Judas Priest turn forty this year, but the legendary metal band have yet to exhibit any signs of a mid-life crisis. The band from Birmingham, England are neither trying too hard to remain young and hip nor resting on their laurels and settling into life as a pure nostalgic act.
They're simply continuing to create epic heavy metal that remains true to both what the band have been and what they’ve become in 2014 with a healthy combination of respect for the craft and their fans and a sense of humour about themselves.
"All of us in Priest still have a great job," singer Rob Halford tells HuffPost Canada Music. "We love what we do. We love to have a good laugh and enjoy all of the wonderful experiences in metal. We take it seriously, but there's got to be an element of good times with it as well."
This balance between old and new, seriousness and playfulness is perfectly executed on "Redeemer of Souls," the band's new album and their first studio release since 2008's double concept album "Nostradamus." After the experimentation of their rock opera on the life of the sixteenth century soothsayer (and also, perhaps, an experiment in taking themselves a bit too seriously), "Redeemer," which came out this week, is an impressive return to form.
It touches on all of the hallmarks of the Priest sound – from the early blues influences of 1974's "Rocka Rolla" to the sweeping old school metal cries of 1988's "Ram It Down" to the driving heavy rock of 2005’s Angel of Retribution – without becoming a mere retread of what they've done before. Lyrically, the album continues in the epic storytelling tradition of songs like “Painkiller,” “Exciter” and even “Lochness” in a way neither makes a mockery of heavy metal’s favourite themes and fantastical elements nor drifts toward the stone-faced deliver of "Nostradamus."
As Halford told Ultimate Classic Rock in a preview of the disc, "Redeemer of Souls" is filled with "vikings, dragons, aliens, a bit of bible-thumping and some guns."
Our interview with Rob Halford was a similar mix of all of those elements. The extremely charming and affable Metal God happily discussed the efforts that Judas Priest put into remaining relevant in today’s music world, and how much they appreciate fans of all ages sticking with them in such a fickle industry. He discussed his writing process and the changes that he's had to make in his performances so that he's physically able to hit all of his iconic high notes live.
He also called himself a water buffalo, likened recording and releasing "Redeemer of Souls" to having "a heavy metal baby" and made jokes about doing incantations before Judas Priest shows.
Here are some of our favourite pieces of Metal God wit and wisdom:
On being pregnant with "Redeemer of Souls" and the miracle of heavy metal life:
I've kind of likened it to having a heavy metal baby, because there's this kind of gestation period and everybody's hoping it's going to be a wonderful moment.
On staying fresh as band without betraying your history, and being like another famous British institution:
I think we're a little bit like a Rolls Royce. What I mean by that is, even though Rolls Royce has changed its appearance a little bit over time, the essence of what it stands for and represents is still intact. That's maybe an unusual but kind of a cool type of thing to parallel what Judas Priest is about. We've been making this kind of music now, for four decades, and the essence of it is still pretty solid.
On remaining relevant over multiple decades:
There's a thing about standing the test of time, whatever that means. Maybe it means that if you’re doing something that’s good, then it'll be just as valuable, just as significant. It’s not easy. It's not easy at all. It takes a lot of thinking and a lot of really living the life. It’s like any profession, really. I think the longer you're involved in something, the better you should become and the more secure you should become in knowing that you’re doing the best you can with that particular thing.
Look at – if you want to call us the old guard of metal – people like Sabbath and Priest and, to some extent, Maiden and Motorhead. Even Metallica now. All good friends of ours. There's this core of talent in metal and hard rock that is still very valuable alongside all of the new and exciting bands.
On Priest’s continuing ability to attract new fans:
That is really extra special for us. When we walk out on stage and we see these new, young metalheads who have a tremendous amount of choice and variety, unlike what we had when we first kicked off, and a certain portion of young fans choose to go with a band like Priest. It's a real honour and we're very moved by that type of connection. Because generally, once you become a Priest fan, you're stuck with us. [laughs] And that's not a bad thing, I suppose.
On the writing process that goes into creating an album’s worth of “vikings, dragons, aliens, a bit of bible-thumping and some guns.”
It's always been my task in the band to come up with the lyrical content. And I've always felt like the music, it should be really exciting it should be interesting. It should be thought provoking and that's pretty much what Priest has been doing over the decades. We’ve left a long trail of these wonderful stories that we make with our music and that is definitely the case with this record. A good six years has gone by since "Nostradamus," I think our fans are hungry to get some new kind of ideas, some new metal tunes, and that includes the lyrics.
I have a blast when I sit down with Glenn [Tipton] and with Richie [Faulkner, who joined Priest in 2011] and we come up with the songs, and the alongside that I'm always thinking about the ideas of the messages that we can send forth. I've always got an iPad full of notes and maybe one word here, one word there, strong bullet point words and phrases, and sometimes these things lend themselves to the sound of the song. And then I go off on my adventures, I just love to sit down with the music and then come up with all of these great stories that we marry to the music.
On creating characters in songs like "The Painkiller" and "Night Crawler", as well as new additions to the Priest oeuvre, "The Metalizer" and "Dragonaut":
It's very interesting, really, if you break down the way metal bands put their lyrical content together. Priest are still pushing the idea that, in our kind of music, in classic metal, it's a perfect opportunity to create these mythical characters and just kind of paint a mental picture in your mind. While you're listening to the music and listening to the words, you can see a little mini movie running through you’re head. We love those types of adventures.
On his desire to see Judas Priest cosplay become a thing:
I'm surprised nobody's picked up on this at Comic-Con and put together a Judas Priest costume. Because we’ve got all of these great figures that go back as far as "The Tyrant" on "Sad Wings of Destiny," "The Sinner," "The Sentinel." They're great and it's part of some of the traditions of heavy metal music.
On his pre-concert rituals, both real and fictional:
Some people don't understand heavy metal still, people that are kind of fearful of it. I've had much fun with that and I'll say [to them] "Before I go on stage, I do my incantations and I drink my potions and it's very dark and sinister backstage." It's nothing like that! I usually have a nice cuppa tea, quite honestly.
On slowing down on stage to preserve his health and the quality of his vocal performance:
I was thinking the other day about what Keith Richards said about Mick Jagger. Mick would come off stage and collapse in a heap and Keith would always go "Oh, look at you. What are you doing?" And, in a couple of instances, Keith would actually sing to the band.
It was killing me, because your breathing control as you're moving, throwing your arms around, making all of these metal shapes, it's quite a task. So, as I move on in life, the most important thing to me is to be able to give my fans the best vocal performance I can. If it means slowing down a little bit and not leaping around like a metal gazelle, I'll do that. At the moment, I'm lumbering around like a water buffalo, but I'm still screaming my head off.