Judas Priest have always channelled the element of surprise, not least when they released 'Painkiller' onto an unsuspecting public. But it would have taken Nostradamus himself to foresee the awe-inspiring 'Redeemer Of Souls', which doesn't so much surprise as delight.
This is EPIC Judas Priest. This is the Priest that released 'Unleashed In The East'; the Priest of 'Tyrant', 'Exciter' and 'The Sentinel'. To my bleeding ears this is pure anthemic, adrenaline-charged Heavy Metal lunacy.
There's a certain Priest quality that is hard to define, partly because of the huge differences in their sound over the years. Many reviews keep repeating the overused line that this is 'classic Priest', and I think what they're trying to portray is the surging rush of power; the screaming vocals, the twin guitar harmonies, and double bass drum work. It's a formula that hooked me when I first heard 'Exciter' and defined 'Unleashed In The East', and if that is the 'classic Priest' era you're looking for, then 'Redeemer Of Souls' delivers, and then some!
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Lead track, 'Dragonaut' gives the first glimpse of what's to come with a rich guitar tone that echoes the excitement of 'Freewheel Burning'. It's everything you could want from an opener and Richie Faulkner immediately sets out his stall for the rest of the record with a blisteringly fast solo.
He's integrated into the band so perfectly that it must surely be heresy to enjoy this so much without KK present, but life goes on and he deserves his place here. He and Glenn Tipton are on searing form throughout, referencing the best moments of the band's history without lapsing overtly into nostalgia or repetition.
'Redeemer Of Souls' underwhelmed when I heard it in isolation but in fact it's a perfect album track and is needed as the warm up to 'Halls Of Valhalla'. It's like a forward advance by the Marines before the Air Force unleashes shock and awe.
I'm rarely lost for words, but [wipes away a molten metal tear] wow. This is the moment we've been waiting for since Halford re-joined the band. With leather-studded lyrics utterly fit for purpose, twin guitar harmonies and a rhythm section at full pelt, 'Halls Of Valhalla' literally stirs the soul. The Metalgasm comes about four minutes in, when Halford goes from death metal growls up through the octaves to a scream that would summon Thor himself.
It's a hard act to follow but 'Sword Of Damocles', one of the standout tracks, raises the bar by capturing the long-lost spirit of 'Tyrant' and 'Genocide'. Another effortless anthem, it's slower-paced, heavy as hell and a real treat for fervent fans of the early days. There's more vocal trickery too with some falsetto leading into the albums' heaviest riff. This really is the Judas Priest we yearned for but never thought would re-emerge.
There's so much more to discover in the thirteen tracks though and very few, weak spots. 'March Of The Damned', a slightly lukewarm promo works well here as a slower counterpoint and a chance to take a breath. It's no 'Metal Gods' but is a solid effort. 'Down In Flames' and 'Hell And Back' are groove-driven deeper cuts that hark back to 'Stained Class' and 'Killing Machine', while 'Cold Blooded' not only showcases Scott Travis and Ian Hill's fantastic contribution to this record, but feels new and very close to something from Halford's 'Crucible'.
His evil, theatrical vocals are at work here with sinister purpose and in fact, across the record, Halford continues to impress. Anything he may have lost in range over the years is more than compensated for by his authoritative, charismatic and powerful delivery.
'Crossfire' manages to bring to meld blues and metal in what appears to be a nod to Jimi Hendrix and of course 'Rocka Rolla', while 'Metalizer' does exactly what you'd expect! The fastest track on the album, it's 'Nightcrawler' vs 'Demonizer' and gets better each time I hear it, as does the atmospheric, creepy 'Secrets Of The Dead'. Quite frankly that would be enough but Priest have managed to find one last shot at glory with the grandiose 'Battle Cry'.
As with 'Halls Of Valhalla', the band has created something quite magnificent. What's so interesting here is that it isn't just a re-hash of 'Painkiller' or 'The Sinner', but instead references one of the finer moments from 'Nostradamus', 'Persecution', and allows Halford to deliver a world-weary and battle scarred vocal in the chorus. It's as if he is battling time itself and there can only be one winner in that contest; not even the Metal God's voice can live forever.
But if that's not enough on this majestic call to arms, Glenn and Richie manage to deliver every trademark Priest guitar moment possible including the patented dual harmonies that are always imitated but rarely bettered. If this is Judas Priest's last stand against the sands of time, they are going down fighting. This track can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with 'Between The Hammer And The Anvil' and 'One Shot At Glory'.
Album closer 'Beginning Of The End' eases us gently to the finish and is a restrained, subtle track that reminds me of some of the softer moments from Queensryche's 'Empire'. It is also a necessary counterpoint to the exhausting Heavy Metal that precedes it. There's no ambiguity in the lyrics here, this is the start of the long goodbye and it's a sobering, deliberately emotional but fitting end to a quite remarkable album.
If you are smart enough to have ordered the Deluxe Edition, there are another five tracks in a mini EP. Separated from the album because the band felt they didn't fit the overall tone, they're a real treat.
Similar to the off-cuts that came to light when the re-masters were released, all five tracks have a much more radio-friendly and commercial feel. You can really imagine the 'Screaming' to 'Ram It Down' period here and these tracks are a reminder of the band's hugely successful era in the 1980s.
'Snakebite' and 'Creatures' are straight-ahead rockers, while 'Tears Of Blood' and 'Bring It On' are the 'Freewheel Burning' B-sides you've always wanted to hear. 'Never Forget' is the highlight; apparently an update of the awesome 'Red, White & Blue' it's a misty-eyed lighters in the air cheese-fest that would make the Scorpions proud, and will delight fans worldwide, although it's a testament to the band that they had the restraint to keep this one off the main album.
This trip back in time is an entertaining and much appreciated alternative to the intensity of 'RoS' and it was a smart move to keep the two discs separate. They're also the exact guilty pleasures I've hoped the band would create (or find down the back of the sofa) for years.
Johnny Churchill: MetalTalk.net \m/
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