Part rousing classic metal, part Andrew Lloyd Webber hokum, this is a mixed bag to say the least.
One of 2005's most anticipated metal albums, Judas Priest's Angel of Retribution, which featured the return of legendary vocalist Rob Halford after a 13-year absence, while playing it safe, was nonetheless a largely satisfying comeback effort. Most people were willing to ignore its shortcomings, merely glad that the band's classic lineup was back intact. However, there was one track on the album that was particularly troubling. Concluding the CD was the 13-minute epic "Loch Ness", a doom-laden dirge that moved with about as much grace as a brontosaurus trying to negotiate a tar pit, Halford spewing some of the most unintentionally comical lines he's ever sung. Strangely, though, the band seemed to be especially proud of "Loch Ness", and when word got out that not only would Judas Priest's follow-up expand upon the musical themes of that song, but it would also be a two-disc concept album about 16th century prophet Nostradamus, more than a few alarm bells were raised. Fantasy, the occult, and history have always played a large role in metal music, but by choosing such painfully obvious subject matter, in the eyes of many, this venerable band was now flirting with self-parody.
After much hype and fanfare, Nostradamus is upon us, and as promised, it's a big one, comprised of 23 songs over the course of more than 100 minutes. More of a loose narrative akin to Iron Maiden's similarly themed Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, as opposed to a full-on rock opera like Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime, Nostradamus is surprisingly streamlined, the bruising attack of guitarists Glen Tipton and K.K. Downing, bassist Ian Hill, and drummer Scott Travis accentuated only by guitar synth, the tasteful keyboard work of veteran Don Airey, and minimal string arrangements. It makes for a rather unusual sound, perhaps even a little dated, especially when compared to the overblown, orchestral bombast of the likes of Therion and Dimmu Borgir. But considering how Manowar's monumental 2007 failure Gods of War beat us over the head with symphonic arrangements, Priest's more simplified approach ultimately works in their favor.
For a while, Nostradamus manages to win us over, as the majority of Disc One features a band that's focused, passionate, and sounding as potent as ever. "Revelations", with its synth underpinnings, is a daring blend of brooding atmospherics and a rote yet comfortable mid-tempo hard rock groove. With its tribal drum beats and interplay between keyboards and power chords, "War" is over-the-top fun, while "Pestilence and Plague" gallops along mightily, Halford in fine form, his vocal tone during the chorus hearkening back to the days of Sad Wings of Destiny. The seven-and-a-half-minute "Death" is a stunner, harnessing the doom of "Loch Ness" and tightening the screws considerably, Downing and Tipton leading the way with a flamboyant solo break. The rampaging "Persecution" winds up stealing the entire first half, though, revisiting the chilly sound of 1984's Defenders of the Faith, from the monstrously heavy riffing to the return of Halford's piercing screech. Their best song since "Painkiller", "Persecution" is the one instant where our expectations are greatly exceeded and our collective jaws hit the floor.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album fails to maintain the momentum set by Disc One's highlights. Sappy ballads "Lost Love" and "New Beginnings" are absolutely embarrassing forays into Andrew Lloyd Webber's ham-fisted sentimentality ("I'm with you forever in true love / By light of day -- and stars above"), while the second disc grinds to a complete halt, the trio of "Solitude", "Exiled", and "Alone" taking 15 lugubrious minutes focusing on a theme that one song could have accomplished. Interspersed throughout the album are no fewer than nine intro tracks in the one- to two-minute range that bridge the longer pieces, but while their effect is passable during the first half, Disc Two's song fragments quickly become tiresome. And although Judas Priest's lyrics have never been the strongest in the genre, the rhyming on the entire album is so painfully obvious, we can often see the next line coming from a mile away. Only does the churning "Visions" (reminiscent of 1988's "Blood Red Skies"), and the ferocious title track prevent Disc Two from becoming a complete waste of time.
It would be easy to paint a positive picture of Judas Priest's 16th album, as there's a fair bit to like here. Several songs are tremendous, with some ranking among the band's very best. Halford's vocal work is downright triumphant, his finest work since 1990. Tipton and Downing are as strong as ever. Best of all, it's great to see a veteran band so passionate about a project as ambitious as this. However, there are simply too many inexcusable mis-steps to ignore, as the songwriting is far too inconsistent, the second half drags for far too long, and the enormously talented Travis is woefully underused, the drummer stuck in the same turgid rut for much of the record. It all makes for a bewildering package, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes middling, and sometimes astonishingly bad, and while a good 45 minutes' worth of Nostradamus is fully deserving of high praise, on a 100-minute double album, that's nowhere near enough.