Long before heavy metal even earned the convenience of that exact terminology, the genesis of its story was already well on its way in suburbs and streets of Birmingham, England. While their beginnings go back to 1969, the path to their inimitable dominance and reign over heavy metal truly began for Judas Priest when a young vocalist named Robert Halford joined their ranks in 1973. One year later saw the release of the band’s debut, Rocka Rolla, an anomalous but no less promising release that would soon be followed by indisputable heavy metal landmark albums such as Painkiller, British Steel, Screaming for Vengeance, Sad Wings of Destiny, and a rock 'n’ roll story that elevates the band’s music far above the tribulations they’ve endured along the way.
Over the course of four decades, it’s become increasingly rare to hear a heavy metal band, regardless of their subgenre, that doesn’t cite Judas Priest as an influence either on their music or as the band that started their own journey into metal fandom. Next month will see the release of the Judas Priest’s seventeenth studio release, Redeemer of Souls—the first album recorded without the band’s founding guitarist K.K. Downing. Taking Downing’s place is Richie Faulkner, a guitarist who proves the merit of his position over the album’s thirteen songs, giving the band a familiar but altogether new soaring command in sound that’s as pared down and focused as they’ve been in years. Despite the years and natural wear and tear, Rob Halford’s voice is as clear and distinctive as its ever been, perfectly pairing alongside the riffs and melodic hooks of the music just as he’s done now for forty years.
Perspectives of fandom naturally evolve over time, guided both by the action and sometimes inaction of the musicians we revere. Longevity and passion have always seemed paradoxical for so many bands, at times working in tandem and at others like opposing forces willing the band to doom themselves to fracture. Even with the occasional career missteps and lineup gaffes, there is a justifiably very short list of other heavy metal bands that will ever be as influential or essential to the genre as Judas Priest. I talked with Halford about the band’s new album as well as his own perspectives of the very genre he helped pave the way for with little to guide him except for the music that thankfully still continues to compel him today.
Redeemer of Souls is the seventeenth Judas Priest album, and you guys took your time with this one, Rob. Tell me a little about the background for the record, and how the band came to create it.
It’s a really unusual record for us to make, obviously, because we had Richie Faulkner with us for the first time ever in the band’s history. You can’t overstate the importance of having Richie come onboard at this point. His contributions are just phenomenal. When you get the big picture of his work on this release, you’ll see that the guy is just an incredibly talented, proficient heavy metal player. And what I mean is just his guitar style and technique, but also his tremendous writing skills. Having said that, if you go back about six years to when we finished recording that giant opus, Nostradamus, it appears like there was a six-year “wander around in the desert” creative sort of place for us, but we’ve been very, very busy for the past six years or so. Firstly, you have us taking care of the Epitaph Tour which took a good couple of years, I think, and then obviously have Richie lead us through that experience—that touring experience. We really got to know each other really strongly from touring on the road together. I think all of the raw ingredients of what makes a band, and what defines a band, were coming into shape with Richie’s involvement. When we actually got into the writing scenario, it seemed to go by very, very quickly just because there was this kind of sense of urgency. I think there was a real excitement around the day-to-day recording experience. Being British, we wanted to write and then have the weekend off. [Laughs] It was very much like clockwork, and I’ve always admired that about Priest.
I really don’t know how other bands do the writing situation, whether they’re coming one day for an hour here or an hour there, but we were very disciplined in that respect, and I think good things come out of a disciplined situation. Which might seem odd, because as we know, writing rock 'n’ roll is just vastly chaotic, which is the essence of why we do it. Having said that, just the overall vibe from day-to-day was really kind of like we were kids. Every day when I got in the car and started to the studio, I really wanted to do it. I really wanted to get into that studio and start hammering away on the riffs and everything else. It’s like where all these things combined and coalesced into the writing and recording situation, and it was just a very, very satisfying and fulfilling experience making this record. The roots of it are definitely the writing, and the writing was just spectacular.
After 40 years as a band, it’s pretty damn remarkable that you have a group of guys who are still hungry for that next evolutionary step for their music. Just looking at that, and seeing the story of Judas Priest as it’s unfolded and continues to unfold, what have you personally seen as the most significant parts of that story?
I think it’s just been staying focused on quality rather than quantity, really. To complete the mission of writing is relatively easy to do, but it’s very difficult to write good songs that last forever. You’ll hear it talked about that this band or that band or this song or that song have stood the test of time, and I think that’s one of the joys of being in this particular type of music. With other kinds of music, things are coming and going at the speed of light it seems in today’s world. In metal, you really are working hard to create these classic moments that you say this record represents. I think right from the very beginning, if you put you heart in the right place, and you have all your dreams and ambitions and issues in the right place from the get go, and you stay the course, and you try not to get distracted by any pitfalls, and people pulling you this way and that way, that’s the metal maze that you can get lost in, so I think if you stay to your core beliefs, as we have in Priest, then that’s the indicator that you’re doing what you should be doing, and I believe that that’s been our tenacity through the years.
I definitely think that sense of longevity is something that’s not necessarily exclusive to metal but certainly more of a core ideal for the genre. Just looking at heavy metal in 2014 versus compared to what was largely a nonexistent scene, at least in terminology, in 1974, how have you seen what Judas Priest helped set the stage for in those early days change and hopefully progress over the last forty years, Rob?
I’ve gotta say it feels absolutely incredible. Every day I go on maybe a dozen metal websites from around the world, and I just love to try and stay up to speed with all of the extraordinary talent that’s surfacing right now in all the different styles of metal music. And everybody knows that I’ve always had a very broad taste and my own kind of things that I listen to outside of Priest, and Priest is at the heart of the matter to me, but I’ve always been very receptive to the other styles of good metal. I just feel, personally, very grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to be with a type of music that some people suggest was invented by Priest, some elements of the metal that we do. To go from 1973, when I first got involved with the band, to 2014, and everything in between is quite sensational. The 70s were just as different to the 80s as they were to the 90s and so on. To see where it’s at now in all its complexity is very thrilling to me, and I’m glad I feel that way. It’s a very big kind of monster to cut through, but for the most part it’s just been like one big metal train that’s kept going into the horizon in spite of any obstacles in its way. We’ve been through it all. [Laughs] We actually talk about that on the new album with this song called “Hell & Back” with lines like “Still in the land of the living, not in the land of the brave.” We try and pull out a reference here and there on what the band has been through and subjected to in the story of our music. It’s been a remarkable journey, and, of course, the great news is that it’s still on track, and we’re always looking to the next big thing and the next big moment, whatever that might be for Priest.
When you think about that remarkable journey, Rob, I’m curious as to how you see your own personal story and relationship with music. Was there a specific band or song in your childhood that brought music to you in the first place?
I think when you’re in your teenage years, especially, that’s where most of us start to get some kind of focus on music, because we’re going through the general teenage angst that everybody does. Of course, my angst was in a different time. [Laughs] I didn’t have anything to really scream along with, but I had people like Little Richard, and I had people like Elvis and all of the other early pioneers of rock 'n’ roll that had the energy and the excitement that’s like electricity when it touches you. Of course, growing up in the UK in the 60s, which was a wonderful time for all aspects of culture but particularly for rock 'n’ roll, to hear those early songs from people like Hendrix, bands like Cream or King Crimson—those are the people who made me go, “You know, this is overwhelming me. There’s an opportunity for me to be involved in some way here with this kind of life. I would love it.” And then, of course, you marry that to the fact that I was discovering the voice and being able to sing, and even now being able to sing is the most fulfilling experience that I enjoy. I just love to sing. It makes me feel great, so I’m gonna keep going. I’ve got this kind of lit fuse, and it pays the bills. [Laughs] I’m not being facetious with that. I’m just trying to suggest that this voice that I’ve got has sustained me in many, many different ways. All of those early kind of touchstone moments made me very strongly ambitious through my late teen years and obviously through my early twenties to try and get into a band. I wanted to be in a band. I was in several bands before I joined Judas Priest. Being in those early unknown bands were the stepping stones, really, so I learned a lot in those short few years jumping from one band to another. By the time I was offered the gig with Priest I wasn’t a professional, but I’d certainly been through the routine of what it means to be in a band, and I knew what you needed to do to make a band happen. It’s a really cool story, but those are kind of the connections for how it all began for me, Jonathan.
Obviously your voice is probably one of the most recognizable and distinctive not only in heavy metal but in all of music. Was there a specific moment when you realized you had this powerful voice, or was it a kind of gradual fit for you in the beginning just finding that range?
That again goes back to those early bands I was in like, I love these names, Lord Lucifer. [Laughs] I love that. Bands like Hiroshima and Abraxis and others, but when you stand in a room with a bunch of guys with audio equipment that works, and you’re there to make noise together, it’s like an embryo—the actual real, true foundations of what you want to do and be in a band—it’s happening in a very organic kind of way, really. It’s uncluttered. It’s very pure. It’s very untouched by outside influence, so that’s how I learned it. When you give somebody a microphone, and they suddenly sound louder than they really are, anything can happen. [Laughs] You watch people do karaoke, and when you put a mic in somebody’s hand, they change. You change. You really do. Something happens, and I can’t explain it. But when you actually start screaming and stuff like that into the microphone, and you hear the voice coming out through the speakers, and it’s amplified, it’s absolutely thrilling. It’s thrilling, but it’s also kind of inspiring, and it gives you a sense of “What can I try next? What can I do next?” That’s really how I learned, and I was already listening to the greats like Janis Joplin, who I loved to death, and who was one of the greatest rock singers ever and, of course, hearing my friend Robert Plant singing the way he was singing the real blues. I like to think I’ve still got the blues in my voice. I’d absolutely kill to do a blues record. I would kill to do that. It’s something I want to do because I want to explore what my voice can do in that wonderful world. That’s how I learned to do a lot of that soaring, sweeping, and screeching. And also I discovered that I’ve got a voice that can go in different octaves, directions, and different kinds of projections. It’s a combination of a sense of adventure and just being inspired by those guys, those wonderful singers. It’s a mixture of everything but mainly a discovery of what the voice can do.
What is it that keeps bringing you back and drawing you in to this music where you’re still creating and still just as passionate with Redeemer of Souls as you were with Rocka Rolla or Sad Wings of Destiny or any of those early Judas Priest releases?
I think that essentially since music was invented, it’s basically reached out and touched every single kind of conceivable generation. It’s a very difficult kind of thing to describe isn’t it, Jonathan, because you can only really sense it when you’re listening to it. Whether you’re listening to it with other people or in a room by yourself with your headphones on or at a concert, it’s a very difficult thing to pin down. But I think the elements of metal with its sense of power and its aggression and its volume and its various textures, and especially the messages, I think metal, and when I say “metal” I’m talking about all kinds of metal, but I think it’s always had this very powerful charge behind it of opportunity and of overcoming things in life, which is a message that Priest has always embraced. It’s a very empowering kind of music, heavy metal is. I’m sure that people would say the same thing about country music or R&B or rap and hip-hop or whatever, but I think it’s an absolute fact that if you speak to people coming out of the venue when they’ve just seen their favorite heavy metal band, they all just feel so alive, and they feel so invigorated. The whole experience is just very emotional and very cathartic, and so all of those different attributes, for me, have been very much intact with heavy metal, and it’s just about this human desire. It’s a very important ingredient of your personal love for metal. I’m just thrilled that I’m about to be a 63-year-old metalhead. [Laughs] My love for this music is just as strong as a teenage metalhead. We connect with each other without even saying anything because we both feel the same way inside. It’s a blessing, metal is. Definitely.
Jonathan Dick is on Twitter - @steelforbrains
Also check out: