The man in the shop is an authority. He is twenty-something years old and he knows metal. He takes one look at me in my work clothes, my lengthy hair and the album in my hand, sighs resignedly, and says “We put that on in the shop yesterday. It’s like the eighties never went away.” I assume that this is a good thing, and say so, but he doesn’t seem convinced and from the identikit, generic noise pounding out of the in store stereo it’s not hard to see why. Judas Priest, you see, don’t mess around with sub bass enhancement, cutting edge electronics or auto tune. Rather, what you hear is what you get on stage and what chance does that have against today’s poly-genre, hi-tech wizards of destruction? Well, quite a large chance actually, because there are more than a few of us who still understand the power that the eighties exuded – the economic desperation that permeated the lives of the ordinary and the ever-present threat of nuclear destruction which now forms the plot of movies but which, in the early eighties, was a constant backdrop of people’s daily lives. Such social aspects formed the backdrop for so much of what is considered classic these days and, lest we forget, from the eighties we got Iron Maiden’s commercial peak starting with ‘number of the beast’ (81) and Judas priest’s masterpiece ‘British Steel’ (80). From the eighties we got the foundations of alternative with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Screaming Trees all forming and from the eighties we got the thrash movement with the likes of Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax all forming in that most hated of decades. My earnest friend in the shop thinks it’s bad that Priest still sound like the eighties? I think it’s a fucking miracle!
And so, having purchased my super-enhanced deluxe digi-pack copy (does anyone just release one version of an album these days?) and left my perplexed store assistant behind, I got myself home with all the excitement of a teenager because, you see, I’ve never really left the eighties either and I love the feeling of heading home with an unheard record under my arm, the disc just waiting to be played and reveal its mysteries to me. On the way, being the rather sad person I am, I pored over the liner notes (including a message from Priest themselves), the lyrics and the pictures, still searching for that one clue to the mysteries of life that I remain convinced that I will find inside one record one day, and, before a note was heard, I was already hooked thanks to Rob’s typically exotic and intelligent lyrics.
The album opens with ‘Dragonaught’ and straight away the power of Priest is laid bare. The chugging riffs, the powerhouse drumming and Rob’s chilling sneer – it’s all there and it sounds immense, organic and beautiful, Priest once more burning with that primal unholy fire that has governed them for over thirty years. Far more restrained than the indulgent (and entirely enjoyable) ‘Nostradamus’, ‘Redeemer of souls’ is Priest delivering metal with attitude and aggression aplenty and by the time ‘Dragonaught’ has run its course with a plethora of blistering solos to boot, any metal fan who understands the meaning of the word will be delirious with joy. The title track cruises on the sort of grinding metal riff that Priest must surely write for breakfast whilst Rob produces the sort of melody that slithers deep inside your brain and stays there, warding off all attempts to dislodge it with a venom tipped rapier and an evil smile. It’s everything you want from a Priest anthem and it sets the adrenalin coursing through the veins. Even better is the massive ‘halls of Valhalla’, a vicious, Viking-inspired blast of fantastic metal that charges across the seas in the massive longboats of the flame-haired conquerors, sitting alongside them as they contemplate their home with the love and lust of broad-chested warriors. ‘Sword of Damocles’, a fabled blade suspended over a courtier who was granted power by the titular king as a demonstration of the peril that surrounds those with great responsibility, is an epic piece of song writing that draws some of the band’s best performances forth, whilst Rob remains resolutely on top of his game throughout the whole album. ‘March of the damned’ is a tough street-crawler that harks back to ‘British Steel’ at its best, Rob sounding eerily youthful as he snarls “we are on a march of the damned.”
‘Down in flames’ opens amidst some stair-stepping guitar work from Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner (the latter fitting in as if he’d always been here) before kicking into a full-on assault of chugging riffs and multi-layered vocals. In contrast, ‘hell and back’ is a slower number that boasts any number of beautifully fluid solos and a central riff that could easily come from the ‘screaming for vengeance’ record. ‘Cold blooded’ taps into that rich vein of melody that has always kept Priest memorable whilst the slower pace allows the riffs to gain greater weight, which is lucky because Rob delivers one of the most powerful vocals of his career, veering between a dark, dusky drawl and a full on metal wail that rips from the speakers. With its awesome title, ‘Metalizer’ is the thrashiest track Priest has ever done and good god if Halford doesn’t sound like the devil himself as the song opens up its barrage upon the unsuspecting listener. Heavy as hell and delivered with an unblinking stare, ‘Metalizer’ will rip your face right off. ‘Crossfire’ is a gleaming, metallic stomp with a hefty beat and guitars that should be played by leather-clad warriors standing atop flame-spewing motorbikes, whilst ‘secrets of the dead’ is a twisted piece of metal that slithers and squirms in the darkness, Halford clearly revelling in his role as Crypt Keeper as the band weave their musical magic around him. As might be anticipated from the title, ‘battle cry’ is exactly that, a sweeping monster of a track that the band build slowly to a head and then unleash across the corpse-strewn landscape. The album ends with ‘beginning of the end’, a reflective, rather beautiful piece that highlights the fact that, even at their most bombastic, Priest were always one of the most stunningly melodic of all the metal bands.
Overall ‘Redeemer of souls’ is a record that sounds classic not because it looks back on past glories but because it captures the classic spirit of priest. For fans around the world Priest are as important a band as Maiden; as eloquent, as passionate and as talented as you could wish for in a heavy metal band. They have seen it all and done it all, from being given an unfortunate (and most unfair) roasting by the American media in the eighties to headlining High Voltage in 2011 with a stage set draped in chains and blood-red lighting. They live and breathe heavy metal and have never shied away from the name or the image associated with the genre, proudly flying the flag when others ran for cover. There is no half-hearted element to the band and even if they have not always delivered the perfect album, there is no doubting the purity of their intent. ‘Redeemer of souls’ may sound like the eighties, as my befuddled store assistant asserted, it may sound traditional also, but it has that one quality that cannot be reproduced by even the most expensive technology – integrity – and listening to the album, feeling the blood course through my veins as Rob unleashes yet another banshee wail, I have no doubt at all that the album will feature heavily in this year’s end of year polls. If you love metal then this is an essential addition to your collection. If you love Priest, you probably already have it, but make no mistake, this is Priest as fired up, as inspired and as inspirational as ever. Bands half their age should listen and take note because this is what it takes to have such a lengthy career in music.
Special Edition Notes
Given that this is a special edition it is nice to see that Sony have not just bundled a second disc into the package thoughtlessly. The handsome digipack (bound in the same foil-style artwork as the excellent ‘Draconian Times’ reissue) features extra pages from the normal edition to house the lyrics for the bonus tracks and the whole thing feels as if the extra money has actually gone somewhere. The tracks themselves, meanwhile, represent a further twenty minutes of music spread over five tracks and there is no question that Priest fans will want to get hold of this expanded package. Of the five tracks, the first is a classic rocker with plenty of attitude called ‘snakebite’, the second is ‘tears of blood’, an elegantly phrased display of virtuosity and the third, ‘creatures’, is the sort of sinister heavy metal that sends shivers up the spine. It’s dark, evil and cool and it highlights the simple fact that in some forty years of musical service, Judas Priest have defiantly refused to age at all. The fourth track, ‘Bring it on’ is a taut rocker with a driving beat and the final track, ‘never forget’, rounds out the bonus EP nicely with some beautiful guitar work and a memorably introspective melody that makes you proud to be a Priest fan. All in all, this is one special edition package that represents great value for fans.