If we take the notional birth date of heavy metal as a recognisable genre as being the day that Black Sabbath released their debut album (February 13, 1970, since you ask), and note that Judas Priest released their first album, Rocka Rolla, in 1974, you realise very quickly that there has been Judas Priest for almost as long as there has been heavy metal. And though the stylistics the band brings to the genre change – sometimes subtly, sometimes not quite so much – over time, one thing runs through the band’s contribution to our kind of music as clearly as the word ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock – dependability.
Dependability and a commitment to bring British steel to the masses whatever, and whoever takes. The announcement this week that Glenn Tipton, suffering from that awful sapper of humanity Parkinson’s Disease, would not be able to take part in the upcoming Priest tour in support of this Firepower album that now stands before us, means that Priest will take to stages this year with only vocalist Rob Halford and bassist Ian Hill, that most dependable of Yeoman sidemen, of their halcyon lineups.
Tipton may not return to the fold, and if Firepower turns out to be his swansong then it is hard to imagine a better way to bow out. In almost every aspect, Firepower is the best album Judas Priest have released sine 1990’s epoch-bestriding Painkiller opus.
Recalling producer Tom Allom to the fold, the man who helmed the band through such classic albums as British Steel, Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith is a masterstroke; teaming him up with Andy Sneap, one of the best of the current crop of metal producers (and the man now nominated to substitute for Tipton in the live arena) doubly so. This successful melding of old and new working arrangements means that the sound of Firepower dwarfs anything the band have recorded since their ‘reformation’ album Angel of Retribution, with beefy, stadium metal anthems like Never the Heroes sounding frankly astounding as they pound out of the speakers in the Sentinel Daily office. This is the sort of radio metal I for one feared long lost to the Priest, but Firepower, at last – the band tried with Angel of Retribution and last album Redeemer of Souls – reconciles all the past faces of Priest into one, cohesive, all-devouring, metal monster.
The album’s centrepiece, Necromancer, propelled by some mighty kick work from the ever fleet-footed Scott Travis, fuses the heaviness of Painkiller to the melodic heft of The Sentinel, Halford at full throttle reminding you why he is, for ever, the Metal God. This is traditional metal making no allowance to modern metallic mores, and it stands proud and deadly, a testament to the killing power that resides still within the fingers of Glenn Tipton.
You’ll have heard the two opening tracks, Firepower and Lightning Strikes, so I’ll not dwell further on them here. Third track Evil Never Dies is a mid paced cruncher, again fusing the melodicism of the early eighties to the obliterative battery of the early nineties, all dynamism, light and shade. Halford exhumes memories of Turbo’s best moments with his singing in the latter half of the song, and the solos… well, let’s just say that Richie Faulkner and Tipton have installed themselves as the metal partnership to beat over the rest of 2018.
Children of the Sun kicks in on the sort of sleazy riff that the band used to deploy around the time of Killing Machine, but the chorus is the only point on the whole album where quality takes a nosedive. No album can ever be perfect, and this is the track that proves that rule. However even here the band have created a fist-banging anthem that’s sure to go down well wherever it’s heard live, whatever it’s slightly Tapesque nature.
Short instrumental Guardians remembers Prelude from Sad Wings of Destiny, and if Rising From the Ruins isn’t quite up with there with Tyrant then there’s not much in it. A slow burning, swelling epic in the vein of Alone from Nostradamus, the track builds inexorably to a multi-vocalled chorus that’ll bring the goosbumps up on your arms, Travis’s drumming tributing the great Les Binks in it’s funky, syncopated bombast. This truly is classic metal.
Flame Thrower is a perky, jaunty number that again wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Turbo, all big vocals and bigger, layered guitars buttressed by yet more bottom-end barrages from Hill and Travis. It’s the closest Firepower gets to throwaway but it is, quite frankly, utterly brilliant. Pop metal always had it’s place in the Priest canon, and Flame Thrower is no different.
Next up is Spectre, where the band take us once again to the early eighties with a classic Priest storytelling headbanger full of nasty night deeds, supercharged riffage and razor sharp soloing, but whilst this is good stuff, it is quite demonstrably not as good as the album’s second standout track, Traitor’s Gate.
Another midpaced stadium leveller, this is Priest at their unabashed heavy metal best. I’ve held back from overly praising Halford to this point, but his vocal on this track is a tour de force, a pure masterclass in heavy metal singing from a man who at 67 must surely now beyond doubt be hailed as metal’s greatest.
And talking of great, here comes the quite superb No Surrender. This is Priest at their melodic optimum, melding the rhythmic throb of You’ve Got Another Thing Comin‘ with leviathan riffage and a chorus you will be singing for days after just a few exposures. If this had been written in 1984 it would be universally hailed as being one of metal’s classic tracks, and should be suitably revered as such. Another goosbump induction moment.
Lone Wolf is a groove metal gargantuan that can’t help but tip it’s motorcycle cap to Pantera but is none the worse for that. Closing with the balladic Sea of Red may have been seen as a bit of a risk, but this is Priest, and they pull the trick off with aplomb. A hair-raising paean to the glorious dead it rounds the album off in dramatic, spectacular style, a perfect end to a near-perfect slice of spellbinding heavy metal.
If this is farewell, Glenn, so be it, Thank you for everything, but most of all thank you for Firepower.
Firepower will be released by Sony on March 9th.