As the release date for Judas Priest’s latest aural assault approached, who else but the most optimistic of leather rebels could have imagined anything other than dancing midgets, Stonehenge, and the sort of lyrical indulgences where even the likes of Manowar feared to tread? After all, this was a concept album; the sort of project that, at best, gulps mightily from rivers of pretension, and rarely ever allows the listener to avoid hysterics. Perhaps no one remembers (or should remember) Savatage’s Streets: A Rock Opera, though that has more to do with Savatage’s relative obscurity on the 80’s metal map than the overall mediocrity of the album. Or maybe the fact that it told the pointless story of some character named DT Jesus. That said, the sheer idiocy of the idea was so noted, and few have ever dared try again, if only to avoid the moping hordes who like their metal big, dumb, loud, and unapologetically mindless. The concept piece, which assumes that burnouts and buffoons can follow a quasi-linear story for up to an hour without tumbling back into bed for the day’s third bout of rest, is in direct contrast to the usual metal collection of radio-friendly singles, unending drum solos, and the usual filler, which often amounts to little more than creaky doors, orchestral warm-ups, and howling wind effects. Concept albums usually spend a good 1/3 of their time pursuing such excess themselves, but always in service of a guiding theme; a connective thread that either strives to make a point, highlight a cause, or rescue a work of literature from the ashbin of history. Or simply to have an excuse to wear animal skins in concert.
Judas Priest – full-tilt, full-fisted, and defiantly ageless – believes that metal fans are in fact ready for a return to the dreaded genre of old, and for this effort, have tackled no less a figure than Nostradamus by which to set the new standard. Curiously, this is not a two-hour slog through silly predictions and eye-opening prophecies set to the power chords of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton (not a whisper from that overbearing Orson Welles documentary to be found, though I did expect at least one reference to the turban-wearing creep who was supposed to blow up the earth in 1999), but rather a simple biography of a man these rockers clearly admire. And though such fawning is based less on the visionary’s alleged insight into future events than his generic role as an outsider, it is remarkable indeed that the Priest gang found the one man from the pages of the past whose life so easily fits into the standard Priest mold of standing atop the wreckage of a cruel world. If they sang about power, defiance, attitude, fire, and strength in the past, they continue to do so here, and given the lack of any real detail that is specific to the life of Nostradamus, this could just as easily be Codpiece of Iron, comeback record number two following Rob Halford’s welcome return. We hear the soothsayer’s name to be sure, but when has a Judas Priest release not been about strapping on the weapons of war and standing up for bare-knuckled rebellion? As such, Nostradamus was (and is) a symbol of misunderstood genius, much like every anemic loser who continues to look to the Priest for answers. Though once again, such answers are forthcoming. If they push, push back. And leave an atomic wasteland in your wake.
So yes, despite the failure to really be about anything other than the usual Priest themes and obsessions, Nostradamus is now, and will remain, my patient, gratifying, passionate lover. To be honest, it may never leave my CD player. It’s a 2-disc set of fist-pumping delight; the sort of record no one makes anymore because they’re more concerned with instant celebrity than burying themselves deep inside rock’s throbbing colon. Sure, Priest flirts with odd sounds, classical instruments, and – fuck me! – lyrical asides in Italian, but they never forget that above all, metal pounds and pulsates with the rhythm of utter defiance. It’s loud and proud for its own sake, and even the softer moments are mere lead-ins to arena rock staples. Remember when listening to music was fun? Or better yet, when it actively encouraged shirt-tearing, teeth-gnashing, and perspiration usually reserved for our obese brethren? And so it is again. Judas Priest remains at the top of the heap for the very things soaking this record from beginning to end, for at no point do they bow to heavy-handed topicality or the trends of the moment. One-hit wonders try to capture the zeitgeist; Priest lives, breathes, and shreds in a vacuum of its own design. They built the fucking thing, and endless imitations will never degrade the original.
You want highlights? For starters, there are the commanding yelps of the title track, as well as the intoxicating “Visions,” but I’ll take the double-album’s final war dance, the blistering “Future of Mankind,” above all others. It’s undeniably among Priest’s finest hours, a nearly 9-minute masterpiece that opens with Scott Travis tattooing the skins, continues with cock-stiffening power chords, and swims along through Halford’s gruff, yet gentle bellows. He’s never been better, grabbing us by the lapels with his manly desire, only to tenderly tickle us with the distant, sensitive cries of the ivories. And those high notes still send King Diamond blubbering back to his makeup table. Oh, and then the chorus hits with the rush of tender madness, managing to warrant both a head bang and a welling of tears. It’s no pussified power ballad, but rather the rightful end of a true metal experience. As Halford sings, “These visions of the world…Created in my mind…I made them all begin…The future of mankind…Reveals what must be done…To manifest through time…,” we understand that it’s the lasting import of Nostradamus (we are still talking about him, are we not?), but just as deeply, it’s the hope of the artist at every stage of the creative process. Of course, Judas Priest hasn’t changed the world (just mine, fuckers), but there isn’t a man alive who picks up an instrument who doesn’t want his creations to outlast his mortal remains. “I see you…I feel you…I hear you…As my life dissolves,” is the mantra of such men, and no doubt explains the lonely place that applause undoubtedly fills. “My legacy survives”…..at least that’s the promise.
And “Exiled,” also on disc two, is another instant classic, using monk-like moans and soothing strings to set the tone, yielding only to the promise of ass-splitting licks from metal’s unparalleled axe duo. Halford keeps it going with his usual flair, and damn anyone who nitpicks with charges of vocal flatness. Go to the opera if you want all your ducks in a row; this is metal crooning at its best, and as the chorus swells, it’s all one can do to steer clear of the waterworks. Halford pleads as Nostradamus: “I’m banished in exile…To meet their demand…Rejected messiah…They don’t understand.” What metal god couldn’t relate? It’s blissfully melodic, yes, but also the very reason we love the Priest, even after Turbo: they are the music of the damned. Still, despite their allegiance to those at the fringes, they never succumb to self-righteous fury. They’re pissed and ready to raise their studded fists to the blood red sky, but they’d be just as happy to settle their differences and get on with the show. And it’s why they still take the likes of Iron Maiden in the early rounds. While Maiden wallows in stuffy allusions, Churchill worship, and the continued reliance on that ridiculous Eddie creature from the peak of the Thatcher era, Priest distills metal to its essence, believing that all you need is a bit of leather and the will to never surrender. And while Nostradamus would be the perfect capstone to their career, I’m always game for another foray into metal’s pit of solitude. For while rocking like a hurricane can be as communal as a sporting event, it still comes down to the self. And that the Priest will always be there for you. Even after they’re gone.