Judas Priest Transcend Nostalgia on “Firepower” (album review)
Every two years or so, I fly to India to visit my grandparents. Over the last few years, their age has begun to impact their lives. My ajja no longer goes out for the walks around town that he once loved, and my ajji’s hands shake and tremble as she chops vegetables for the meals she still provides for the family. On the most recent trip I made one month ago, I had the genuine wonder that this could be the final time I have all of them with me.
Judas Priest have been a near-constant presence throughout my time as a music fan. Over the last decade, there was always the next tour to look forward to and a new record on the horizon. On 2014’s Redeemer of Souls however, Judas Priest finally sounded their age. With a rickety production not unlike a boxy room as its backdrop, the band took a nostalgic view of their career on that record. Their peering eyes made for an album that tenderly walked us through nearly every sound and style that Judas Priest has toyed with throughout the last 45 years.
As I heard the album finish with Rob Halford’s warm and heavenly farewell in “Beginning of the End,” the song gave me that same bittersweet feeling that comes with hugging my grandparents at the airport before flying home. Redeemer of Souls sounded like my favorite band waving me goodbye, gracefully letting the sun set on their twilight years.
In the four years since its release, Judas Priest have mustered up enough inspiration and heat for another outing: Firepower. One more new Judas Priest record will make its way to store shelves, though not without a casualty. Guitarist Glenn Tipton -- who has suffered from Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years -- retired from touring in recent months, but not before finishing his contributions to Firepower. Tipton’s efforts were not in vain. He and his bandmates have put together one of the most varied records of their career, and their best album since Painkiller. Firepower doesn’t sound like a goodbye. It’s instead an ironclad reminder of the energy and power that I’ve associated with Priest since the first time I heard the F# chug in “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.”
The speed heard in the opening title track may seem like the obvious indicator of that vigor, but it’s a red herring. Much of Firepower never pushes the tempo beyond a confident stride. That feel acts to their advantage: it allows the band to step back, crack their knuckles, and tip-toe about the groove with their most imaginative and efficient arrangements in decades. Judas Priest haven’t had a collection of tunes so fat-free, hook-laden, and diversified since Stained Class in 1978; only four of the fourteen tracks on Firepower exceed five minutes, and every song is just about stuffed with a nearly endless array of riffs, trade-off solos, and winding twists.
Tipton and Richie Faulkner’s harmonized break in the title track, the swaggering and downright mean bridge heard in “Necromancer, ” and drummer Scott Travis’s knockout snare punches in “Traitors Gate” see Judas Priest tossing prior expectations out the door. Even Ian Hill gets the chance to show off a growling bottom-end pulse in “Never the Heroes”--when was the last time that happened?
Firepower’s most surprising moments come during its centerpiece, the towering duo made up of “Guardians” and “Rising from Ruins.” An understated piano interlude builds to Priest marching gallantly to mountain-top peaks, standing triumphantly over their metal legacy. They traverse trade-off solo jungles and navigate a labyrinthine performance from Travis to a place utterly divorced from the song’s somber, militaristic start. That incendiary pair of tracks and their companion epic “Traitors Gate” harken back to the freewheeling spirit Priest last channeled on Sin After Sin. It’s that sense of wonder and pomp that allows Judas Priest to return to those days with sincerity and imagination.
Halford’s enthusiastically roared lyrics (check his downright sassy romp through “No Surrender”) shy away from autobiography and the celebration of metal itself, Travis delivers the most creative and slinky show of his career, and Richie Faulkner’s solos and bouncing riffs make it sound like he’s having the time of his life.
As for Glenn Tipton? For the most part, he steps back to allow Judas Priest to gleam in all its glory. His solos glide and ride the wave of the tune where they once ostentatiously screamed on songs like “Electric Eye” and “Exciter.” Tipton doesn’t allow his ailment to be audible and obvious, and that effort helps erase the context of time from Firepower. That context is something that differentiates and defines just about every Judas Priest album. From the muzzled bark heard on Sad Wings of Destiny to Painkiller’s howling reclamation of heavy metal sovereignty, nearly every Judas Priest record is best digested with the understanding of where music, technology and the band’s career was at during that era.
Firepower just about dodges the asterisks in its description however, standing tall among Judas Priest’s finest achievements. It showcases the band at the top of their game as writers, performers, and shredders and in a way, that makes it a far finer farewell than Redeemer of Souls. Firepower presents Judas Priest not as old men limping toward the finish line but instead as heavy metal grandmasters, flexing their muscle with glory and bombast. For most of us, Firepower is a candid shot of Judas Priest at their best.
Firepower is the way that I want to remember my favorite band long after they’re gone.
-- Avinash Mittur
Firepower is out on March 9th via Sony/Epic Records. You can order the album here.