They don’t call him the Metal God for nothing. After his departure from pioneering metal band Judas Priest back in 1992, Rob Halford went on to have a spotty solo career, emerging first with his aggressive, yet painfully ordinary band Fight, then his maudlin, dreary project called Two. Rob Halford is at his best singing ear drum-piercing metal in its classic form, and longtime Priest fans rejoiced when the man returned in superb fashion with his terrific comeback effort Resurrection in 2000. With his new band (aptly dubbed, “Halford”) in tow, Halford launched a successful tour, capping it off in front of a massive crowd of 200,000 at the Rock in Rio festival in January, 2001, which yielded the double live effort Live Insurrection. Now Halford the man and Halford the band have returned with their follow-up effort, Crucible.
Most metal fans ask only one thing from their heroes, and that is to never, ever stray from the formula, and judging from the sound of Crucible, the fans will not be disappointed one bit. And it’s a good thing, too, that Halford sticks to the tried-and-true blend of roaring guitars and vocal melodies that made Judas Priest so great many years ago. Here, he’s in his element, those unmistakable pipes of his displaying the range that make him so distinguishable in the world of metal. Nobody, aside from Mercyful Fate’s dwarfish, bearded goof King Diamond, is able to combine such a powerful, gutteral howl with searing, upper-register screeching, and Halford is in fine form on the new record.
Rob Halford has also rejuvenated his career by surrounding himself with exceptional young talent. All too often, veteran artists hire backing musicians whose only purpose is to badly mimic the singer’s old songs, but thankfully, Halford wants to keep redefining his sound, and his band proves without a doubt that they have the chops to challenge the old guy. Halford and his band feed off each other on Crucible, pushing each other as far as they can go; the classic Judas Priest sound is still heard in the new stuff, but it’s delivered in considerably more aggressive fashion, as top-notch guitarists Pat Lachman and Mike Chlasiak, bassist Ray Riendeau, and powerful drummer Bobby Jarzombek heighten the intensity, closely resembling the skill, the all-out heaviness, and the tightness of a band like Pantera.
Produced by metal impresario Roy Z., Crucible pulls no punches. It’s undeniably loud, extraordinarily heavy, pleasantly melodic, and best of all, shamelessly bombastic. Rob Halford’s lyrics were never Judas Priest’s strongest point, but on Crucible he goes all out, diving headfirst into cornball metal cliches, screaming pompous lines with such conviction that you go along with it. How can you not love lines like, “Penance from the rancid iron / Virgin weeping plasma / Idolize the demigods / The weapon of stigmata”? “One Will” is the one song on the album that sounds closest to classic Priest, with its catchy chorus, its very silly gladiator (or perhaps pro wrestling?) subject matter (“Locked in a battle—strength and honor / Blood sweat and tears becomes the score”), and the twin guitar licks by Lachman and Chlasiak. The Pantera-meets-Priest sound is most successful on the scorching “Betrayal”, with Halford’s screeching going full tilt. The pummeling “Handing Out Bullets” uses double tracks of Halford’s vocals, combining Halford’s scream with Halford’s growl, much like Mercyful fate and Megadeth did seventeen years ago, while the rest of the band plays at a furious, ferocious pace. It’s also a real blast when he sings about stuff like the apocalypse and good ol’ Satan (something the younger bands don’t do), and the doom-laden trilogy of “Heretic”, “Golgotha”, and “Wrath of God” does the job nicely, with Halford coming dangerously close to Slayer in his, er, rather graphic detail: “Pile of skulls crunched underfoot / Torched remains are crying out—satanical.”
Halford and his cohorts manage to broaden their sound a bit on a few tracks, straying away from all the thrashy, speed-riffing, making things a bit more interesting. “Crystal”, a song describing crystal meth addiction, is especially strong, dominated by a seductive, melodic riff. Better yet are the two “bonus” tracks; “She”, a song dedicated to Rob Halford’s mother, is simply the most soulful song he has ever written, sung with great tenderness and love (“She’s the one who fills my soul with grace and dignity so rare / A jewel that shines upon her child and lifts me to a higher place”). “Fugitive” actually echoes Metallica’s better early work, as the band provides a dark, desolate atmosphere as Halford sings of a lovelorn loner. Again, it sounds silly when I describe it, but Halford makes it work.
Crucible has its ups and downs, and begins to grow tiresome after the fun of “Wrath of God”, before being rescued by the excellent bonus tracks. Still, although the album is worth a marginal recommendation only, it’s great to see Halford doing what he’s best at. It’s good to count on a guy like Rob Halford to keep on chuggin’ away at the old-school metal, giving fans of heavy music a refreshing break from all the self-obsessed whining of most nu-metallers. I’ll take half a Halford album over anything by Korn any day.
// Notes from the Road
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