The idea of a farewell tour is bittersweet, especially when you’re a band like Judas Priest that has been in existence for over 40 years. So when the legendary British metal brigade announced that this current world tour would be their last, legions of fans were stunned and saddened. Anthrax was moved enough to write a song called “Judas Priest” on their latest CD. For many metalheads, the thought of a world without Judas Priest seemed unfathomable.
The biggest surprise about this worldwide send-off is the fact that longtime guitarist K.K. Downing, who had been with the band since 1970, announced his retirement this year, a decision that baffled people due to its timing. Clearly the decision had been made a few months earlier as Priest had already found someone to fill in for him, a decision met with controversy by fans but necessary to keep Priest going. Their new axeman, 31-year-old Richie Faulkner, actually looks a bit like Downing, and an accomplished guitarist with his own style who has been winning people over.
“Europe started off fantastic,” enthused guitarist Glenn Tipton, sitting in a New York hotel room with Faulkner. “We did a warm-up day in Holland, and it just went from strength to strength. The audience reactions have been overwhelming. Richie is fitting in incredibly well. It couldn’t be better. We’re just over the moon with it all.” Tipton added that Faulkner brings a renewed vigor to the group. He stressed that it is not a slight on Downing but just the reality of a band member half their age injecting them with some extra energy.
“He’s turned it up,” concurred frontman Rob Halford, who called The Aquarian from the road after having eaten breakfast, no joke, at a Cracker Barrel. “He’s just added a new dynamic to the band, and that’s not to be disparaging to K.K., who lives with us every night because we’re playing his songs. Most of the songs we’re playing on this tour were written by Glenn, Ken and myself, but Richie’s got his own vibe. He’s on the edge of the stage most of the night, and he is just interacting in such a special way that the Priest fans have totally accepted him. He’s just got this tremendous guitarmanship and showmanship that you can’t take your eyes off of him. We’ve never had that type of depth and dimension before in that respect. He’s brilliant.”
When Halford and Tipton initially talked to Faulkner upon his enlistment into their ranks, they told him they did not want a Downing clone but someone who could do their own thing. There was no point replicating what K.K. did verbatim. “They wanted someone who would do their own thing,” emphasized Faulkner. “You take the motifs and the classic solos and then do your own little spin on them, and I think he did that as well. K.K. would play something on record, then live he would go somewhere else but keeping those motifs. We feed off of each other, different things come out, and you do different things on stage. It’s like an organic process really, and you’re learning different things every night. It just changes and gets better every night from my point of view.”
Faulkner’s baptism by fire occurred when Priest played American Idol earlier this year prior to launch the European leg of their Epitaph tour (which by the way, features one song from every Priest studio album, a smart choice). The decision to play Fox’s music competition show did ruffle the feathers of some Priest fans, but that did not deter them.
“We wanted to take metal more mainstream, and what better opportunity than to introduce metal to a lot of younger kids who watch American Idol?” explained Tipton. “We just felt that it was an opportunity that we couldn’t miss, with so many people watching it. Plus [Idol contestant] James [Durbin] is a metal head. He’s really sincere. We did it for those two reasons. We always do what we want to do, and we don’t follow rules, as you know. We felt it was a great opportunity to fly the flag for metal and get music across to mainstream America, or the mainstream world, really. People can misinterpret it or say what they want about it, but we still don’t regret it and really enjoyed doing it.”
“It’s interesting to see how people who are metalheads or fans of the genre constantly say, ‘This is the greatest music ever, people don’t get it,’” noted Faulkner. “And when a band sometimes breaks through like that and gets into the mainstream, they should be saying, ‘There you go! Look, this is what we’ve been trying to say. This is amazing music.’ But for some people, it’s not theirs anymore, which I sort of understand, but at the same time as Glenn said, Priest has always been about flying the flag for metal and pushing boundaries. I think it’s an amazing thing to do.”
“Plus it was Ritchie’s debut, so we thought we would throw him in there,” added Tipton. “We figured if he could come through this, he could come through anything.”
Faulkner is fairly self-assured. He admitted he had butterflies for a few moments before the band took the stage for their warm-up gig in Holland, but he has had no trouble adapting to life on tour with Priest. “Apart from that [nervous moment], and without sounding pigheaded or arrogant, I don’t think you can afford to let nerves or doubt get in the way of an opportunity like that,” stated Faulkner, “and American Idol is just another one of those. To play to 30 million people, you get an opportunity like that and go ahead and do it.”
Mainstream exposure aside, Priest’s influence obviously has been felt by legions of rockers, including Lemmy, Slash, Ozzy, Alice Cooper, James Hetfield and Jonathan Davis, all of whom offer their personal favorites moments and thoughts about the band on the new The Chosen Few compilation, which features 17 tracks of high octane Priest rockers from between 1977 and 1990. From the ghostly yet driving “Dissident Aggressor” through the snarling “Delivering The Goods” to the ferocious “Painkiller,” the collection offers a good overview of the band’s diverse career.
When asked what they think is the most underrated Priest song ever, Tipton, Faulkner and Halford presented different picks.
“I think ‘Blood Red Skies’,” said Faulkner. (That song is getting its live debut on this tour.) “We know that one, but not many people that I know know about that one. They know about ‘Breaking The Law,’ ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’’ and ‘Living After Midnight,’ but that one is such an epic song.”
“I think one of the most underrated albums is Ram It Down,” offered Tipton of the album that Faulkner’s pick came from. “It sold really well eventually, but it never gets cited as a great album. It’s got some great songs on it.”
“What I think could be completely different from somebody else,” mused Halford. “I think that that the tracks that get lost maybe halfway through a record, like ‘Saints In Hell’ [from Stained Class] for example, are interesting to reconnect with, and even songs like ‘Dying To Meet You’ from Rocka Rolla. When we put the big projection slides up between songs, and I say we’re going to do a song from this record and this record and this record, you suddenly feel that your favorite track from Screaming For Vengeance is probably ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,’ but there’s a ton of other good material on there as well. Again, you just reflect and think about the [other] songs.”
At a recent show in Greece, Halford gave a shout out to peers like Iron Maiden and the Scorpions and recalled the great metal time that was the ‘80s. It was unusual but appropriate and indicative of where the band is at these days. “I think that [for] most bands, when they’ve been doing rock and roll for as long as we have, it’s time to reflect and take stock and ponder what’s left to do,” comments Halford. “You know how hard we work and what these massive tours entail. It’s the first time we’ve ever felt this way. I guess it just comes to everybody. Rather than feel despondent or down, I think we’re feeling the opposite now. I think we’re feeling very energized and excited that the future is looking stronger than ever and that we will continue to do what we love to do, but on a different level with a different perspective.”
In other words, Priest will play out once in awhile, perhaps do smaller tours, but nothing on the scale of this current year-long, global trek. They will also continue to record and have a new album in the works. According to Tipton, the group started doing some writing in January and February, then sought out Downing’s replacement and found Faulkner. Almost an album’s worth of material has been written, although it is unsure what will make the final cut.
“We’re looking forward to sitting down and writing with Richie, which is exciting because I’m optimistic we’ll work together,” said Tipton. “I’ve heard some of Richie’s ideas, and they’re very Priest-like, so I’m sure that’s going to work as well. The problem is time—we need to dig some time up because we’ve got such a heavy schedule now, and obviously when we finish we’ll need a break. It’ll be next year before we get the chance to sit down, go in the studio and do some writing all together. I’m sure we’ll have two albums [worth of material] in us at least. We’ve got ideas for a couple of other projects, so it’s not the end by any means.”
Speaking of other projects, the members of Priest each have outside endeavors they are pursuing. “I’ve always got loads of ideas,” said Halford, who launched his own clothing line in 2009. “I think the longer you live, the longer the fans live with you. I think you’re able to perceive things that you weren’t able to before, and for me, that could be a lot of things.” While the screamer ponders new possibilities, Tipton, who has released two solo albums, would like to take a crack at film scoring if he had the chance. Bassist Ian Hill has been producing. Faulkner has his own solo career. And drummer Scott Travis, also part of Racer X, is a member of Animetal USA—comprised of himself, singer Mike Vescera, guitarist Chris Impellitteri and bassist Rudy Sarzo—who released an album of anime song covers and reportedly performed in front of 10,000 fans in Tokyo recently.
As far as the follow-up to the rock opera Nostradamus, Tipton says that the mixed fan reaction to that epic double album – one that befuddled and even irritated many fans that were expecting something fiercer – will not influence what happens with the next Priest opus.
“Our next album will be right from our instincts and what people want from Priest,” declared Tipton. “We know what they want from Priest, and again it will be an interesting process because we’re writing with Richie as well. Nostradamus was a mammoth task. It was a mountain to climb. We knew it was slightly risky, but we wanted to do a conceptual album, and what better person to do it on than Nostradamus? He inspired us a lot. We’re all really proud of that album, and a lot of fans have subsequently come back and said that they didn’t get it at first, but it’s one of those things you have to step into the world of Nostradamus. You can’t just play it when you’ve got two minutes to spare. You’ve got to sit down and listen to it from start to finish. I think most fans get it now, and even if it’s not their favorite album, they know we always experiment and try to do different things. That was no exception.”
One wonders if it is disappointing for an established band when it does a left-of-center album—for Priest, those include Point Of Entry, Turbo and Nostradamus—and fans balk because they wanted something else. “No, because we always try to push those margins apart,” countered Tipton. “Turbo came under criticism because we used synth guitars, but you watch us play ‘Turbo Lover’ now, and it’s one the most popular songs we do onstage. People eventually see these things in a different light, particularly when we perform them. We haven’t performed Nostradamus yet, but who knows, maybe one day.”
There is still time left.
Judas Priest will perform at the Izod Center in East Rutherford on Nov. 18. For more information, go to judaspriest.com.