It’s been 40 years since pioneering heavy metal legends Judas Priest first came out with their debut album, Rocka Rolla. Four decades later, one of its two longtime guitarists, K.K. Downing, is no longer in the band, having retired in 2011, but the band is still going strong with the release of its 17th studio album, Redeemer of Souls, which has just been released to the (metal) masses, via Epic Records.
Guitarist Richie Faulkner took Downing’s place for the group’s worldwide farewell tour in 2011, and though metal fans don’t take too kindly to change, his chops fit in smoothly – or should I say, furiously? – alongside Glenn Tipton’s own heavy but artful style. On the new record though, what could fans expect in terms of musical direction after the very good but somewhat divisive 2008 concept double LP Nostradamus? Tipton said: “18 songs of pure classic Priest metal.” In other words, no more bullshitting around with different sounds.
Folks, after listening to the full original album of 13 tracks and the five bonus tracks, I’m happy to say he is mostly right on. With the scary-looking album cover and the thunder storm sounds that open the new full-length, the mood was set for an old-fashioned lean, mean heavy metal album (in the style of JP’s acclaimed late ’70s/early ’80s material), and that’s exactly what you get here.
The storm sounds start track one “Dragonaut,” but when the music kicks in, it kicks in hard and heavy, like early ’80s Priest (think 1981’s underrated Point of Entry, for example). The lyrics even make you want to think of classics like 1980’s British Steel, when Rob Halford sings, “Welcome to my world of steel.” Some fantastic riffs by Tipton and Faulkner (played one octave apart, I believe) close out this promising album opener.
The midtempo tune “Sword of Damocles” (track four) slows down the album a bit, but what comes next is the rifftastic “March of the Damned,” which sees Halford singing in a low register and basically ceding the spotlight to the smokin’ licks of Tipton and Faulkner. For Faulkner, this is his first time recording with Judas Priest on a studio album.
If there’s one song on here that feels more personal than others, it has to be “Hell and Back.” In it, Halford, with grit, sings: “We’ve been through it all/We’ve been to hell and back.” That’s what surviving an industry as cold and difficult as the music industry for 40 years feels like to Halford and company. Best of all, as if they needed to subtlely prove to anyone that they are not just surviving but thriving, the band doubles the track’s metallic speed towards the end, and Halford ups the vocal range and intensity to make for a rather exciting ending.
Speed metal fans and those looking for some kind of resemblance to 1990’s fast and furious Painkiller album surely will dig the track that comes next, “Metalizer,” as well as track three, “Halls of Valhalla.” They are killer reminders that Judas Priest was among the first to record what later became known as speed metal.
It’s not a Stevie Ray Vaughan cover, but “Crossfire” is another highlight, as it goes back and forth between badass bluesy riffs and your typical palm-muted metal guitar action. The tune is also one of the few songs that shows Halford still has the gifted high vocal range that has made him one of the greatest singers of all time. At his age though, Halford goes there sparingly now, but always to great effect when he does.
If you thought a band like this would slow down towards the end of this album, think again. The dramatic “Battle Cry” is quintessential Judas Priest, complete with intense vocals, twin high-end guitar licks, and a relentless rhythm throughout. On the original release, the last song is a rather dark ballad (“Beginning of the End”) which also may be a not so subtle hint of what is to come (or not come) for these icons in the future. But the last five tracks on this deluxe edition are bonus cuts (on a separate disc if you don’t have the digital version of this release), all but the last one being pure metal/hard rockers that more or less capture the ’80s hard rock/metal vein (ex. “Snakebite.”)
In all, Redeemer of Souls is the best album Judas Priest has released in over 30 years. Without question, it will (or should) also go down on many lists as one of 2014’s top metal albums.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00K6D1FZU]