By Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler)
Judas Priest ARE one of the definitive heavy metal bands, if not one of the greatest of all time. Whether it be you instantly recognise Rob Halford’s signature howls from the first yelp, or just know Breaking the Law, Priest have left an indelible mark on the metal scene, and the wider music scene across their near 50 year career, selling over 50 million records. Blimey.
It’s not all been sunshine and lollipops for Priest, with their career taking a downturn in the eighties, with Halford eventually departing to front his own solo project in the nineties. However, they’ve enjoyed a renaissance in the… er… tennies? With their last album, Redeemer of Souls charting as high as 6 in the USA, their best ever position, and easily being one of their best albums.
Not content with that however, Priest are back for another go, and their latest album, Firepower proves that even when metal has rapidly evolved over the last 50 years, the old masters still know how to clean up, and make old Judas Priest look like a Catholic Priest. Of course, they are the pride of the Black Country, so whilst we try to remain unbiased as a publication, that makes them one of the best bands of all time.
Starting where they left off, title track Firepower starts off with a thundering riff and an operatic scream from Halford, bursting into a heavy metal epic. The harmonies between Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner are absolutely on point. Glenn Tipton is absolutely on point, despite the fact recently revealing that he will be retiring from touring after living with Parkinson’s disease for the last 10 years, but you couldn’t tell as every riff and solo is inch perfect. Richie’s done a great job to step into KK Downing’s shoes, but Glenn deserves a big shout out for battling on like the heavy metal juggernaut he is. The way Rob stabs “FIYAHPOWAH” on the chorus is fantastic and the way he rolls his Rs in the bridge just further establishes him as one of the greatest heavy metal vocalists of all time.
A lot of these songs feel like heavy metal epics, and a real world test confirms that driving through heavy snow, sliding about to the soundtrack of Lightning Strike makes the whole thing feel like a fucking huge adventure. Same for Necromancer, which makes you feel you’re fighting the baddie in some kind of dystopian movie. Every track feels like an event, like there’s a miniature blockbuster contained in every four minute burst. Halford complained about having to do multiple vocal takes in the making of this album, but the repeated takes & constant improvement have paid dividends; it doesn’t feel overproduced, but it feels like it’s been polished in every way possible. Are polished diamonds heavy metal? Fuck knows, but it makes for a good album.
However, it’s part of a common theme that Priest are experiencing a late-stage revival, as Black Sabbath produced one of their finest albums in 2013 with 13, and a UK number one, and Iron Maiden delivered one of their best in a long while with The Book of Souls in 2015. Priest and Maiden were part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and whilst yes, waves break and the tide goes out, the tide comes back in, and in the case of our NWOBHM favourites, come back with fury.
This is one of those albums where you find yourself being overwhelmingly positive about it the whole way through. This doesn’t feel like there’s any feeling of “previous good behaviour” weighing on this album. It would still be just as epic if it was an unknown band’s first album, or the eighteenth from the gods of heavy metal.
With that being said, the highlight of this album isn’t what you’d call a by the numbers heavy metal track. Closing out the album, Sea of Red is an acoustic ballad with heavy intervals, and the only man who could deliver these vocals is Rob Halford. There’s a real power and beauty to his delivery on “When the sun goes down, the silence is profound”. Think of the blood red sky as the sun goes down into darkness, there’s nothing, just the muted beauty of a sunset. Just silence, and that’s communicated through the song. Hopefully this song makes it into the live setlist, because it’s a proper arms in the air, loud as you can ballad.
It is the softer bits on the album that really make it as well. Right before the headbangingly delicious Rising From Ruins, the interlude Guardians is a soft piano track with the harmonic, screaming guitars slowly fading in before firing into full power. Sure, Priest know how to write a good riff, throw a howling vocal hook over it and make a million dollars, but this album feels very well put together and produced.
Clocking in at just under an hour long, it’s a a big slice of cake to eat in one go, but the variety in this album keeps you engaged and headbanging along, long after the riff to Firepower has faded out. Sure, there’s no experimental edge or curveballs thrown at you, but it’s not just a by-the-numbers riffs and solos snoozefest.
This really feels like a creative peak for Priest; Redeemer of Souls was brilliant, yes, but this is another level of heavy metal. Whilst some may feel misty eyed for the albums of yesteryear, Firepower feels like their magnum opus. What better way to enjoy your golden years as a band by producing solid gold?