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Cover Story: Judas Priest [Updated]

| April 1, 2018 | 0 Comments

After an impressive five-decades long career, British heavy metal pioneers Judas Priest show no signs of slowing down with the release of their explosive 18th full-length studio album Firepower (released March 9 on Epic Records). On 14 blistering tracks, Priest delivers the indisputable, classic heavy metal sound that hearkens back to the band’s heyday. The first single “Lightning Strike” dropped in January and created quite a buzz in the heavy metal community, reassuring the band’s hardcore fan base that the Priest was back… and better than ever. Led by vocalist Rob “The Metal God” Halford, original bassist Ian Hill, drummer Scott Travis, guitarist Ritchie Faulkner, and guitarist Andy Sneap — who is filling in for original guitarist Glenn Tipton on the current Firepower tour — the band is ready to conquer the world all over again.

With the music world (and the world in general) in a perpetual state of flux, the constant barrage of social media, internet spoilers, and fake news, there’s a multitude of things that can get you down. However, a brand new Priest album is guaranteed to lift one’s spirits, and the anticipation from Priest fans before the release of Firepower was palpable. The expectations for the band are equally as exhilarating. “All of that is going on through our minds while we’re together in the writing stages,” Rob Halford told IE’s Kelley Simms ahead of their North American tour. “We think about our fans so much. We have a #Priest family, that’s what we feel. So many of our friends have been with us since day one, especially in your part of the world around Chicago, Illinois. That part of the nation has been solid for Priest for as long as I can remember. There is just something about the personality of Chicago and the hardcore attachment to heavy metal music that we see and feel each time we go back. I think if we were not getting that buzz or not getting that excitement or that same anticipation or expectation, like our fans get, then there’s something sorely wrong.”

Judas Priest makes area stops at The Riverside Theater in Milwaukee on April 3rd and the Grossinger Motors Arena in Bloomington on April 8th (which is only a short, two-hour trip from Chicago), but plans for a proper Chicago date are already in motion according to Halford. Opening for the band on the first leg of the North American tour will be fellow countrymen Saxon, and the Thin Lizzy-inspired Black Star Riders.

The new album opens with the title track and is easily one of the band’s most explosive songs ever written.
“We’re offering the term “Firepower to be about the fire and the power of heavy metal music,” Halford explains. “[We wanted] to focus on all of the great moments that we’ve all shared and loved with Judas Priest music over the decades, and really fine tune it into this specific area of the classic elements of Judas Priest.”  The lyrical template for most of the tracks on Firepower is the act of striking out against evil, whether it’s a destructive administration, an organization, a leader, etc. It’s that classic Priest good vs. evil scenario that has served the band well throughout its illustrious career. A similar motif continues with “Evil Never Dies,” which decorates with an ear-shattering chorus and a haunting interlude recalling the chilling breakdown during “Night Crawler” off the band’s 1990 Painkiller album. In fact, there’s a little bit of every kind of Priest metal style embedded in the songwriting on Firepower. “We’re just reestablishing all of the great core quality values of Priest metal,” Halford states. “You’re going to the ballad experience of a song like “Sea of Red,” which has all the great components of a classic Priest ballad. Then you’ve got the intensity of the other songs, so collectively these 14 tracks make a statement with that direction.” Plus, the stellar production on Firepower was achieved by two accomplished producers with two different styles — which ultimately created one fantastic result.

The band reunited with producer Tom Allom (the knob-twirler for the band’s releases from 1979-1988, including iconic albums British Steel, Point of Entry, Screaming for Vengeance, Defenders of the Faith), who was accompanied by Grammy-winning producer Andy Sneap (Killswitch Engage and Megadeth). Allom brings that familiar Priest metal vibe, while Sneap (who is also a touring guitarist with the band) is well-versed in modern day recording techniques.

With the combined duo, Priest was able to receive the best of both worlds on Firepower. “From the beginning, with the idea of the production team alone, there was just a sense of belief that something very special was going to happen,” Halford admits. “Tom knows me inside out as a heavy metal singer, and he was able to work with Andy to get some of my best performances. The studio can be a bit of a mind game if you don’t really know where your emotions can take you. If your emotions are in the wrong place when you try to track, you may be completely off course. But if you have a production team like Tom and Andy, they can create the correct emotion to get the best performance out of you.” They also went back to a more organic recording process compared to its last few releases, where everyone played together in the same room in the studio. “It was kind of different for us in that respect, because we hadn’t done that for a long time,” says Halford. “They really pushed that, Tom and Andy did. And it was a great thing to do because there’s an amazing sense of feel in all these songs. You can feel the slight push and pull of each track which we can only get when the band is playing together. There were a lot of different things — some of them subtle, some of them quite strong — but all of them combined, made this record very special for us.”

The contribution of Faulkner as a core Priest songwriter after replacing original guitarist KK Downing in 2011 was immeasurable. “He cut his teeth in Priest on the Epitaph tour,” Halford states. “That kind of got him in the right mind for writing for the first time with Glenn and myself. So having that one experience under his belt, he was raring to go. He was already an accomplished writer and guitar player before he joined Priest, and he’s always been a Priest fan. I think he had to get his place in his headspace to be able to find where he really wanted to put his centered ideas in the musical sense for Firepower, [and it’s] all based on the prior couple of years after working from Epitaph to here forward.”

Plus, the rest of the band — including Tipton, Hill, and Travis — delivered the goods as well. “I can’t really explain, other than we were coached so effectively by Tom and Andy,” Halford admits. “They know we got it in us; it’s how to extract it. It’s how you get the best out of a sports individual’s performance. The coach can see that you’ve got it, but the coach gets it out of you. And that’s exactly what Tom and Andy did for Firepower.”

Tipton’s recent announcement that he’s been living with Parkinson’s Disease for a decade saddened fans, although some may have sensed something was wrong over the past several years. He firmly states he’s not leaving the band, but he won’t be touring this time. Having Sneap take Tipton’s place on stage for the current tour makes all the sense in the world, as he already knows the new songs inside and out. He’s also an accomplished metal guitarist himself and spent time with English cult thrashers, Sabbat, and NWOBHM revivalists, Hell.  Of course, Tipton will be missed on stage, but he’ll be there in spirit. Besides, whenever Tipton’s willing he’s welcome with open arms to join his buddies anytime. “When Glenn feels ready, he can step out on stage any night to join us,” confirms Halford. “And that really will be another great display of [his] bravery with the challenges going on with Parkinson’s right now. We’re still in the stages of trying to deal with the emotions of it all, but we’re feeling strong. That’s the heavy metal spirit, no matter what we go through we go through it together. I’m sure the feeling will be, ‘Where’s Glenn?’ But at the same time, we know Glenn has 1,000 percent support in Andy standing in that spot, as we all do in Priest. The most important thing is what Glenn said when he made the announcement, ‘The show must go on.’”

When Priest formed in 1969, their style wasn’t fully defined or categorized as being traditional or classic heavy metal, and they were a few years ahead of the imminent NWOBHM explosion. Before the chains and leather, the band donned hippy scarves and frilly shirts while possessing a bluesy metal vibe. It wasn’t until 1978’s Killing Machine that Halford almost single-handedly gave birth to the iconic heavy metal leather uniform with his classic “biker” look. The striking image is further represented at every Priest show when Halford roars onto the stage with his famous Harley Davidson before ripping into their trademark encore number, ”Hell Bent For Leather.”  Halford believes the bike is the embodiment of the heavy metal spirit, and it’s one of the many memorable highlights of a Priest show. “I still ride the original Harley Low Rider bike that we’ve used since 1981,” he says. “The basic components of the bike are still there; the engine, everything is there. We touched it up a little bit, and it’s running sweet and smooth. It’s got that great Harley growl. The beast will be rolling out at The Riverside!”

The Firepower tour will keep Priest busy throughout this year and into 2019, which will mark the band’s 50th anniversary. According to Halford, it’ll be one milestone worth celebrating. “2019 will be special because that’ll be the official 50th anniversary of the band being in existence,” Halford explains. “I think any show that you get to see Priest play in 2019 will be an extra special event. That’s what we’re focusing on right now, playing our hearts out and getting the Firepower message to as many people as we can.”

-Kelley Simms

[Updated 4/27:]

The mighty Judas Priest rolled into the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. on Thursday night (April 26) on their Firepower Tour. The British heavy metal pioneers blazed through an explosive set including classic Priest tracks including “Sinner,” “Painkiller,” and “Turbo Lover,” but also cranked out never before played live track “Saints in Hell from its 1978 Stained Class album. Newer tracks from their *Firepower” album such as the title track, “Evil Never Dies” and “Lightning Strike” were well-received by the Tulsa audience. Plus, a surprise appearance from original guitarist Glenn Tipton was met with loud approval as he played on the encore including “Metal Gods,” “Breaking The Law” and ”Living After Midnight.”  Priest’s second leg of their tour brings them to the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park on Aug. 22nd,

Words by Kelley Simms Photos by Bryan Simms, D.O.

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Updated [Updated 4/7]: Ed Spinelli captured “Priest” with Saxon and Black Star Riders  in Milwaukee Saturday. See his Gallery:

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