The 1990s were a terrible time for the popular metal acts from the previous decade, and out of all the heavy bands who enjoyed enormous success during the ’80s, only Metallica was able to maintain its massive popularity as the ’90s wore on. The rest of the lot either split up or soldiered on, struggling to stay afloat during the grunge heyday of the early ’90s. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were two of the world’s premiere acts in the ’80s, but by 1992, both bands were in the midst of their own identity crises. When Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford decided to pursue solo careers early that decade, their former bands decided to keep churning out the music, but they soon discovered just how difficult it is for a heavy metal band, let alone two of the most influential heavy metal bands of all time, to replace a much-loved, highly recognizable frontmen.
As a result, Iron Maiden’s two albums with singer Blaze Bayley, despite the odd inspired moment, paled in comparison to their earlier output; Judas Priest, meanwhile, fared even worse. First, they became known as “the band who used to have the gay singer” (Halford came out of the closet in 1998), then they gained further notoriety by hiring new singer “Ripper” Owens, who used to make a living singing Judas Priest songs in a tribute band (which became the inspiration for the forgettable Mark Wahlberg movie Rock Star). The two albums they released, Jugulator and Demolition, were mediocre at best, the band relegated to playing smaller venues, in front of a diminishing fanbase. Halford, meanwhile, enjoyed a period of great creativity, first with his aggro, Pantera sound-alike group Fight, his more industrial-inspired project Two, and most recently, his band Halford, which yielded two impressive albums of simple, workmanlike metal.
Still, Maiden without Dickinson and Priest sans Halford never seemed right, and to the relief of 30- to 40-year-old headbangers worldwide, both bands wound up welcoming back their erstwhile singers. Iron Maiden patched things up with Dickinson in 1999, and have since enjoyed a return to their past glory, and when Halford and his old band mended fences in 2003, Judas Priest hoped to do the very same thing. After a DVD, a great box set, and a highly successful run as co-headliners of last summer’s Ozzfest, the long-awaited, highly anticipated reunion album by Judas Priest is finally here, and it will have their old fans beaming like they did as teenagers back in 1984.
While Angel of Retribution is easily their best album since 1990’s much-loved Painkiller, those who loved Painkiller‘s high octane, extremely aggressive style will be surprised by the new CD. Those fans who grew up with the Priest of 1982-84, though, during the glory years of Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith, will be mightily impressed. It’s a return to the band’s classic sound, before they went all gooey on Turbo, and sounds like the album fans had originally hoped they would release in 1986, instead of the overproduced party rock record they ended up putting out. This is old school to the core.
Producer Roy Z, one of the finest metal producers in the business, has molded a massive-sounding record, the thunderous bottom end of drummer Scott Travis and bassist Ian Hill sounding full and resonant, while ace lead guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing return to the melodic riffs and solos they helped pioneer, eschewing the ill-advised down-tuned chords and atonal solos on their two post-Halford albums. Halford himself turns in his usual sensational vocal performance, displaying the range that earned him the well-deserved moniker “the metal god”, delivering smooth, introspective croons, mid-range growls, high-pitched screeches, and best of all, plenty of those deafening wails he’s become famous for.
“Deal With the Devil”, “Wheels of Fire”, and the superb “Hellrider” are the kind of hard-driving metal tunes we’ve always expected from the band, Roy Z’s jacked-up sound adding new life to the veteran band. Heavier compositions such as “Judas Rising”, “Revolution” (which strangely owes a lot to Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song”), and “Demonizer” turn up the intensity considerably, coming closest to that Painkiller sound, Travis’s double-kick drumming carrying the songs. The acoustic “Angel” is a nice touch, as Priest revisits the mellower sounds of their groundbreaking 1976 album Sad Wings of Destiny, but the biggest surprise on the record is the fantastic “Worth Fighting For”, a midtempo rocker that hearkens back to the radio-friendly Point of Entry album from 1981. It’s the kind of radio-friendly song that will remind longtime fans of “Desert Plains”, and when that great breakdown kicks in two and a half minutes in, it feels like quintessential Priest, and nothing less.
As good as Angel of Retribution‘s first 35 or 40 minutes is, it comes close to completely crash-landing, first on the maudlin “Eulogy”, and then on the 13 minute epic “Lochness”. A song as overblown and bloated as the fabled beast it sings about, “Lochness” is one of the most ridiculous songs the band has ever recorded. Priest has been known to dish out some world-class cheese in the past (to this day, “United” makes this writer cringe), but this song perilously walks the tightrope between Manowar style ridiculousness and embarrassing self-parody. When Halford sells the line, “Loch Ness, confess your terror of the deep,” it’s amazing he’s able to keep a straight face, because we certainly can’t. “Lochness” is indeed a speed bump of the hefty variety, but mercifully, it’s at the end of the album, so fans can give it a cursory first listen, shake their heads in amazement, and go back to enjoying the first eight tracks, which deliver in a big, big way.
Peppered throughout the album are many not-so-subtle references to the band’s old songs and albums without (to wit: “Time to ram it down/Judgement for the tyrant”), a silly gimmick the band could have done, as it tends to get a bit distracting (and just plain goofy) for longtime fans, who want to say, “Okay, okay, we get it.” However, it’s clear Judas Priest is having fun again, and that alone is great to see. Angel of Retribution isn’t quite the earth-shattering record many had hoped for, but it’s still a very welcome return to form by one of the world’s most beloved metal bands. Judas has risen, and all is now right with the metal world.