Something terrible happens to bands that endure life and times for a significant period and produce an abundance of records that end up beloved by many—they become the property of their fans. Well, not really, of course, but it sure as hell seems that way based on reactions to any significant level of experimentation that relieves said band from what most have grown to accept as their “typical sound.” Even the sort of midrange level of experimentation that brought (GASP) keyboards into Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was enough to cause a tornado of ruffled feathers large enough to blot out the moon the night “Can I Play with Madness” premiered on Headgiver’s Ball. “How dare Iron Maiden introduce something new to OUR Iron Maiden,” exclaimed droves of greedy youths from comfortable dens.
And for the love of all that’s holy, Ulver! The amount of urgent frenzy caused by 1998’s Themes From William Blake’s The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell was enough to knock the Earth off its axis by several degrees. Theory #1: Ulver might be to blame for global warming. Theory #2: Ulver is comprised of monsters out to destroy the Earth via album risks.
To the point, most people attach a very recognizable and proven overall sound to Judas Priest, but they’re a band that’s indeed no stranger to experimentation. The band came across like champs when the daring worked—the way Stained Class double-kicked things miles away from their proggy roots and into a more stripped and aggressive strategy that inspired all of metal to shift, for example. Thank you, lads. Thank you from the bottom of every metal listeners’ heart.
And, of course, there’s the occasional instance where the experimentation has flubbed, but not really in a full face plant sort of way—the synth-driven, Aqua-Netted divider that is (the unfairly maligned) Turbo, which resulted in the band literally looking a bit silly. Still, thank you, Judas Priest. Thank you for making the summer of 1986 brighter, more ridiculous, and less parentally guided.
Nostradamus, on the other hand, took things too bloody far. 2005’s Angel of Retribution found the band carving a significant notch in the win column, Halford was (thankfully and) finally back in the fold, and people were excited once again about the Judas future. Perhaps not the most ideal time to launch an exhaustive 103-minute concept album detailing the life events of a dusty French apothecary with a penchant for soothsaying and whimsical hats. Then again, is there ever a good time to announce something that perhaps comes across as the heavy metal equivalent of spending a full afternoon helping your grandfather rearrange an unfortunately extensive stamp collection? Yes, grandpa, this liberty bell stamp does look a little more green compared to the one we saw about ten minutes ago. Are you sure there’s no secret bottle of peach schnapps around here somewhere?
Clearly, Nostradamus is too long. In truth, the majority of us would likely agree that no band should release a record that breaks the one-hour barrier, yet here we sit in the days when the Therions and Prurients of our realm now drop 3-hour bombs on unsuspecting heads. Hell, 103 minutes seems down-right pithy compared to the 183 minutes of Beloved Antichrist. But it’s still foolhardy to expect a modern human to pay full attention to an album that’s as long as Predator but features precisely zero Arnold Schwarzeneggers battling everything.
If there’s any one thing Nostradamus is truly guilty of it’s that it takes the entire “stand-alone hits” narrative that Priest essentially built a wildly successful career on and casts it aside like a heartbroken banana peel. Even the album’s biggest (ahem) hits—“Prophecy,” “Pestilence and Plague,” “Conquest” and “Nostradamus”—aren’t really built to crank from your car on the way to pick up a bottle of peach schnapps for ol’ gramps. Bottom line: people don’t really turn to Judas Priest for atmospheric storytelling. Fans want sing-alongs, arena rockers, and tunes tailor-made to help them learn how to play guitar. And buddy, that ain’t Nostradamus.
To hinder matters more, Priest morphed their iconic logo (how dare they) and created a video for one of the album’s more gloomy cuts that looks a bit like a midterm project from a totally baked student hustling through an Intro to 3D Design course from The University of Phoenix’s Online Continuing Education program.
Life and time are funny things, and they have a way of making you eventually confront the fact that you know your favorite albums from legacy bands well enough to listen to them in your sleep. Subsequently, one often can’t help but become curious about getting inside the heads of the players to perhaps suss out once hidden details and intentions behind the releases that had…less enthusiastic initial reactions. Suddenly, you’re listening to No Prayer for the Dying, Hold Your Fire, Give Me Your Soul…Please, Mourning Has Broken, et al., perhaps even obsessively. And there will be newfound diamonds to dig up, because esteemed bands are hallowed for good reason.
In the case of Nostradamus, you will absolutely hear some of Rob Halford’s finest moments in damn-near thirty years. He sounds incredible during the closing minute of “Revelations,” beautiful amidst the moody interlude of “Sands of Time,” and absolutely revitalized throughout the explosive 15 minutes that closes disc 2. The record also exhibits an avalanche of fiery play from the familiar Tipton/Downing tandem—surprisingly violent leads, constant melodic back-and-forths, and the most destructive riff break-out Priest has penned in decades at the 4:20 (bro) mark of the fantastic title track. Yes, it’s all sandwiched between a very unaccustomed hunger for baroque orchestration and dark atmosphere—stretches of it admittedly uneventful—but given time and a patient ear, the whole picture eventually becomes strangely addictive.
Ultimately, people will continue dismissing Nostradamus for any and all the reasons they’ve been dismissing it for the last ten years (side-note: good LORD, it’s been ten years since this album dropped), and that’s just fine; this was clearly never intended to be the first record reached for when the Priest mood strikes. For the more adventurous devotees, however, Nostradamus is enjoyed not only because it tucks away some truly great moments, but by virtue of the fact that it represents a textbook definition of a full-caps RISK taken by an incredibly respected band. It’s an undervalued record, and it deserves repeated visits due to its uniqueness alone. Plus, there’s that whole buried prediction about how someone will use it at some point in 2018 during a ritual that will rip open a wormhole to deliver Nostradamus himself as one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Sayonara, cruel world. Best get your affairs in order.