Judas Priest is a band that needs little introduction—the legendary group has been making music since 1970, and is indisputably one of the greatest heavy metal acts of all time, helping to form the very blueprints for the genre.
While many bands would be content simply going through the motions after several decades of existence, the members of Judas Priest are as enthusiastic as they’ve ever been about creating new music and performing shows for their passionate fans.
Speaking by phone one day after Priest played San Francisco’s legendary Warfield Theater, vocalist Rob Halford sounded more like an excited teenager on his first big rock tour, rather than a grizzled veteran who’s been fronting his group for nearly 1,000 shows.
“When you’re in a tighter venue, and you’re sweating on the people in the front row, it’s a whole different vibe going on,” remarked Halford of the intimate Warfield gig. “The energy is extraordinary.”
Currently on its final round of tour dates supporting the brilliant, hard-hitting 2014 album Redeemer Of Souls, Judas Priest has been headlining a variety of different-sized venues, from massive European festivals to hockey arenas and smaller theaters in the United States.
“It was great to go from about 80,000 metalheads at the Wacken Festival in Hamburg, Germany, to 3,000 and change at the Warfield,” Halford said. “It’s really cool when you put yourself into different stage dimensions because when you’re at a festival, it’s nowhere near as intimate. You’re thinking and you’re working differently.”
Just a few years ago, Priest fans likely thought they’d never have another chance to see the band in concert—in 2011, Priest embarked on its world run of “Epitaph” shows, at the time billed as a farewell tour.
However, nearly as soon as that tour began, the members of Priest changed their minds, Halford said. He credited the addition of guitarist Richie Faulkner, who replaced original member KK Downing just prior to the “Epitaph” tour, with rejuvenating the band and causing everyone to reconsider.
“Within the short space of a few shows, the whole mindset was ‘this can’t be over,'” recalled Halford. “We looked at what was happening with the sound, the fans. Who wants to say goodbye to this type of extraordinary experience night after night, going around the world? So, we just shifted our thinking, and I’m so glad that we did.”
Instead of packing away its road cases for good, Judas Priest still maintains a heavy touring schedule, and visits the New York area in early November for a pair of shows on Long Island and one in Newark, NJ.
Fans at recent Priest shows have received a special treat, as the group has been performing its classic song “Screaming For Vengeance” for the first time since 1986.
With the band hitting certain venues for the second time on the Redeemer Of Souls tour, it felt the need to mix up the song selection, Halford explained.
“Because we’re coming back to Newark again, and a few other places, we wanted to give the setlist a bit of a kick,” he said.
In addition to “Screaming For Vengeance,” the band has dusted off “The Rage” and “Desert Plains,” both of which have been performed infrequently throughout Priest’s long career.
“Those are three very special songs that fit in really well with the rest of the material,” said Halford.
When the current tour wraps, the group plans on taking a short break for the holiday season, though Halford is itching to return to the studio to pen the follow-up to the well-received Redeemer Of Souls.
“The energy and enthusiasm is so strong right now for what we can do next,” said Halford, who revealed that the band has gathered inspiration from impromptu jam sessions during the tour.
“We collect so many snippets of material from Glenn Tipton and Richie, especially when they’re warming up before a show,” Halford explained. “If I’m in earshot, I’ll say, ‘Glenn, what’s that riff? Quick, record that on your phone and keep that!’”
Halford wistfully recalled heavy metal’s heyday in the ’80s and early ’90s, where bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Motley Crue, and AC/DC were in their prime, ruling MTV and the album charts.
“I don’t know whether we’ll get to that place ever again,” commented Halford. “But that being said, I think the world metal scene is really, really strong.”
One thing about heavy metal that hasn’t changed is its status as music for the underdog—it’s a genre that’s often marginalized by critics, yet attracts what is arguably the most loyal fanbase in popular music.
“The whole metal experience is very unique and it’s still looked down upon by people on the outside that don’t understand the music or the metal community, almost as a kind of nonsensical sound,” said Halford.
“And we love that,” he added with a laugh. “We love the hate!”
That lack of respect actually serves to motivate the band, insisted Halford. “It makes you stronger,” he remarked.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Judas Priest’s ultimate moment of disrespect: the infamous court trial in which the band was accused of hiding subliminal messages in songs and influencing two young fans to commit suicide.
Looking back on those events, Halford said he is still saddened by the fact that the lives of two men ended at an early age.
But he also stressed that the charges against his band were “fucking ridiculous,” and that he doesn’t want to see another artist go through a similar ordeal.
“I hope that nobody else has to be dragged through that type of escapade,” stated Halford. “It was a very, very difficult time for us as individuals. But it’s valuable to look back and reassess not only that tragedy, but also the stupid events around it—all the ridiculous accusations, lies, and innuendo about this band that we had to squash every day in the courtroom.”
Ultimately, common sense prevailed, and the judge exonerated Judas Priest of the charges.
“Music is designed to give you pleasure and to be constructive in your life,” Halford said. “Unlike the claims that those people were making in court, that it was a destructive force.”
Something that clearly served a destructive force earlier in Halford’s career was his struggle with alcohol and drugs. He’s come a long way since those dark days, and will mark 30 years of sobriety on January 6.
The Priest frontman insists that if he hadn’t made the decision to get clean, he wouldn’t be around today.
“I think I would have ended up in the ground, quite honestly,” he said. “I was in such a self-destructive place, that the end was inevitable.”
Halford understands that due to his celebrity, his recovery experience might serve as inspiration to music fans dealing with their own substance abuse issues.
“It’s great if even one person tries to quit after hearing the goodness that comes out of sobriety,” stressed Halford. “Just simply talking about it is a marvelous, miraculous thing.”
Right now, Halford is keenly focused on what comes next for his band, which shows no signs of slowing down as it aims for its fifth decade of existence.
“Because we’ve had this extraordinary success with Redeemer Of Souls, it’s really given us such a massive boost,” Halford stated. “We’re very excited about the future for Priest.”
Judas Priest performs at The Paramount in Huntington, NY on November 5 and 6 and at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ on November 7. Redeemer Of Souls is available now. For more information, go to judaspriest.com.