Before we get too far into this – and by this, I mean the long-awaited return, after a six-year absence, of the only band to avoid topicality of any kind for four decades yet somehow remain the soundtrack my life – it bears repeating that in one month’s time, Rob Halford will be 63 years old. A hair shy of Medicare – that is, if he weren’t already getting free health care by virtue of not being an American citizen – Robert John Arthur Halford remains the dean of the heavy metal underworld for any number of reasons, from his piercing wail and Olympus-like dome of bald-headedness, to the on-stage motorcycle and “who cares” shrug he brings to the worst kept secret in the history of homosexuality. Still, it is his mere presence – his defiant existence at an age when most of us are turning the volume of anything and everything approaching music decidedly down – that confounds and delights in a manner seemingly impossible for anyone who proudly displays studded leather like a second skin.
I mean, sixty-fucking-three. Think about that for a moment. If I’m still alive at that age (and I expect to be safely scattered to the four winds by then), my days will consist of complaining, bitching, sleeping, and incontinence, with a dab of depression as a night cap. In other words, my current state of affairs, only with even fewer reasons to maintain an erection. And yet Mr. Halford thrives. A rock god so cocksure, so wholly confident in his ability to entertain, that he simply could not give a fuck whether or not there’s even an audience to lap up the effort. Only there is an audience. Sure, most of the burnouts and never-weres who continue to hold a candle for the likes of Judas Priest inhabit Europe or Japan, but pulses count in the record game, even American ones, and here’s to anyone whose lack of musical flexibility keeps the encroaching trends at bay. It is 2014 in word and deed, but it may as well be 1982. Shit, 1979 if we really wanted to channel the good times. I mean, if music can’t wipe away time and space, what the hell good is it? Other than bringing us full circle in our loneliness.
And so we’ve reached Redeemer of Souls. A balls-first, tits-up, EF-5 tornado of a title that works precisely because it doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. It’s like Hell on Wheels or Fighting for Glory; both have connotations, but they’re so insipidly generic they could stand in for at least half the dictionary. Still, it’s a muscular contribution to the Priest catalog. Perhaps not a Screaming for Vengeance or British Steel (the titles, mind you – we’ll get to the actual music in a minute), but rough and tough and full-fisted nonetheless. It’s why Turbo landed with such a thud back in 1986. Yeah, the keyboards and bland guitar play sucked something awful, but no one felt like stabbing one’s mother after slapping that thing on the counter. (Yes, friends, we once had counters and we had to leave the house to buy our music. It’s one of the many reasons I feel sorry for anyone born after 1990.) And, with an album cover to match – a dude with wings and a glare so naturally, he’s on fire – Halford and his crew (minus traitor K.K. Downing) are once again leaving no candy ass un-kicked. It’s where we had to go after the failed ambition of a concept album. Behold, a baker’s dozen of tunes:
Key Lyric: “Fire in the sky / Paradise is here / You know you’re going to die / Dragonaut is here”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “Welcome to my world of steel”
Signature moment: Would you be shocked that the album opens with a thunderclap?
The Final Word: I’ll be damned if I know what a Dragonaut is, but if I’m to believe Mr. Halford, it’s worshipped and feared in equal measure around the world. Like so many Priest songs – just about all of them, if we’re being honest – the world is a cesspool of sin and destruction, and something or someone must come out of the ashes to rescue (then murder) humanity. To be a fan of Priest is to always imagine the world aflame, and while I’m not sure we deserve such a fate, the band never apologizes for the grim vision. It took me a lifetime to figure out, but heavy metal, far from a rallying cry for individuals everywhere, is nothing more than the full-tilt embrace of self-inflicted pain. Masochism, straight no chaser. We’re in it, we can’t escape, and salvation, while promised, is little more than a teasing riff toying with our emotions.
Song: “Redeemer of Souls”
Key Lyric: “Count down coming your way / He’s the last to obey / Watch him seizing the day / Redeemer – redeemer of souls”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “The stranger draws near / Feel the heat and he’s shaking with fear”
Signature Moment: It takes me back to “Judas is Rising,” which, surprisingly, is a good thing.
The Final Word: Song #2, and someone else is waltzing into town causing trouble. Scores must be settled, vengeance secured, and the guilty – everyone not nailed down – are going to pay. Again with the pessimism, dear Judas, only it’s made that much more appealing by the raw power of new axe-man Richie Faulkner. I like this kid, and while he’s no K.K., I have to confess that I really couldn’t tell the difference. I mean, it’s not like Eddie Van Halen got replaced by a guy from America’s Got Talent or something. Some balked when Dave Holland got replaced by Scott Travis on drums back in the day, but he’s proven to be as skilled a stick man as there is in the entire metal world. Besides, Mr. Holland was and is a child molester, and not even rock and roll is going to put up with that shit. All told, it’s a hell of a tune, and toes will tap, right along with your nut hair standing on end. Unlike the shave-first metrosexuals that now pass for manhood, metal is all about the locks. Lots of it, and all over. Stinky, sweaty, and flowing with the wind.
Song: “Halls of Valhalla”
Key Lyric: “We crash o’er the waves / Bite deep on the oars / Scouring the spray / On the storms maul”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “Valhalllllllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!”
Signature Moment: The opening Halford roar, like a primal scream from some London bath house.
The Final Word: Okay, as if our present day weren’t full enough of fire, steel, and wind, now we have to go back to the dawn of time – a land of myth, legend, and mystery – to be driven forth by unseen forces of gloom and doom. It’s JP’s history lesson, with the only point of order being our unrelenting march towards the grave. We’re always somewhere else, having to be called home, only that home can’t be reached because someone set it on fire. That said, this third cut is a keeper, and it damn near exceeds the opening salvos for power and fury. Say what you will about Priest’s refusal to see the world in a non-medieval manner, they know how to keep things moving. It’s heavy metal with an emphasis on metal, and I’m still listening. Stay tuned, too, for the beer hall rallying cry. Mugs of mead have never had it so good.
Song: “Sword of Damocles”
Key Lyric: “Stand tall rise up stay strong fighting your enemies / Truth will find its reward / If you live and die by the sword”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “Wield the spear of light / Guard it with your might”
Signature Moment: The Irish jig of an intro reeks of swagger and unyielding confidence.
The Final Word: The classical morality play of old is given a heavy metal update, as should everything up to and including 9/11. Imagine, for example, the crucifixion set to power chords. Some mocked JP for doing exactly that with the life of Nostradamus, but I was one of the few unabashed defenders, as I hadn’t heard anything so preposterously ambitious since Savatage left the Hall of the Mountain King to become that Christmas orchestra thing. Ultimately, it’s right up Priest’s alley, given the tale’s lesson of power and its expected temptations and responsibilities, but for Halford and his musical warriors, it’s impossible to hold the keys to the kingdom – any kingdom – and not leave corpses, bloodshed, and endless weeping in your wake. And, because everyone is clearly having a shit load of fun with this one, they can be forgiven for winking in the direction of glorification. If men stopped having power grabs, who would don the breastplates and cod pieces?
Song: “March of the Damned”
Key Lyric: “We know what’s at stake / Won’t take your mistakes / Can’t break us / We’ll never fall”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “Can’t hurt us / We’ll never die”
Signature Moment: It tips more than its cap to Hell Bent for Leather’s “Take On the World.”
The Final Word: Every Priest record needs an anthem. Hell, America needs one. A coherent one, at the very least. And why not a Rob Halford-led chorus that says we’re not going to take any shit? Who won’t? We won’t. Not taking shit is the American Way. Even if we’re always angry at the wrong things and half the time we have to make shit up to stave off boredom. So who you calling damned? The lyric book confused me a bit, as the song was astride the image of a zombie horde, leaving hell, presumably, for a bit of brains, but I have to think that’s coincidental, because if Judas Priest is about anything, it’s telling their fans – all now approaching retirement – that they should fight the power, even if they are the power. A metaphor for the gray lobby? A blue hair revolt? Revenge at bingo night? Who knows. Still, everyone likes to be flattered, and this is perhaps the best song in years to give us hope that we aren’t quite ready to die. Even if we cry for it every night like a wounded bird.
Song: “Down in Flames”
Key Lyric: “Leaving my mark on the world when I’ve gone / Spreading the word by the deeds that I’ve done”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “Going down in flames / Going down in a blaze of glory (Repeat 5x)”
Signature Moment: The opening riff! My god, is it 1984 again?
The Final Word: At this moment, my favorite song on the album, and one of the band’s best in at least two decades. With its driving beat and unapologetic defense of the unchecked pursuit of glory, I was hooked from the first blast of guitar. The song’s charm lies in the fact that it could be the marching orders for either end of the spectrum – both the guy who wants to write poetry, experience great passion, and die with a smile, as well as the fanatic who hates women and can only express himself with an assault rifle at your local Luby’s. Why assume being true to one’s vision must end with a priest singing your praises graveside? Dreams are dreams, and a few might cost some lives. Plus, it’s what heavy metal does best: forcing you to undo your seat belt, roll down the window, and drive with abandon. Stop signs are optional.
Song: “Hell & Back”
Key Lyric: “Still in the land of the living / Rocking the home of the brave / Staying alive and still kicking / Ain’t got no need to be saved”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “Out of the fire and into the black / We’ve been through it all”
Signature Moment: Ian Hill kicks out a bass lick, all “Wrathchild”-like, that might be the best thing he’s ever done. Up to now, I forgot they even had a bassist.
The Final Word: The soft, sensitive side of Rob Halford worried me at first, but as the sun sets and women lie, the song kicks into high gear and, as expected, so does the fist-pumping defense of getting what you can while the back pill does its work. Priest rarely reflects – or hints at self-awareness – but here, they might be speaking of their own longevity. Still in the game at 63? With Ronnie James Dio long dead, who else can carry the torch? And let’s not forget, this is a band that’s done it their way since that very first slab of wax spun its way into our hearts. They’re the push mower of metal, the rabbit ears in the face of downloads and satellite dishes. And they have been through it all. Fuck, man, they survived that Chuck Berry atrocity. And yes, even Point of Entry. That said, I still don’t have an answer for Rob’s 1990 in-concert insistence that “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin” could be dedicated to Saddam Hussein and still make sense. If you consider the lyrics, it actually sounds like the Butcher of Baghdad is the one doing the taunting.
Song: “Cold Blooded”
Key Lyric: “I feel no pain or sympathy / It’s just cold blood / That runs through me”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “You took my life and all I live for / I’m left for dead”
Signature Moment: You’d almost think the opening salvo was Van Halen II.
The Final Word: Once again, someone has done somebody wrong. A man has been betrayed. His face, now gone. His mind, all but raped. The man has even lost his sense of smell. He’s voiceless, powerless, faithless, and alone. And yet, he’s in hell. We don’t know who put him there, but we can assume it’s the same guy who lopped off the dude’s face. I’d say there’s a metaphor at work, but knowing Priest, it’s literally the story of a faceless martyr who gets sent to the devil for being his own man. After all, it stands to reason that a man can’t catch a break in a world that knows little but flame and misfortune. So can you blame him for not giving a shit? One question, though: if you have no face, should anyone else really be concerned that you’re pissed? How would we know? I’m also fairly certain you won’t be hunting me down.
Key Lyric: “Let the damned be saved / All that evil sin buried underground / Feeling safe and sound in his deadly skin”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “He is the metalizer / With a clash of steel as the war begins”
Signature Moment: An opening screech, with King Diamond tones where you least expect them.
The Final Word: While not a clunker in the conventional sense, it’s the album’s weakest effort, if only because it tries too damn hard to be, well, hard. It goes all out, but only in one gear. Without the ebb and flow of slow burn, it blew its wad without the standard cuddling first. Not that I’d know anything about that. Or maybe I’ve just had it with songs about unfeeling creatures that destroy towns and villages just because. Okay, so he’s the Metalizer. Why is he coming after me? It was just more mindless killing without context or explanation. It’s a Judas Priest world, and we’re just living in it. As nauseating as hair metal was, at least people had sex now and again. Threw a party or something.
Key Lyric: “Opium for the masses / World’s gone deaf and dumb / Victims of insanity / Ruled by the gun”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “Find your own solution / Out of the maze”
Signature Moment: Good lord, Priest has embraced….bluesy?
The Final Word: Funk and strut aside – and I loved them both, believe me – this might be the only song in the history of the band that looks upon a world that IS (not one populated by steel-plated sinners, monsters, and eagle/devil hybrids with murder in their veins) and passes judgment. Hypocrites dashed! Religion exposed! “Signs of the times!” It’s no operation: mindcrime, but at this late date, it’s almost as revolutionary. It also happens to be one hell of a song, and perhaps one of the few recent cuts that will live on in the pantheon. We’d like names and faces, of course, but Priest won’t risk alienating the soldiers and Southerners who use this shit to get psyched up for wife-beating.
Song: “Secrets of the Dead”
Key Lyric: “The shifting sands conceal the truth / Revealing only lies / A crescent moon casts ghostly shapes / As somewhere some thing flies”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “We let ourselves be bled / Secrets of the dead”
Signature Moment: Sorry, still reeling from Priest’s flirtation with Rage Against the Machine.
The Final Word: One of the more philosophical tunes in the Priest catalog, it’s suggested that our crimes as a species will call out to the dead for judgment. Having been sentenced as beyond redemption, our fate is sealed: when the aliens come again to repopulate, they’ll head elsewhere. It’s a pulse-pounder, but one of the more depressing releases in the history of the band. We’re so pitiful, not even a hellish beast is going to burst from the pits of darkness to save our souls. We came, we fucked up, and now all that’s left are ghosts and bones. What would the Painkiller say? Perhaps that “As somewhere some thing flies” is the single worst lyric not on Smell the Glove.
Song: “Battle Cry”
Key Lyric: “Hail the hero coming home / Honour bound from whence he roamed / Fortitude and skill / Call of duty all alone”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “Like a master of the seven seas / Your reputation’s grown / This eternal flame’s been sown”
Signature Moment: Listen closely about thirty seconds in. A cat being strangled on some lonesome road?
The Final Word: Some might confuse this for a Madison Rising anthem, but there’s a key difference, other than the fact that Madison Rising is helmed by a man who openly called me a “douchebag” on Facebook: JP’s war is nowhere close to Planet Earth. It’s certainly not between human beings with flesh and blood and PTSD. Dave Bray’s soldiers are actual folks from Arkansas and South Carolina, men who couldn’t get jobs or squeeze into college with straight D’s. Rob Halford’s army, on the other hand, wears steel and bearskin, and fights for eternal truths, not territory and oil futures. So back off, dude. You can’t use this for our return to Iraq.
Song: “Beginning of the End”
Key Lyric: “So lay me down / Lay me to rest / It’s over now ‘cause I know / It’s the beginning of the end”
Obligatory Priest-ism: “At last it’s here / The darkest sky begins to clear / The final hour draws near”
Signature Moment: Going out…with a whimper?
The Final Word: Is this the Priest’s swan song? I’ve thought so a dozen times since 1990, but here we are again, and Rob Halford looks healthier now than I did a quarter century ago. But the album’s final cut acts as an epitaph, as if he’s run out of ideas and can’t be pushed for more. One more time around, Rob. Glenn Tipton needs to eat, for chrissakes. You can go it alone, you’ve proven that. But what the hell is he going to do? While I prefer a metal release that ends with a smashed drum kit, gasoline-soaked guitars, and a hoarse lead vocalist who spits glass as he pisses on the stage, I’ll give the Priest a pass. They’re back, and they’ve done it. The chops remain, the tires retain their tread, and we’re ready for the packed arenas. Cue geezers with lighters aloft. See you in Denver!*
*Judas Priest is skipping Denver on their upcoming tour.