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Music DVD Review: Judas Priest – Epitaph

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Despite many lineup changes since the band’s inception in 1970, Judas Priest is, along with fellow English rockers Black Sabbath, one of the most innovative and influential heavy metal acts of all time, influencing everything from power metal and thrash metal (“Exciter,” “Rapid Fire”) to the more fashion-focused glam metal (with their pioneering studs/spikes and leather looks). And like Sabbath, they always had a good-sized following and international fame but were not an overnight success, with JP only finding true worldwide (especially American) success in record sales, and on the road, the radio and (eventually) MTV starting in the early ’80s, with memorable cuts like “Breaking The Law,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” and “Living After Midnight” being among their most notable hits.

Judas Priest was originally a more blues and hard rock unit that was fronted in the early years by Al Atkins and led by co-founders K.K. Downing (guitar) and Ian Hill (bass). It wasn’t until Rob Halford took over for Atkins in 1973 and guitarist Glenn Tipton joined in May 1974 that the band started to come into its own and take shape as the metal icons that millions of fans have come to know, love and idolize.

61FGhXHSpEL._AA160_Now, 40 years after the Halford era began, JP is celebrating its long history with the release of an epic show they did at the very end of their 50-week-long “Epitaph World Tour,” simply entitled Epitaph, which is out as of yesterday, May 28, via Legacy Recordings on DVD and Blu-ray. (The title is also the name of an early Judas Priest song). This review focuses on the DVD release.

Having taken place just over a year ago at the Hammersmith Apollo in London in front of a sold out hometown crowd on May 26, 2012, this show is one Judas Priest fans may have been clamoring for all these years. It’s got just about all the essential hits you’d want to hear and see live, along with some worthy deep cuts and rarely performed gems (including “Rapid Fire,” “Painkiller,” “Never Satisfied” and “Blood Red Skies”). JP recorded two records with Tim “The Ripper” Owens fronting the band while Halford left to pursue other projects, but all 14 albums Halford appeared on, from the band’s 1974 raw but roughly produced debut Rocka Rolla to their best-selling 1982 LP Screaming for Vengeance to their (not so popular) 2008 double CD Nostradamus were represented at this concert.

“Battle Hymn” from JP’s excellent 1990 Painkiller CD starts off the 40-year celebration and leads right into the influential early thrash metal classic “Rapid Fire” from British Steel (1980), one of the greatest metal albums of all time. Wasting no time, the Priest goes into their second of four British Steel tracks performed at the show, “Metal Gods.” Soon after, the audience makes itself heard loud and clear on (1981 full-length) Point of Entry hit “Heading Out to the Highway.”

“Judas Rising,” an underrated fast and heavy cut from 2005 album Angel of Retribution, the dramatic, powerful JP classic “Victim of Changes” (from second album Sad Wings of Destiny) and “Starbreaker” (from third record, 1977’s Sin After Sin) showcase why the band has had the longevity that few rock bands (let alone their peers) in the world can match. This live version of “Victim” in particular stands out for its dramatic twin guitar harmonies that open it (courtesy of Tipton and second guitarist Richie Faulkner) and the rather progressive nature and depth of the songwriting that encompasses the rest of it.

Also of note is that Halford may not have the energy he used to after 40+ years of performing, but he still has plenty of it and hasn’t lost any of his insanely gifted vocal chops. Even if he can’t hit all the high notes at the end of “Victim” like he used to be able to, he still can and does nail that last, sustained operatic note at the end. It just shows that no one can compete with the power and range of that voice, even now.

Tipton and Faulkner entertained and wowed the crowd all set long, especially the latter, who was introduced by Halford after a lengthy but artful shredding solo during “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming.” Faulkner’s gifted and energetic style couldn’t be any more suitable for the band at this point and fits as a worthy replacement for Downing, who retired in 2011.

But perhaps the secret to how these songs sound so fresh and vital in live form lies within drummer Scott Travis’s big drum sound and techniques. He uses two kick drums, and his machine gun-fast double-kick drum style adds extra intensity, liveliness and aggressiveness to these tracks when needed (Ex. “Starbreaker”). There may be 40 years worth of material packed into this DVD but it all sounds present. The only tune that sounded even remotely dated was late ‘80s song “Blood Red Skies,” with its staccato-laced (bass-y) synth lines. That said, seeing it performed live in this setting was a real treat.

If you have ever been to a Judas Priest show, you know the band and its stage crew go all out on all aspects of a concert – the stagecraft and visual elements included. If you haven’t, seeing the group on the stage on this DVD is like watching a band in another dimension. The constantly moving big mechanical wheels on the back stage wall and big screen visuals form a cool backdrop; the pyrotechnics and big, multicolored flashes of light perfectly complement the band’s most explosive sections of songs. And, the clouds of smoke capture the set’s most intimate moments (especially on a dark rendition of their famed power ballad cover of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” another Sin After Sin cut).

Other than having no special features and the fact that Downing wasn’t part of the show (even as a guest), whether you’re a longtime fan or a music critic (or both), you’ll have to look deep into the DVD to find much at all to get fussy about. Perhaps this reviewer could’ve done without the repetitive, moaning guitar licks Faulkner played as part of his mini-solo during a break in “Victim,” but others may dig it – to each his/her own. And some old school fans may appreciate but just not care for some of the rare or recent material, but the entire nearly 2 ½ show deserves to be watched without interruption at least once (like you were at the event – only you get a choice to hear it in 2.0 Stereo or 5.1 Dolby on this DVD).

From a pure performance standpoint, the band knew it was being filmed for this release, so it made sure to play as the tight unit you’d expect them to be, and interact with the audience all night – Halford let it sing “Breaking the Law” all by itself, which was cool with this reviewer but may not sit well with some purists out there. Speaking of the dynamic frontman, you’ll notice that he sang not necessarily off-key but a bit low and in short breaths during an early verse on final song “Living After Midnight.” This is a small flaw (and one he was guilty of a few times earlier in the show, but which is to be expected given his age) but still, it is representative of the most gifted singer in heavy metal history, at (then) age 60, giving those rabid fans in London everything he’s got right to the very end, no matter how tired he may be. And that’s all any fan can ask for.

A total of 23 tracks were performed (not including a short drum solo by Travis before “Painkiller”). In short, Epitaphcontains the ultimate Judas Priest setlist, a brilliant (yet slightly imperfect show) and it all happened to be on the group’s final night of their final world tour.

If Epitaph were to come out as a single or double-disc set, I’d probably play it alongside Unleashed in the East, the band’s most famous live release. But on its own, it stands to be a gem all on its own, and is a must-own if you consider yourself a big Judas Priest fan.

Visit this Blabbermouth.net link for the full track listing and a useful album index that lists which albums these songs originally appeared on.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.