With groups like Black Sabbath and Aerosmith either having staged or ready to embark on farewell tours, it’s easy to see how hard rock might trend towards being more of a young person’s game. Leave it to Judas Priest to punch a hole in that trope as they are currently in the midst of a world tour supporting Firepower, the quintet’s 18th studio album.
Originally founded in 1969 (a year after Birmingham neighbors Sabbath got their start), Priest have established themselves as a major heavy metal cornerstone while proudly and humbly accepting their role as significant standard-bearers for a genre that’s often misunderstood and mischaracterized. It’s a role vocalist Rob Halford gladly embraces and it’s this pride in their craft that he points to as the key to the band’s longevity.
“It’s all about the music. I know the performance runs side by side, but we work really hard in making the best music we could ever make. I think anything of quality sustains itself,” he said. “Right from those early kind of groundshakers—how far can I think back?—‘United,’ ‘Take On the World,’ ‘Evening Star’—anything from that point on where you make that connection and it starts to stick and that is also your motivation to keep making music at a very high standard. We’ve never approached our albums as it being about one song serving as a radio track and the rest is filler. We’ve never done that. Every single song is hand-crafted. That’s it really, in a nutshell—good stuff lasts forever.”
So it goes with Firepower, the band’s latest studio effort. In an effort to straddle the line between the past and present, the production duties was shared by longtime collaborator Tom Allom and Grammy-winning producer Andy Sneap. The outcome were 14 songs sure to please fans old and new. “Necromancer” pounds with the requisite chugging thump of mid-1980s Priest as does “Evil Never Dies,” which gets the job done thanks to the dueling guitar-play between Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner as well as Halford’s yowl, which remains a formidable instrument. Nuance also comes into play on this record, whether it’s the topicality of how soldiers being sacrificed on the altar of war profiteers is addressed on “Never the Heroes,” a moody and melodic mid-tempo number, or “Lone Wolf,” which starts off slow before settling into a tempo that’s equal parts swagger and stomp. As far as Halford was concerned, the results bore out how successfully things worked out between Allom and Sneap.
“Tom has been with the band since Unleashed in the East and our first studio record with him, which was the iconic British Steel. He’s been with us every step of the way, one way or the other and he’s part of the Priest family,” Halford explained. “When this idea of what the essence of the new Priest record was going to be, we kept the notion of, ‘It’s gotta be classic Priest’ going through our minds. The first thought was Tom. He knows this band inside and out in the classic sense of Judas Priest music. So that was the initial idea—which was to have Tom in the control room. We’re aware of the metal landscape around us, so the opportunity came where we wanted to see what it would be like to mix the old school, new school approach to production. We knew about Andy’s work from various bands and that was really the genesis of getting them together and talking about the idea. We have this thing in Priest about trying everything. Even if you don’t get to where you’re going to, at least you tried. So that’s what we did. What a great team. They’re just phenomenal. All the things that we were hoping to hear were blasting through the speakers right from day one.”
Even though Firepower has been positively received via it becoming the band’s highest-charting album in the U.S. after it debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart during its first week of release, the announcement that Tipton was retiring from touring due to his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease sent understandable seismic shocks through the Priest camp. It was decided that Sneap would step into the founding member’s string-bending shoes. And while the web percolated with commentary from longtime guitarist K.K. Downing, who left the band in 2011, Halford was both diplomatic and sanguine about the group’s decision along with Tipton’s future in the band going forward.
“Ken had very publicly and informally said he was done. That was enough for us to know and I think for all the fans to know. There are lots of things flying around the Internet right now in regards to Ken and I think both parties have said what we’ve needed to say in the past few days and we’re moving forward,” he explained. “As for Glenn, we watched him work really, really hard on Firepower. It was tremendously challenging for Glenn to get all his parts down—but he did, because that’s Glenn. It took a long, long time, but he did. And for the future, that’s something we’re always thinking about. We have this record and tour to get through, and we will. Glenn said that it’s time for him to go back to his studio and start loading up the riffs for the next Priest songs. He’s so brave. It’s all so positive and wonderful.”
Going forward, Priest will spend the remainder of 2018 on the road and serving as the soundtrack to hard rock and metal fans everywhere, much as they have for nearly five decades. It’s a badge of honor that Halford and his compatriots not only proudly wear, but take very seriously.
“Priest is part of the fabric of music in American culture now. We have been for a long time. The longer you’re around, the more that has substance attached to it. We’re this heavy metal time machine and can take you back to the 1970s and literally walk through the decades together through the performances that we make now,” he said. “We want to give our fans the best experience we can, from the visual side of what you love about Priest, which is this larger-than-life experience and a big stage with a light show, the stage set, the bike and the costumes. But the music is first and foremost and is at the heart of any Priest event. And it is an event now, since some of our friends have retired recently, as I understand it, Priest is the go-to band for live performance and the roots and origins of heavy metal. We’re still delivering the goods in 2018 and want to give you something that when you wake up the next morning, you’re not only thinking about what you heard, but what you saw. It’s a strong metal memory.”
Judas Priest will be appearing with Deep Purple on September 1 at Northwell at Jones Beach Theater, 1000 Ocean Pkwy, Wantagh. To find out more information, visit www.jonesbeach.com or call 800-745-3000.