Greetings, fellow acolytes of the great Judas Priest! And welcome to the very first ever Judas Priest Week here at Last Rites. All week, we’ll be honoring one of the all time greats in various ways. What we won’t be doing is spending hundreds (or thousands) of words going on and on about our favorite Priest songs. Five years ago, we handled that with our two-part Devil’s Dozen feature of the band (Part 1 and Part 2, if you’re curious). We also won’t be pitting them against Iron Maiden in that eternal debate, as we did that in Battle Royal fashion, and the team might not be able to handle such in-fighting again.
Instead, we’ll be expressing our love in some ways obvious, some ways not-so-obvious, and some ways downright silly. The first falls under the banner of the obvious. In case you’re living under a rock (forever), you know that Judas Priest released their latest album, Firepower, on Friday. Andrew Edmunds, who is as big a fan of the band as anyone on the staff, offers his verdict.
Four years ago, I wrote Last Rites’ review of Judas Priest’s Redeemer Of Souls, and the general gist of that piece was that Redeemer Of Souls was both Priest’s best record since Painkiller, and also not particularly great. Both Ripper albums were weak; Angel Of Retribution was good, but uneven; and Nostradamus was neither of those. At least, Redeemer had a few great songs amidst quite a bit of mediocrity.
Now the situation has changed.
As on Painkiller before it, Firepower’s title track sets the tone, and on both of those records, it’s a similar one – near-thrashy riffs and Halford’s godly vocals (now noticeably tempered with age), the classic metal formula for Priest-ian greatness. Glenn Tipton’s recent announcement of his retirement from touring due to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s saddened the metal world with good reason, but his performance here shows no weakness, as he and Faulkner drive these tunes with rock-solid riffing and the guitar-god soloing that has long defined this band. Scott Travis’s drums are equally solid, never overly flashy but always propelling the beast forward, and Ian Hill… plays the bass… and sometimes you can hear it… And atop it all, the metal god himself, the kingly Rob Halford, his impeccable siren wail now rougher around the edges, but his power still almost inhumanly great, even into his sixties. Top that off with a glossy modern sheen from Andy Sneap and long-time Priest ally Tom Allom – a production that doesn’t rob Firepower of punch, like Redeemer’s muddy murk before it.
For twenty-plus years now, all of those pieces have been Judas Priest’s not-so-secret sound – and really for twenty-plus years before that, albeit with some different names attached – so here as with any other Judas Priest record, the difference comes down not so much to how they apply their skills, but to the songs to which those skills are applied.
After the mission statement of the title track, Firepower continues to burn through thirteen of its fourteen tracks. Lead single “Lightning Strike” and follow-up “Never The Heroes” are early highlights, while the almost-doomy swing of “Children Of The Sun” and the stellar “Spectre” are later ones. The one-minute instrumental interlude of “Guardians” could be three times as long and be even greater, and all that while still serving its purpose of leading into the anthemic “Rising From Ruins” and the ripping riffs of “Flame Thrower.”
Amongst all fourteen of these tunes, there are only two minor musical hurdles – closing number “Sea Of Red” is a terrible choice to end the record, a ballad that seems out of place and tacked on, and does no favors to preserving the awesome momentum established before it. Drop that song from the disc, and Firepower goes up a notch further. And the chorus melody of the otherwise killer “Flame Thrower” is a little awkward, with Halford sliding upward to mimic a sliding riff, but that left-footed turn is certainly capable of being overlooked. Beyond those – or rather, in spite of them – Firepower is as consistent a batch of songs as Priest has turned in since Painkiller, many moons ago.
Unlike Redeemer, where “Dragonaut” and “Halls Of Valhalla” stood as giants above the piddling second half of the disc, Firepower’s stand-out tracks are harder to pinpoint because everything is of an equally high quality. But then again, that’s what a Judas Priest album is supposed to be like, no?
Firepower is the best Judas Priest album since Painkiller, and more importantly, the first since then that could fit comfortably after that record without being too far in the shadows. It’s a damned good metal record from an absolutely great metal band, older now and far removed from the classic days, but proving once again that they’ve still got both the fire and the power.
Finally, the gods are truly back…