When Judas Priest announced the Epitaph Tour in 2011, it was billed as a farewell, a final chance for the band and the fans to don the leather and raise their fists together. It proved to be a goodbye of sorts, but only to guitarist K.K. Downing. After 42 years with the band, he retired before the tour began. Judas Priest hired young Richie Faulkner (born six years after their debut album, Rocka Rolla, was released) to take his place on the tour and it proved to be a shot of energy the band needed.
The chemistry of Faulkner and guitarist Glen Tipton is different than the lock-step harmonic formula of the Downing and Tipton pairing that had carried Judas Priest through the decades. While fully capable of playing Downing’s parts, Faulkner’s tone and attack serves as a bridge between the classic Judas Priest sound and some of the bands that followed in their considerable wake. The Epitaph DVD, recorded on the last night of the tour, shows this to great effect. His rhythmic support is nearly as strong as Downing’s, but his approach to solos adds a new character to their sound. Despite much hand-wringing from the fans, he fit in well.
Yet when news broke after the tour that Tipton and Halford had enlisted Faulkner to help write new material, it was greeted with a mix of trepidation and excitement. What would Judas Priest sound like without Downing’s songwriting contributions? Would it really be Judas Priest?
Redeemer of Souls quells all fears. This is Judas Priest as they haven’t been heard in nearly 25 years; not since Painkiller has the band had this much power, this much energy, or this many hooks.
“Dragonaut” opens the album with a catchy, sing-along style, more reminiscent of their mid-’80s pop charting era than anything they’ve done since Rob Halford’s return to vocal duties in 2003. This is far from the only song on Redeemer of Souls to draw on styles and themes from their extensive back catalog. In many ways, the album serves as a reclamation of those things that were always at the heart of Judas Priest’s music, even when buried under the heavy progressive fog on Nostradamus or the sequenced sheen of Turbo. This is a band where melodies, hooks and sing-along choruses are key.
The heaviness of a track like “Metalizer” serves to supplement not supplant those core ideals. While harkening back to 1990’s “Painkiller”, it also summons the Queen-like pomp of a song like “Tyrant” from 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny. In fact, the breadth of styles on Redeemer of Souls calls to mind that seminal album again and again. “Crossfire” is pure blues, or as close as they’ve come in 40 years; there’s even a wink at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song of the same name in the guitar work in the chorus. Album closer “Beginning of the End” is the best ballad they’ve recorded in 30 years or more, a touching song that is honest about the mortality that seems rushing up to meet them as they march, fists raised, into their 60s.
However, Redeemer of Souls isn’t only a band looking back, only harkening to glories of old. While they glance time and again in the rear view mirror, they’re also blazing forward with some of the best new music of their long career. “Halls of Valhalla” is a Judas Priest song — the melodies, hooks, and sing along chorus are all there as expected — but the chug has a bit of a shuffle to it, the ramp-up of the pre-chorus adds welcome heaviness, and woven throughout are bright snippets and phrases from the guitarists that keep the ear constantly engaged while the song thunders on. “Secrets of the Dead” plays the same guitar games, with little figures serving as an aural will-o’-the-wisp. The song is new take on the original blend of progressive rock and heavy metal they pioneered in the 1970s, but has no obvious parallel or precedent in their catalog. It succeeds where most of the progressive approaches to metal on their last two albums failed.
But no song is more singular, nor a greater success, than “Sword of Damocles”. From the opening notes, this is both new and, again, a distillation of the many paths Judas Priest explored if not always followed. There is a swing to the verses that feels familiar, like a sped up “United” from 1980’s British Steel; this is an arms across the shoulders of your comrades drinking tune, where choruses are yelled and beers are sloshed. But then, after the short acoustic interlude, the martial aspect overwhelms the carousing and the call to arms is raised. Music for both the night before and the morning of battle has rarely been this good.
Redeemer of Souls, all 13 songs and 60-odd minutes of it, is a complete and fulfilling listening experience. Though if you want more music from this current incarnation, the deluxe version appends five more songs that are of similar quality. The difference is in theme and tone; for example, “Snakebite” is a great piece of AC/DC swagger, and “Never Forget” is the best 1986 prom theme of 2014. While certainly worthwhile, none of these bonus tracks would make the album stronger, better, or more coherent.
The aforementioned sword of Damocles is a fine metaphor for Judas Priest’s position in 2014. With a front man affectionately known as the Metal God, and a huge legacy hanging on by a thread with K.K. Downing’s departure and replacement, the fear and anxiety of being thrown from their lofty perch loomed large over Redeemer of Souls. But the sword has not fallen. Far from it. Judas Priest have exceeded all expectations and made one of the best albums of their storied career.