As more and more classic metal bands grind to a halt, Judas Priest seems not just to survive but prosper. Their discography starts in 1974 with
Rocka Rolla. Since then they have endured numerous shifts in musical climate, political oppression via the Parents Music Resource Center (“Eat Me Alive” earned a spot on their “Filthy Fifteen” list), and a much publicized court trial in which they were accused of adding subliminal messages to their records encouraging listeners to kill themselves (the trial lasted about a month and ended with the judge dismissing the lawsuit), and lineup changes including Rob Halford leaving the band for two studio albums in the 1990s and founding guitarist K.K. Downing departing the band for good in 2011.
Angel of Retribution (2005) was the first Priest album with Halford back in the fold. While it may not be their most magnificent work, it signaled a return to the lineup many fans preferred and recaptured the attention of those who tuned out during the albums Tim “Ripper” Owens sang on.
Nostradamus (2008) is a concept album centered on the writer and seer Nostradamus. A better album than Angel, it still has its uneven points. Redeemer of Souls came next (2014). A pivotal album, it proved that Priest could continue despite the loss of Downing—the very capable Richie Faulkner came in to replace him—and is the best album since Halford’s return to the band.
Firepower welcomes fans of previous Priest records, but it also sounds modern. That’s not surprising given that the band used two producers for the album. Tom Allom worked with Priest on 1979’s Unleashed in the East and stayed with them through the 1980s. Andy Sneap has produced albums by Accept, Megadeth, Testament, and Nevermore, so he has a thorough understanding of delivering a classic metal aesthetic in a contemporary context. Despite the two producers, the overall sound of the album is consistent—perhaps too consistent. The songs tend to follow each other obediently but not always distinctly or urgently.
Firepower begins with the title track, a solid riffer that invites more than it ignites. “Lightning Strike” surpasses on all levels and would have made a better opener. The brief bursts of upper-register screams summon peak Halford. “Evil Never Dies” slips back a half a gear. “Never the Heroes” is a mid-tempo number that builds up to a catchy chorus while the blah “Necromancer” falters at the chorus. “Children of the Sun” follows the example of “Never the Heroes”. The short instrumental “Guardians” starts with piano and builds into a guitar lead. In and of itself, it’s not needed, but it does provide a point of entry into “Rising from Ruins,” which moves through almost spoken-word verses, and then launches into riff-heavy choruses.
One would expect a song with the title of “Flame Thrower” to sound heavier, fierier, hotter. This track is warm, but it doesn’t burn. That’s the same thing we can say about “Spectre”. “Traitors Gate” tries to pull things up a notch and succeeds until the chorus. The vocal and instrumental bridge before the solo both get interesting, and one wonders what a song built around them might sound like. “No Surrender” is a highlight with its anthemic chorus. The Pantera-esque “Lone Wolf” could have been a song from Fight, Halford’s 1990s band that he formed after leaving Priest. The acoustically-based “Sea of Red” bobs around and then shifts to electric guitars and drums, which keeps the track from completely sinking, but “Never Surrender” would have been the better finish.
Coming in at 14 tracks,
Firepower might be a stronger album if it followed the lead of previous albums such as British Steel, Screaming for Vengeance, or Painkiller, each of which contains ten tracks or fewer.
Firepower demonstrates that Priest has a place in current metal and that they are not just riding their past glories. With Halford closing in on 70, Downing retired, and co-guitarist Glenn Tipton’s recent announcement that he will not tour due to Parkinson’s, every round has to count. It’s not the nuclear assault of Painkiller, a touchstone for many Priest fans, or the late-day resurrection of Redeemer of Souls, but Firepower proves Judas Priest still pack some heavy artillery and can still hit the target even if not every shot is a bullseye.