My first rock concert experience was Judas Priest on 1984’s Defenders Of The Faith tour. They generated a loud, blinding, over-the-top stage assault, complete with a crazy set inspired by the Metallion on the album’s cover, that left me in a euphoric daze for days. 30 years later, it’s almost hard to believe that this band has been around as long as I’ve been alive and are still kicking ass. Their new album Redeemer Of Souls, their first new studio release in six years, runs the gamut from bone-crushing rockers to contemplative ballads. From the opening salvos of “Dragonaut” to the majestic “Halls Of Valhalla,” the Southern bluesy “Crossfire,” and the brooding “Cold Blooded,” there’s a consistent intensity that announces that the group is still coming at us full roar. They may be older now—not as much relentless screaming or bouncing around onstage these days—but they still live and breathe metal, and fans still clamor to see them.
“I feel that we’ve captured the real essence of Judas Priest in this release, especially after Nostradamus,” declared frontman Rob Halford as he nestled in comfortably between guitarists Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner on the large couch in the Sony Music office where we conducted the interview. “It wasn’t time to reaffirm anything or to rebrand anything, it’s just us being who we’ve been throughout our long life of metal. I think it feels refreshing after the Nostradamus experience to hear the power and the energy of the whole thing. It doesn’t give up, it’s just in-your-face, and it’s an incredible statement and a great kind of testament to everything that we love and believe about Judas Priest in this music.”
An in-person Priest interview is always entertaining as there is the inevitably quiet creaking of leather whenever any band member shifts his body, and this time out Halford has also adorned most of his fingers with skull rings as he projects his Metal God image. Longtime guitarist Tipton and newcomer Faulkner, who joined their ranks after original member K.K. Downing departed prior to their farewell tour, lounge comfortably in leather jackets, jeans, and shades. (Veteran rockers love their sunglasses, even during interviews.)
One can assume that Faulkner’s “new guy” tag is a little less necessary and that the presumed hazing period is over. Halford laughed at this remark and noted, “What’s great is the fact that Richie was able to move into the whole experience from the touring. I think that that obviously paid dividends because we got to know each other. We’re family now. Richie had the opportunity through that almost two-year trek around the world to learn about [our] characteristics and personalities and most importantly musical performance. I used to be on stage watching Richie thinking I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen with the writing and recording of this next record. It wasn’t exactly a buffer because it was full-on energy, but it was a good time for Richie to kind of get into the family and get his place sorted.”
“I’ve got to say that I was taught to write metal songs with these guys,” chimed in Faulkner, who at 34 years old is slightly more than half the age of Halford and Tipton. “When your band’s back in school putting songs together, and you’re listening to stuff like ‘Screaming For Vengeance’ and ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,’ what is it about that song that I can analyze? What is it that gives me that feeling? You’re educated without knowing it. This was a master class in writing songs without knowing it. So when you’re presented with the opportunity to go into the studio and start writing songs with these guys, you can’t make it up. It’s part of you already. Fortunately, I think that’s the reason why it’s worked so well. I was a fan of the band and still am a fan of the band and grew up on that music songwriting style, even [imitating] the moves in front of the mirror with the Flying V. It’s very organic and inherent in who I am as a guitar player.”
Priest have always had a very cinematic approach to their music—their last album, the 103-minute metal opera Nostradamus, certainly was ripe with colorful imagery—and that remains true with the songs on this release. “I think ‘Secrets Of The Dead’ is one of them that paints a picture in your mind before anything is sung,” said Faulkner. “Secrets and question marks and certain parts of things that we don’t know about. There are songs like ‘Halls Of Valhalla’ where you can imagine the Vikings and the ships crashing on the waves. It’s all very Priest and very visual. Priest has always created little movies almost.”
The 13 mostly rip-roaring tracks on Redeemer Of Souls—which closes with the melancholy ballad “Beginning Of The End,” a song about transition (or death, if one prefers to interpret it as such)—are complemented by five songs on the deluxe edition which have a different character. They are no less strong; in fact, some of them, like the muscular “Bring It On” and “Snakebite,” are some of the album’s best tracks, invoking a ’70s Priest vibe.
“That’s cool,” commented Halford on that thought. “Those five bonus tracks do step a little bit away from the overall texture and intensity of all of the other songs. That’s why we put them on a separate CD for the deluxe version. We didn’t know what to do with this extra music. We could’ve kept them for B-sides or for future projects, but we just wanted to let it all go. There are some pretty cool songs. One of our biggest hits, ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,’ was buried in Screaming For Vengeance. Nobody had a clue, then radio picked it up and it became huge. Those five bonus tracks are still very strong in their identity.”
“They’re not put on the bonus disc because they’re weaker songs,” stressed Faulkner. “Maybe in the past certain bands left things off, and they never saw the light of day. The beauty of the industry that we live in at the moment is that you can put everything out. They’re strong songs in their own right. As you said, some people might like some of those more than some of the ones on the actual album, and the beauty is that they’re going to be out there, they’re going to be let go and unleashed onto the fans’ ears. That’s a great thing.”
The topic of bonus tracks lends itself to the issue of unreleased Priest material. The remastered catalog in 2001 contained a collective album’s worth of long-lost studio tracks, but there is still more floating out there, including three songs that the group recorded around 1988 with then-Bananarama and Kylie Minogue producing team Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW). The songs were “You Keep Giving Me The Runaround,” “I Will Return,” and the Stylistics cover “You Are Everything.”
“I don’t think they’ll ever see the light of day,” admitted Tipton.
“We signed a piece of paper that says when we’re all dead, they can release them,” added Halford, perhaps only half-jokingly. “I personally love those songs. They’re fucking great. We’ve never been afraid to try everything. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And the exercise of those songs totally worked, but they were completely wrong for us, if that makes sense. In the manner of the adventure of going to Paris for three days… I’m totally responsible for that because I just said to Glenn one day, ‘What you think about this deal?’ ‘Let’s do it.’ We never shut each other down. Even the most ridiculous things sometimes are ridiculous, but you don’t know until you carry the exercise. That’s what we did. We went over there and had a blast. We pretty much wrote them on the fly, didn’t we, Glenn? They’re there for just personal pleasure.”
Something that gave devoted fans pain and pleasure (to quote a Priest title) was Rob Halford’s appearance on The Simpsons in early January. When Homer was being prosecuted for showing illegally downloaded movies in his backyard, the Feds gave chase, leading The Simpsons to seek refuge with the Swedish Consulate. To try to drive them out, the authorities hired a “death metal” band that turned out to be Judas Priest playing a new-fangled version of “Breaking The Law” that included Rob singing, “Respecting the law/Copyright law!”
Many fans immediately rebuked the show for mislabeling their idols (it was an obvious blunder for anyone who’s a metal fan), but in the following episode’s opening, Bart was seen writing on the chalkboard: “Judas Priest is not death metal.” So the band got on the show twice.
“We didn’t know that that was the way the script was going to go,” confessed Halford. “We didn’t have a clue until it was done. It created quite a ruckus actually from the fans. ‘How dare you…!’ I personally didn’t care because it’s a fucking cartoon. [But] I thought, if this isn’t passion from the metalheads, I don’t know what is. I was on the internet for three or four days watching people go absolutely ballistic. It’s a cartoon, but I thought it was a tremendous that the way the fans reacted so strongly, and all respect to The Simpsons people for picking up on that. As much as they’re protective of their brand, they were being protective towards us. I don’t think anybody from our camp called The Simpsons and said, ‘Fix this.’ I think they did it themselves. Bonnie [Pietila], one of the producers, is a vocal metalhead, and I think she probably said they needed to do something about it. It was massive publicity for a couple of weeks. So suddenly Bart shows up [writing], ‘Judas Priest is not death metal,’ it’s just incredible, isn’t it?
Consider it their Idina Menzel moment. “To be part of an iconic, cultural show like The Simpsons… it’s the longest-running animated TV show in the world, the biggest animated TV show the world,” observed Halford. “A very, very small amount of musicians have been on there. It’s a very big deal.”
The actual recording process only took the singer a couple of hours, but he did get to sit in on a final reading of the episode with writers and cast members present. After the main producer set the scene, Dan Castellaneta started voicing Homer Simpson. “Dan’s sitting over there doing Homer, and it’s just totally freaking me out. Then you hear Bart’s voice,” recalled Halford blissfully. “Then you hear Lisa and all these famous, famous voices, but they’re in the room with you, not coming out of the TV set. It’s absolutely electric.”
The Simpsons appearance is yet another acknowledgment during the last few years, American Idol appearance and Grammy Award win included, of the long-lasting impact that the band has had. And the veteran rockers are enjoying and appreciative of the accolades and attention. To that end, the final song on the bonus disc, “Never Forget,” is meant as a thank you to fans, although it also contains a bittersweet undercurrent that hints that the band is saying goodbye. Halford denies this, but it still makes one think about how the bands that Generation X grew up with are in the latter years of their storied careers. As many bands get older, many members slow down or lose their youthful outlook. The longtime members of Priest do not seem to have that problem and did not feel such pressure when creating Redeemer Of Souls.
“Speaking for me personally, no,” confirmed Halford, who recently underwent back surgery and will undergo hernia surgery. “We’ve been doing it forever, it seems. It’s confidence, but once you start seeing age sixtysomething, I think that’s completely wrong. That doesn’t bear relevance in music anyway, particularly in metal. You can see that when we head off to certain parts of the world. When we go down to South America, it’s a teenage audience to some extent. We feed off that vitality for sure. We don’t even consider the physical aspects of what we do because we’re still doing it as good as we ever did.”
“You can say that you’ve accomplished everything you wanted to accomplish, but you never can,” noted Tipton. “There are always stones left unturned and areas you’d like to visit musically and otherwise. I think while you’ve still got that hunger and desire to create, then it’s good.”
Judas Priest’s new album, Redeemer Of Souls, is available now through Epic/Columbia. They will play at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Oct. 9, Harrah’s Atlantic City on Oct. 10, and the Izod Center in East Rutherford, NJ on Oct. 17. For more information, go to judaspriest.com.