength throughout that first decade, saw their faith vindicated when 1982’s hit-laden, yet resiliently steel-plated, ‘Screaming for Vengeance’ conquered America. The record's success convinced them to stay the course, musically speaking, when time came to record its follow-up in late-’83.

This is why ‘Defenders of the Faith’ turned out the way it did: a musical and thematic celebration of heavy metal at its most unblemished, from start (signaled by Glenn Tipton and KK Downing’s dueling buzz-saw guitars behind raging opener, ‘Freewheel Burning’) to end (announced by the title cut’s slow-marching, anthemic majesty).

In between, metallic stalwarts like the ominous ‘Love Bites,’ the sexually charged ‘Eat Me Alive’ and the absolutely devastating ‘The Sentinel’ (featuring perhaps the ultimate exchange of Tipton/Downing leads) reliably delivered the goods (if you’ll forgive the pun) behind Rob Halford’s banshee screams, and on top of the bulldozing Ian Hill/Dave Holland rhythm section.

And, though no chart-burning follow-up to ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,’ was forth-coming, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that ‘Defenders’ offered an overall more consistent selection of songs (see the irrepressible ‘Jawbreaker,’ the inspiring ‘Rock Hard, Ride Free,’ and the catchy Bob Halligan, Jr contribution ‘Some Heads are Gonna Roll’) than even its legendary predecessor.

Finally, ‘Defenders of the Faith’ ironically marked the end (or at least a temporary weakening) of Judas Priest’s heretofore staunch and unbending defense of the heavy metal faith, once the drastic sonic changes introduced by its immediate follow-up, ‘Turbo,’ were revealed.

Still incapable of writing flimsy cock rock songs or power ballads to suit the marketplace, Priest instead embraced synth-guitars, transforming that 1986 LP into a disco-metal amalgam that, once again, played into current trends and sold millions of copies, but to this day rankles the memories of most of their true-blooded metal fans.

You know the ones: the ‘Defenders of the Faith,’ whose belief would duly be rewarded, in time, when Priest roared back to full metallic strength with 1990’s ‘Painkiller’ and other future albums.

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