Rocka Rolla! Judas Priest’s Surprising Redeemer of Souls
I didn’t know what to make of the K.K. Downing announcement way back in 2011 declaring that he was hanging up his guitar and retiring from Judas Priest —- and apparently, music altogether. Maybe this makes me sound like a jerk, but I wasn’t really bothered one way or another, because unlike the recent albums of Iron Maiden, which have individually enthralled me in their own wonderful ways, Priest hadn’t really wowed me with any of their recent post-reunion work. Okay, I’ll admit that I really loved hearing some of the Angel of Retribution songs in concert when the band played Houston with Heaven and Hell back in 2008 (in particular the ballad off that album, “Angel”, really was something incredible live). But the follow-up in 2008, Nostradamus, was a head-scratcher of a conceptual album —- the sound of a band overreaching their abilities. Look, there was little chance of anyone ever mistaking Judas Priest for Andrew Lloyd Weber (or heck, Queensryche circa 1988), but save for a couple pretty good songs in “Prophecy”, “Persecution”, and the catchy title track I found that the rest of the album was a wash. I think that there were a couple problems with Priest’s comeback plan in general, the first being that they simply waited too long to make a reunion happen, whereas Maiden’s timing with the dawn of the millennium was nigh-perfect, and secondly the artistic output wasn’t coming fast enough. By the time Downing left the band, Priest had only done two studio albums with Halford —- hardly the amount needed to redevelop a writing partnership. ‘Priest classic’ was back for six years, and apparently only six.
So Halford and Glenn Tipton had to pick up the pieces of this whole situation. Not only were Priest down a guitarist in a distinctively two guitarist band, but they also had lost a major songwriting partner in Downing. They recruited Richie Faulkner to fill in on guitar for the Epitaph world tour (remember all that noise about it being Judas Priest’s last world tour?), and during that trek they began to realize that they had stumbled onto a potential candidate to permanently replace Downing. The real test would be the writing process, of which they purposefully slowed down and refused to declare a release date to the press. Faulkner was not averse to writing ideas on the road, which was new to Halford and Tipton. The results of jamming on the road followed by spending the next two years carefully working together as a newly gelling writing team resulted in a lengthy delay to, well, July 2014. And its finally here, the first Judas Priest album in history to not feature K.K. Downing’s riffs and songwriting, and Priest’s first new album in six long years. And here’s the funny thing, I wasn’t anticipating this album at all, had marginal hopes for it at best, and had already developed a nitpicky pre-release criticism about the artwork looking too “on the nose” —- yet here I am, writing the following words that will tell you that this is the best Judas Priest album since Painkiller. I’ll put it another way, this might very well be a classic Judas Priest album. Unbelievable.
If you’re haven’t listened to this album yet and am wondering what’s behind such an audacious claim, I’m going to point to Ritchie Faulkner himself. The new kid’s (he’s only 34) contributions to the songwriting process course all throughout every song on this thirteen track long reinvention of the classic Priest sound. That it’s thirteen tracks long and of a high caliber throughout is perhaps the most surprising feature of Redeemer of Souls, I got past the first six songs with a goofy grin on my face and thought “well its probably gonna slip a little from here on out”, but no, it just kept going strong! There’s an infectious enthusiasm running through these songs that is impossible to not be affected by —- a very tangible sense of joy and euphoria and revelry in sounding fresh and revitalized. Faulkner is the key behind this, because he plays off Tipton in a far more wild and uninhibited rock n’ roll way than Downing ever did. That isn’t a knock on Downing —- he was of course crucial to creating the Judas Priest sound we all know and love —- but there were patches of staleness over the past four studio albums. Faulkner is well versed enough in the classic Priest guitar attack to be able to fall into lock step alongside Tipton for the band’s trademark dual rhythm assaults, but he’s also a freewheelin’ riffer/soloist that is capable of adding in unexpected frills and runs to further complement Tipton’s ever razor sharp attack. This is some of the most impressive guitar work as a tandem in Priest history.
The album opens with a track that proves as much, as Faulkner and Tipton are all over “Dragonaut”, an anthemic beast of a song that matches classic syncopated Priest riffage with blazing tradeoff solos. The bottom end is beefed up as well —- the band simply sounds heavier than I remember, an attribute accentuated by carefully crafted songwriting on display here, where guitars are allowed to breath, Halford has plenty of space to work with, and the hooks land right in your gut. It’s followed by the pre-release title track single which I somehow managed to avoid listening to in the months preceding the album release, a likeable mid-tempo stomper that clears the palette for one of the best songs on the album, the truly inspired “Halls of Valhalla”. I love everything about this song, from the distant echo-ing intro to the aggressively complex stick work of Scott Travis, to Halford’s most satisfying lyric and vocal take since the Painkiller days. He sounds ageless here, unleashing classic Halford-ian panoramic screams you didn’t know a sixty-something had in him, while delivering deft vocal work on the verses segments, a grand metal orator. It would perhaps be a misappropriation to say that Priest were influenced by modern trad or power metal, but one can’t help hearing hints of Blind Guardian for example on a song like this (and not just because of the “Valhalla” reference). That perfect song is followed by the nearly as epic “Sword of Damocles” which features one of the most surprising misdirections in Priest history: A bluesy bend to the guitar passages makes you think we’re in for a road-warrior type anthem, but the chorus unfolds with an uplifting, surging melodic hook with a Manowar-ian lyric, “Truth will find its reward / If you live and die by the sword!”. Somewhere in Jersey, Joey DeMaio is shaking his fist in a jealous rage.
There are simply too many good to great songs on here to get into a lengthy track by track discussion —- and the thing about a good Priest album is that its meant to be experienced, not dissected. This isn’t intricately layered and produced extreme or progressive metal, its simple, straightforward traditional metal with the expected Priest tendencies. Songs like “March of the Damned”, “Crossfire”, and “Hell & Back” are your steady mid-tempo, fat riff led British blues-metal rockers. But you’ll also get a few really excellent uptempo, speedier cuts of the Painkiller era cloth like “Metalizer”, and the truly inspired “Battle Cry”. And they deliver the goods on the classic Priest metallic take on the power ballad (being that there’s more emphasis on the power than the ballad) on the complex yet accessible “Cold Blooded”, the moody and dark “Secrets of the Dead” (I love the guitar work in the middle solos), and the album closer “Beginning of the End” is one of the more unique Priest tracks ever, an electric guitar led ballad that recalls the opening sections of “Blood Red Skies” —- Its a nicely calm way to end what is a very frenetic, non-stop album. Halford seems to speak of the band’s future on that final song when he sings “Its over now, because I know its the beginning… of the end”. Can it Halford, the fans deserve at least at least one more Faulkner infused Priest album, hell, maybe you make up for the atrocity that was “Lochness” and give us two more! But I’m being selfish and petty —- we should just be
grateful for … nope, I’m okay with being selfish and petty.