When a band have been plying their trade for 40 years wrapped in leather, surrounded by loud guitars and project the shapes of head-banging silhouettes amongst fumes from a Harley-Davidson, you feel somewhat humbled to have witnessed their evolution. With minor line-up changes taking place over the decades and an attitude of trying new musical directions whilst always remaining focused on their metal roots, Judas Priest are quite rightly being championed as inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The story isn’t new and is a well-trodden path when discussing the band from Birmingham, England. The lead vocalist before the self-proclaimed Metal God entered the band was known as Al Atkins and it was he who came up with the name Judas Priest. The sister of Rob Halford was dating bassist Ian Hill when the vacancy opened within the band for a new lead singer, Halford was recommended and the rest as they say is history. Their debut album was unleashed in 1974 and went by the title of Rocka Rolla.
Despite later albums completely eclipsing Rocka Rolla, it is notable for including the skills of Producer Rodger Bain, who found his profile ascending rapidly thanks to his work with Black Sabbath on their first three studio albums. Due to the recommendation of their record label during these profound early days, the band added a second guitarist by the name of Glenn Tipton. He stood side-by-side with Halford on lead vocals, K.K. Downing on guitar plus the rhythm section of Hill tackling bass and John Hinch on drums.
Judas Priest began finding their finely tuned sound and chemistry by the time their 1976 studio album Sad Wings of Destiny arrived. With tracks like The Ripper, Deceiver and the epic Victim of Changes, the album hinted at so much more to come. This potential came to fruition on albums like Stained Class and Killing Machine as Judas Priest found their stride creating classic metal nuggets like Delivering the Goods, Hell Bent for Leather, Exciter and Beyond the Realms of Death.
The history lesson doesn’t stop here. A major breakthrough of commercial and critical success stormed into view when they unveiled British Steel in 1980. Packed full of leather and stud infused classics like Living after Midnight, Breaking the Law and United, the album secured respect and a certain loyalty from an ever-increasing fan-base craving more anthems and more metal.
Point of Entry in ’81 followed by the mighty Screaming for Vengeance in ’82 did nothing to slow down the raucous yet refined machine called Judas Priest. Their catalogue of songs constantly growing with strong material like Electric Eye, You’ve Got another Thing Comin’ and Heading out to the Highway strengthened their resolve as the juggernaut they had created rolled ever onwards around the core song-writing trio of Tipton, Downing and Halford.
After releasing Defenders of the Faith in 1984 the mighty ‘Priest unveiled their foray for the adventurous. They introduced for the first time in their recording career the guitar synthesizer on their album Turbo which at this stage was their 10th studio album. The album divided opinion due to its smooth and silky sheen although to this day the title track (Turbo Lover) remains a constant attendee in their live set.
Halford comments with a thoughtful tone, “I love Ram it Down and I don’t know why, it was not exactly focused on that much, but that’s natural though isn’t it? Any band that has the good fortune and the good luck to stay the course, it happens to everybody. Everybody’s got a favorite song or a favorite show; it’s just the way it works.”
Ram it Down stormed the ears back in 1988 injecting the powerful guitar presence to a big sound as Heavy Metal, the lumbering Monsters of Rock and the rapid title track showcased the comfortable and undeniable status of a band with many years experience. The anthem-like quality of Love Zone and their cover of Johnny B. Goode merely added more to the proceedings in conjunction with the rediscovered drama of Blood Red Skies.
Those who can remember back to 1990 may recall a popular rock music magazine slating Painkiller in a review that held nothing back. The review was somewhat off the mark as fans truly embraced its metal credentials. Singles were spawned like the title track, Touch of Evil and Night Crawler which co-existed alongside Metal Meltdown and Between the Hammer & the Anvil. For the fans who paid attention, the three creative minds of Tipton, Downing and Halford were the continual beating metallic heart behind the consistently good material. Judas Priest was an unstoppable tirade of majestic musical razor blades slicing through the mainstream chart fodder with their discipline, style and substance.
After the release of Painkiller, in 1992 Halford was keen to explore more diverse musical territories and ended up exiting the Judas Priest family. Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens was plucked from relative obscurity as he fronted a tribute band called British Steel and helmed the Judas Priest leviathan for two studio albums. Jugulator divided the fan-base in 1997 and was followed up in 2001 by Demolition which seemed to compound negative and doubtful opinion.
Heralding the reunion of Halford with drummer Scott Travis, long-term bassist Hill, guitarists Downing and Tipton, Angel of Retribution crashed into the Billboard charts at number 13. The reception was enthusiastic on a global scale as the album went to number one in Greece, providing the band with their first occasion as a number one artist on a national scale. Songs like Judas Rising, Revolution and the ballad Angel helped the album re-affirm the magic chemistry which had been so evident over the previous years between the three main song-writers.
The conversation with Halford begins with his recollection of Loch Ness due to where this writer resides. Halford shares his fond memories. “You know, I can still remember parking the transit van by the side of Loch Ness all those years ago. Probably getting close to 30 years ago now and we’d just been up the pub and had some whiskey and everything, and we stumbled back to the van and I can remember I couldn’t sleep. So I just sat there by the side of the Loch for hours and hours and hours. As you know Loch Ness is very beautiful but quite sinister…”
With thoughts of the murky waters and the general atmosphere that surround such a scenic wonder, Halford then brings his thoughts of the place to a connection with Angel of Retribution. “All those years later when we did Angel of Retribution, that’s when Lochness surfaced. It’s a great story and a great connection back to Scotland. A lot of great memories doing some early shows there and more recently when we came to Glasgow and Edinburgh, especially the Highlands. It’s a lovely memory.”
Why present these British heavy metal legends on the cover of the mighty Screamer Magazine when they seem to possess so many past glories? The great news for fans and for onlookers alike is the ‘Priest are due to unveil their 17th studio album in the form of Redeemer of Souls. Containing 13 tracks on the regular version of the album and a total of 18 tracks if you purchase the deluxe edition, the tracks which can be found online for the title track, March of the Damned and Dragonaut so far all reveal the band’s intent with straight ahead melodic metal.
Noting the final track of the straight forward version of Redeemer of Souls is called Beginning of the End, it seemed a fair point to make suitable enquiries. After a sincere chuckle, Halford begins to explain. “I don’t know whether, you know, again it’s this time of your life when you, you kind of think in the mortal sense the first time ever. Maybe that’s where the idea came from? It was pretty much Glenn’s take on that track. Although it’s credited to Glenn, Richie and myself the bulk of the idea came from Glenn.”
Halford continues. “It’s a beautiful song, I love it to death. It is very evocative and I hope it’s not depressing. I think it just makes you think doesn’t it? It makes you think. Again, it’s just one song of many that are each kind of talking about different things lyrically. I love where it’s at, I love that it comes at the end of the record you know, and it’s a strange place to put a ballad. It’s a nice way to kind of bring closure to the whole Redeemer of Souls experience.”
Discussing this new album conjures images of the many characters that have been brought to life over the decades through their music. “I think really it’s amongst a bunch of these other fantasy figures we’ve created. You can imagine them there all standing in a row can’t you. You’ve got the Painkiller, you’ve got The Sentinel, you’ve got the Redeemer of Souls, and you’ve got the Metalizer (another track on the new album Redeemer of Souls).
It’s been well documented already how in 2011 one of the founding members of Judas Priest, key figure amongst the three main song-writers and prominent guitarist K.K. Downing decided to retire from the band and the music business. The replacement arrived in the form of Richie Faulkner who was not only a fan of the band, but has already earned his stripes in the metal-playing fraternity. He added his guitar contributions to the 2008 studio album Calm before the Storm for Lauren Harris (Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris’ daughter) and also arranged the music for the 2013 album Charlemagne: The Omens of Death by the eldest heavy metal musician in the world, the foreboding actor Christopher Lee! For those who remain curious, Lee is now a staggering 92 years of age.
Before the release of Redeemer of Souls, fans are still aware that in 2008 the ‘Priest unleashed their first concept album, an ambitious collection of songs about the ominous seer known as Nostradamus. Nostradamus was packed full of overblown and bombastic metal overtures which embraced orchestration and symphonic elements that at this stage of their career, the band had not adopted on such a scale before. Caged amongst the atmospheric grandeur of this double album were such highlights as Death, Prophecy and War from the 1st disc. Switching to the 2nd disc unearthed other treasures like Visions, the title track and Alone as the dramatic undercurrent pulsed with dark intent and mystery.
So could it be that when the band went in to record the new album, it was perhaps a reaction to the epic and elaborately constructed Nostradamus? “Well I would say that because six years have gone passed since Nostradamus and this one, and of course we had the Epitaph tour which I think affected us quite deeply; because it was a one-off. You know, to go out and do pretty much a track from every record like a two and half hour show, big stage and a big night out, you know playing all those songs throughout the history of the band, I think it was in our systems in a very strong way.”
The instantly identifiable vocal metal God doesn’t pause for breath for too long. “When we actually came to write this material, I can remember Glenn and Richie and me deciding – look, let’s just keep it straight forward, let’s just pick up on all of the great things we’ve done over the years as far as the band plays, you know, classic metal and just stay in that focus and that direction. So, it was just really trying to reaffirm what we’re about, more than anything else. I don’t think we have to kind of prove anything per se. Maybe the only thing that we need to prove is to ourselves, that we can still produce a really solid metal record, and I think we’ve been able to do that.”
It was during their Epitaph tour that Judas Priest spent their time writing the new material. “Richie carried that little recording rig with him and of course we said to Richie – you know, this is your show, this is where you shine. Go out on stage and do your gig and have a blast which he did night after night. He can’t put his guitar down. He’s always playing his guitar. You know, I’d come to the show and he’d been in his own room somewhere and putting all these riffs down. He collected some very, very strong ideas and when we got in to full recording mode together he was able to say – try this and try this. Had a long list of riffs you know and licks and chord progressions, so yes I think it’s true to say that some of it came from hard work from Richie’s point of view. Me and Glenn can’t do that, we’ve never been able to do that.”
Faulkner was initiated by the band during the 2010 American Idol singing competition. “We felt confident, we felt strong but you don’t know do you? It’s like a test of fire really. We’d already been in Richie’s company long enough to know he’s a great bloke and you know a tremendously talented musician so all of the components were there. That American Idol thing was a one-off. We jumped at that because it was a way for ‘Priest to be on American TV to 13 million people showing off British metal again, that’s the reason we did that show. To me the real moment when Richie shined was the first show of the Epitaph tour in Holland and in a fairly small theater, and then two days later and he did Sweden Rock Festival you know to a massive crowd of people and he’s absolutely fearless.”
Mike Exeter gets the credit for producing Redeemer of Souls. “Glenn had worked with Mike on some of his solo projects and between the two of them, you know this record has been produced by Glenn and Mike and they’ve done a brilliant job. Really, really good, and Mike came straight off the ‘Sabbath record (13, released to critical acclaim last year). He produced the ‘Sabbath record in California and he’s a drummer and you know loves his metal.”
Tipton had commented on the track March of the Damned by saying “It’s simple and straight to the point. It’s not really a song about zombies or the walking dead; it also has a reference to all the kids that come to our concerts that march along and can’t be stopped and so it’s not Judas Priest and the audience with all the anthems we’ve done and all the singing the audience does, it’s one and the same thing.” When quizzed over a possible lyrical theme throughout the new album, Halford reflects, “Well I’d like to think if you’re a fan of metal, you should feel that way anyway. Metal heads are very passionate and it’s like following your favorite football team. You know, if you’re a real fan you stick with them for life.”
He adds, “I’m a big fan of that TV show called The Walking Dead, and also you know, when you see a bunch of metal heads walking in the street you know they’re metal heads by the way they look, by the way they dress and everything, the attitude and everything. So, it’s a very simple song lyrically, I just love what they’re saying you know, those who try to knock metal and fail, you can’t stop us and we’re marching, going to a metal gig. I think the overall vibe of Redeemer of Souls is that you know, for its metal heads everywhere, not just ‘Priest metal heads, it’s for everybody. If you’re into metal, if you love classic metal, I would like to feel that this record will do something to you.”
With such an illustrious career behind him and being such an integral element in Judas Priest, it felt appropriate to enquire what his outlook and philosophy on life was. “I would say that as a 63-year-old metal head I would probably do things a little bit more differently than when I was a 20-year-old metal head. As far as what makes me click and tick I think nothing’s really changed that much. I’m still just as excited about metal music as I ever was. Writing it and recording it hasn’t changed one bit. I’m glad I haven’t changed into a cynical old fart!”
“I embrace it all. I think where I’m at now is I can’t believe it. I’m just extremely grateful; I think all of us are extremely grateful for this opportunity because without the fans you get nothing. The number one thing I’ve learned is you’ve got no control over life to a certain extent. Life is connected to so many other possibilities. You’ve just got to be prepared to try to stay focussed and try to achieve it.”
Each studio album has a personality and captures where the band was at in that moment. But is there anything left for Judas Priest regarding something they wish to tackle? “That’s a good question. I don’t really know. We’ve done the concept record; we’ve done the British Steel vibe, I don’t know. There are always new metal songs to make. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head in terms of anything unusual we might do. We’ve had the opportunity in our career to do some covers, whether it’s Green Manalishi or Better by You, Better than Me. We’ve also done some songs that were written by other people. That’s a lot of fun to do, taking other people’s material and put your own stamp on it. I think we thrive on the creative side of it, you know if we can make it come out at our end that’s always a thrill.”
The word ‘mortality’ popped up during the conversation and was obviously on Halford’s mind. How much juice is still in the tank for these metal legends? With a tour given the title of Epitaph, constant acknowledgement of age and possible health concerns surfacing, could Judas Priest be close to calling it a day and their story reaching the final paragraph? “The passion is still there and the drive is still there and so you know, I suppose Glenn said it best, it is the Beginning of the End. We’re not being lowered in to the ground just yet.”