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on 12 February 2015
As far back as I can remember every Priest album has had a background story to it. 'Turbo' was the first by the band to introduce synth guitars (would it work? - sort of), 'Ram It Down' was a 'return to the Black Country roots' following the reaction to the ZZ Top synths on Turbo (it didn't work), 'Painkiller' was the reaction to the poorly received RID, heralded the arrival of a decent drummer, was the first since British Steel without producer Tom Allom twiddling the knobs and was released on the back of the horrendous suicides in the US (would this have an impact? - oh yes!), 'Jugulator' was the first with a new singer and spawned a film, 'Angel' was the return of the old singer (did they still have the chemistry? - definitely), 'Nostradamus' was their first concept double sided studio album, complete with orchestration and now there's a new Priest album and this is the first one without erstwhile guitar hero KK Downing. Question now is - will this have an effect?
So, in the checklist of previous Priest albums it has the standard track ending in 'er' in Metalizer, which 'musically' follows predictably in the footsteps of say the dire 'Metal Meltdown' and the tired 'Hard as Iron' (and is actually more atrocious than its elder siblings - in fact it has possibly become the worst Priest song ever), it has the gormless pseudo religious cover by Wilkinson, it has a ballad and, most importantly, it has a lyrical content that is steeped in myths, fantasy and Christianity of the middle ages (or Catholicism of the new millennia) - with lyrical references to redemption, faith, the bible, heaven, sin, angels, the dead, Souls, Hell, the Sword of Damocles, the damned and so on - this is the comic book religion of John the Divine's Revelations, not the modern day 'real' and deadly version being played out in the Middle East (interestingly, its only the daftness of the lyrics that make the whole album in any way cohesive, as the varying styles of the music fight somewhat strongly against this cohesion). In the true spirit of all the dead and dying religions, there's a song about the Vikings' Valhalla.... And continuing in this spirit and of other 'made up stuff' like the Hellion, the Metallion and the Painkiller, the, er, Redeemer of Souls has a little story on the cover and some pictures of him looking menacing in the glossy booklet. There are naturally some pictures of the band cloaked in darkness (if you squint, KK could still be in the band) and Rob is wearing the Metal God shades that he always wears. Amen to all of that.
Nothing surprising there then.....
A roll of thunder ominously opens up the album before a suitably crunchy and abrasive riff kicks off the baffling daftness of `Dragonaut', a song about a man who rides on a dragon apparently. Musically this is standard, text book, Priest by numbers fare, which is instantly memorable but arguably pulling its punches vocally and lyrically (a failing in the whole album). Next the title track heaves itself into the limelight and promptly dies on the back of a weak chorus (think along the lines of 'Hell Patrol'). The lyrical absurdity is continued with the next two melodic, but punchy numbers, `Sword of Damocles', which sounds like a turbo charged swash buckling Knights of yore 'Beltane Fire' song (remember them?), and the daftly excellent and driving `Halls of Valhalla'. By this point it was clear to me that in broad construct and lyrical nonsense we were almost into modern Saxon territory. I initially had that same uncomfortable feeling that I had first listening to Saxon's 'Sacrifice' album, which was that I was a man in his mid-forties listening to some other bloke in his early sixties singing about human sacrifices to the Gods, Wheels of Terror, Halls of Valhalla and other childish flim flam from the `Big Book of Magic Stuff'.
I ploughed on with this, though, (I gave up on the Saxon album when I had to endure a song about standing in a queue, and no, it wasn't a dole queue it was a Burger King at a motorway service station - I am not making this up...) and suddenly out of the blue some of it started to make some sort of sense. 'Cold Blooded' sounds like a track that would have graced the classier end of the half decent 'Nostradamus' cd (i.e. the second CD is half decent), as it's more emotional and brooding than most of the rest of the tracks on here, and 'Crossfire', with its Black Sabbath 'i' riff, covers a similar path to `Revolution' on 'Angel of Retribution' or 'Love You To Death' on 'Ram It Down'. 'Battle Cry' is truly a classic Priest number, where all the parts come together in that magical and sublime Priest way - it conjures up images of warriors singing battle songs and drinking flaggons of ale round a roaring fire, whilst 'Down in Flames' is a short, uncomplicated and punchy Priest stalwart that sounds disconcertingly familiar (in fact not dissimilar to 'One Shot at Glory' from Painkiller). Finally 'In the beginning', the poignant ballad that rounds this fantasy romp off, is undoubtedly the best ballad that they have ever written - quite a feat 200 years into their career.
Ultimately if you persevere with this most of it does ultimately become memorable and the lyrics become relatively unimportant (if you ignore them, like you would on say 'The Sentinel' or 'The Painkiller') as it has one classic metal riff after another (absolutely no complaints on the riff front), there is the hallmark strong melodic and memorable backbone to most songs, there is the driving drumming that Scott Travis excels in, some cracking solos and the still great singer occasionally belting it out with gusto (notably on Battle Cry). Also it would be churlish (heresy) not to be supportive of the Priest given their longevity and their historic importance so I probably gave this more time than the first couple of listens would have allowed.
And the answer to the question on whether the lack of KK in the mix has made a difference? I'd say that on the stronger tracks (Battle Cry, Down In Flames, Cross Fire, Halls Of Valhalla and In the Beginning) the superior quality is probably still there but the style of the bulk of the songs is curiously more in the camp of Saxon than old school Judas Priest. Whether this is part of Priest's natural evolution or a result of the loss of KK is arguable. British Steel, Defenders or say Screaming it is not. Final thought would be that, for example, I am probably on my 6th version of Unleashed - I taped the album in 1980 from another cassette, bought the cassette, then bought the vinyl version, then the original CD, then the remastered version and then the Japanese version with the made up lyric sheet and I am still listening to it 35 years on - I can't honestly say I'll be buying this in multiple versions and playing it in 1 year, let alone 35 years...(Post Script: 1 year on - I don't listen to it).