Judas Priest might not own the same cultural significance or commercial success as The Beatles or Rolling Stones, but the British heavy metal veterans deserve to be acknowledged as one of rock music’s most iconic bands.
First formed nearly half a century ago, Judas Priest helped define the heavy metal genre, with Rob Halford’s soaring vocals and the group’s twin-guitar attack, inspiring legions of heavy bands. And Priest is no mere nostalgia act, as the group continues to release new music and embark on worldwide tours.
The band’s 18th studio release, Firepower, released on March 9, harkens back to the group’s most classic albums, with riff-heavy burners like “Firepower” and “Necromancer” holding up to the band’s best work.
The album reunites Priest with producer Tom Allom, who helmed all of the group’s albums from 1979 to 1988. Andy Sneap, who worked on releases from Killswitch Engage, Testament, Opeth and others, served as co-producer.
Coupled with the critically acclaimed Redeemer of Souls (2014), Firepower demonstrates how the band continues to put out incredibly strong material nearly five decades into its career.
Yet as Priest spent the early part of 2018 preparing for its latest tour, the band’s universe was rocked by a double-dose of sad news.
Dave Holland, who served as drummer from 1979 to 1989, passed away in January at age 69. Then in February, it was revealed that stalwart guitarist Glenn Tipton is dealing with Parkinson’s disease, forcing him to bow out of the band’s 2018 shows.
Tipton stressed that he is not leaving the band, and noted the possibility of joining Priest onstage occasionally.
Sneap, who served as guitar player in British metal bands Hell and Sabbat, will fill in for Tipton on the tour.
Bands that last for decades are no stranger to dealing with adversity, and Priest is forging ahead with a “show must go on attitude.” I had the honor of sitting down with Halford and drummer Scott Travis, at their record company’s office, as the two rockers discussed their new music and pondered the band’s legacy.
For this album you’ve reconvened with Tom Allom, who was behind many of your classic albums. What was your reason for wanting to work together again?
Rob Halford: There’s an element of security and trust with producers that are vital. You as a band have a vision, and they’re trying to steer the vision into reality. We wanted to make a heavy metal album with strong classic overtones. That was basically in our heads after the whole Redeemer of Souls experience.
We wanted to get tighter and less complex and in terms of production, and in our minds, we could hear what Tom Allom would do. But at the same time, we understood from the contemporary point of view, the way that Andy Sneap works, wouldn’t it be cool if we could get them both in the room together?
Andy’s a huge Tom Allom fan, and of course having [engineer] Mark Exeter with us, who was also on Redeemer and had just come off the Black Sabbath 13 album, it was just a perfect combination. Now you might argue, well, that’s three people, is it going to be too many metal cooks in the kitchen? It was just the opposite. It was a seamless experience in terms of recording.
Scott Travis: I was a huge fan of Tom’s and all the collaborations with Priest, like Screaming for Vengeance, British Steel. For me, it was an honor and part of my musical wish list to say, “I want to work with that guy.”
Were any of these songs leftover from the Redeemer of Souls recording sessions?
RH: It’s all new. The thing is, in terms of writing, when [guitarist] Richie [Faulkner] came in to write for Redeemer that was his first venture into that experience. So, from his particular input, we all discovered a lot about each other through the Redeemer of Souls recording and tour. That transpired in Richie’s mind his intent to do what he did within the writing team for these songs.
I can envision many of the new songs, especially “Firepower” and “Lightning Strike,” becoming a key part of your live set, and fitting in nicely alongside your classic tracks. Which bring me to you’re the setlist you’re planning for the new tour. For the previous tour, you dusted off some old tunes like “The Rage” and “Desert Plains” that the band hadn’t performed in a while. Are you planning on doing something similar this time?
ST: Yeah, we always want to re-introduce older tunes, but as with a lot of bands with the history of Judas Priest, it gets harder and harder. You definitely want to play stuff off the new album, but you can’t play too much, because you only have an hour and 50-minute set to fill in. It’s a good problem to have, but we struggle with it.
RH: It’s increasingly difficult, as this is our 18th studio album. But if we didn’t do “Breaking the Law,” we’d be lynched. If we didn’t do “Living After Midnight,” same thing.
But you look forward to that, because that’s your life. Every band that’s had the great fortune of having a long life, there’s a bunch of tunes that it’s an honor to play. It’s not a chore. It’s a real honor to play “Breaking the Law” again for the bazillionth time, because we know he it makes you feel, as well as how we feel when we play it. Everyone’s got a smile on their face.
In 2009, you played British Steel in its entirety. Would you consider doing that again with a different album?
ST: It was great, and I don’t know if we need to do it again. I’m not saying we wouldn’t, but it was great timing since it was the 30th anniversary and it just worked out.
RH: Everything we do is driven by the fans. So, in think in today’s world, in regards to the best material we’ve got, if we did a classic album in its entirety, I think there would be a portion of our fans who would be a bit pissed off, because they like the material to be mixed up, a bit of everything.
Judas Priest was of the fan vote contestants for the 2018 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class, yet you eventually lost the fan vote to Bon Jovi. What would it mean to you guys to get into the Hall of Fame?
ST: We’re not sweating it one way or the other, because it’s our first nomination. And if we don’t get in, I’m sure it’ll be revisited down the road. There’s no denying, and I’m saying this as a current band member as well as a former fan on the street like everybody else, there’s no denying that Priest will be in it. Not just deserve to be, but will be in it. It could be this year, or it could be years from now. But if you’re going to have something called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it damn sure better have Judas Priest in there.
RH: I think the fact that our fans got us into the top five of the fan vote is a gigantic win. A win-win would be if we did get elected.
You’d view it as a win for the fans, would you also view it as a win for heavy metal?
RH: Oh, yeah. We need to get more metal in the Hall of Fame. I know Metallica’s in, Sabbath’s in, but is that it?
ST: Deep Purple’s finally in.
KISS is in, if you consider them metal, as some people do.
RH: It would also be great, because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an American institution, and we’re a British heavy metal band. So, that would be a beautiful moment, not only for metal but our home country as well, and for fans around the world.
A few years ago, Priest embarked on what was billed as a farewell tour, and K.K. Downing retired. Many people thought that was the end for Priest, but guitarist Richie Faulkner’s addition has seemed to rejuvenate the band.
RH: It’s like when your favorite football team loses a key player, and you think that’s the end of the team. And then you get this new guy coming in and there’s just this new surge. When we said that tour was a farewell tour, at the time we meant it. We changed our minds. I think it’s important to emphasize because we love Judas Priest so much and our fans so much that we would never pull the cash-out stunt. We take everything about Priest in a genuinely sincere way. It’s just best to say now that we will never retire. [Laughs]
With Firepower, how long were you in the studio recording it?
ST: We wrote the songs on and off for a couple of years. With Priest, it’s just different elements of the same package. It may be Glenn or Richie getting together in a room, or in one of their homes, working out guitar riffs, and Rob’s in his world working on lyrics, and maybe I’m working on a drum beat. That happens, and then there’s a collaborative thing in the studio.
RH: It didn’t take very long to record. We’re very efficient when we record. We really get the tracks down.
I see that Priest is repressing nine of its classic albums onto vinyl.
RH: It’s for that very strong market that exists for fans who want that vinyl experience. It’s just that tangible connection to your favorite band, especially if you’ve never experienced vinyl before. A lot of our newer fans, they don’t even own a record player. They’re amazed at these round, black things that play music. [Laughs]
There’s a certain magic to having a vinyl album that you can open and hold, and see the artwork.
RH: There is, yeah. It’s the era we came from. And instead of just pulling stuff out of the cloud all of the time, it’s an extra connection to have the physical product.
Scott, you’re coming up on 30 years in the band, as you joined just before the Painkiller album. band. When you were growing up, it was always your dream to be Priest’s drummer. I’ve heard stories that you planned to set up your drums outside an arena when you were a teenager, hoping Priest would notice you when they went by on their tour bus.
ST: I didn’t actually do that, but I did discuss it with a friend of mine. I had a van, and I had the drums in the back. I knew the arena they were playing — Hampton Colisuem in Hampton, Va. on the Screaming for Vengeance tour. That was the plan. My friend was like, “Yeah, we’re gonna do it! I’m gonna help you.” But I never actually did it.
RH: But he was meant to be, wasn’t he? When he was in Racer X, I knew about his drumming. When we were searching for a drummer, Scott was the first guy for me because I knew what he was able to do. What a great way to explode onto the scene, with the drums on the opening track “Painkiller.”
ST: I’ll never forget, because [Rob] and I went to New York to do press for that album, and it had been mixed and mastered and everything. I hadn’t heard the finished product, and Rob gave me a CD copy of it and said, “I think you’ll be pleased with the intro to ‘Painkiller.’” It was a definite surprise.
After almost 50 years of Priest, is there any project that you haven’t done that you’d still like to tackle?
ST: We haven’t made the Judas Priest movie yet.
RH: The biopic! Who’s going to play Scott in the parking lot?
ST: Probably Mark Wahlberg. [Laughs]
Rob, who would portray you if they made a movie about Priest?
RH: Oh, I have no idea. Speaking of movies, I’m excited to see the new Freddie Mercury biopic. I’m a huge Freddie Mercury fan, so I’m really very excited about that.
It’s the 50th anniversary of Judas Priest in 2019. Do you have any special plans to mark the occasion?
RH: We haven’t really sat down at a table and talked about it. I’m sure when we’re on the road, there will be suggestions and ideas floating around.
ST: Everything we do now, when a band like Priest goes on tour, it’s like an anniversary. That in itself is a celebration. Just because of the history, the age of the band, the fact that the band has a long, storied musical career. I think there’s more of an appreciation for bands like Priest.
There’s not going to be any more of us, that’s for damn sure. There’s just not going to be any more bands, in my opinion, that have a heavy metal career for 30 or 40 years. It just ain’t gonna happen. Bands of our ilk are few and far between.
RH: As of right now, we are the longest surviving, still-working heavy metal band in the world, now that Sabbath has gone on hiatus.
No band can have that kind of longevity without generating new fans as well. How does it feel to be at a show and see several generations of Priest fans coming together?
ST: It’s great. Especially when you do any old song, and you see a 17-year-old fan reacting. We see the audience range from the 50 and 60-year-olds down to the teens. Sometimes people do bring their kids and hold them up like a foam finger at a football game. [Laughs] They’re true heavy metal fans. We’re playing songs that were made before some of them were born.
RH: The bottom line is it’s about the music, isn’t it? That goes back to day one. We really take our time handcrafting the music. I think that’s been able to lead us and take us through the decades and take us into this place that we’re in now. When you go onstage and play a song that you wrote over 30 years ago, and it’s working 30 years later, that a testimony to your work, and something to feel really proud of.
Firepower is available now on Epic Records. For more info, go to judaspriest.com.