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Judas Priest – Firepower Review

March 10, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter
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Judas Priest – Firepower Review  

1. Firepower
2. Lightning Strike
3. Evil Never Dies
4. Never The Heroes
5. Necromancer
6. Children of the Sun
7. Guardians
8. Rising From Ruins
9. Flame Thrower
10. Spectre
11. Traitors Gate
12. No Surrender
13. Lone Wolf
14. Sea Of Red

On the eve of their 50th anniversary, Judas Priest return with Firepower. There’s plenty of reason to celebrate the band’s 18th studio album, but it’s the return of legendary producer Tom Allom that truly catches the eye. Under his stewardship (1979-88) Priest entered a ferocious commercial and critical purple patch, cementing their immortal status on British Steel (’80), Screaming For Vengeance (’82) and Defenders Of The Faith (‘84).

But what will Allom offer in 2018? Is this a chance to relive the past, recapture their mojo or merely experiment with a steady set of hands on the wheel? Truth be told, Priest need not hit the reset button. 2014’s Redeemer Of Souls was a well-received display of raw power that largely erased the lingering stench of 2008’s bloated and misjudged concept album, Nostradamus. In this light, Firepower has nothing, in particular, to prove.

The title track starts proceedings and for 90 trepidatious seconds there’s a feeling that this could all go very wrong. The sheer power of the instrumental is pleasing, but Rob Halford’s vocal feels thin on the back end and the lyrics verge of self-parody, appearing both ridiculous and vacuous. Sitting between Iron Maiden’s ambition, Alice Cooper’s crooked rasp and Axl Rose’s savage howl, the track pummels and surges in search of coherent direction and then, suddenly, it all falls into place – as much for the listener as the band themselves. Priest have always been absurd and outrageously camp, but it requires half a track of bruising guitars and throat shredding cries to silence the cynicism and bring the audience into the band’s life or death world of leather and damnation.

Priest and Halford are 100% committed to the cause. There is no wink and no nod, they might be approaching their 70s, but when they step into the studio, they are a bad arse biker gang ready to face the apocalypse and spit in the devil’s eye. Like the best showman, they never let the façade slip and like the gnarliest fighters, they never pull their punches. Halford is going to reach for every weapon (high note) in his arsenal. He will make no concession to age and his band will eschew the dampening tones of “maturity”. The sheer self-confidence that exudes from the album’s opening salvo is frightening and it quickly becomes apparent that this is the record that Axl Rose spent 20 years trying to perfect (Chinese Democracy). Free from self doubt, brimming with ambition and oozing swagger, Firepower is a joy.

So what does Tom Allom bring to the table on his return? Well first and foremost he gets the hell out of the way. Judas Priest manage to sound thrillingly modern without attempting to chase a single trend. In fact, they out right reject a few modern metal cliches. How is this achieved? Well, Allom has focused on cleanliness. This record sounds picture perfect. It is free from murk, distortion, down tuning or starkly pitched levels. Each instrument is clear, crisp, balanced and brutally loud. The result is a record so volumous and bombastic it could have only been produced in 2018 – there’s no nostalgic nods, no fake fuzz or any other tricks to make it sound like this album where made 30 years ago.

Nevertheless, Priest sidestep modernity by refusing to embrace any of modern metals nebulous trends. In the wake of Black Metal and a million other sub-genre’s rise, it feels like an eternity since anyone released an album that didn’t sound like it was recorded in a icy echo chamber, a scuzzy dive bar bathroom or from under the surface of some fetid swamp. Make no mistake, these studio atmospherics have reinvigorated modern metal, but it is so refreshing to hear a crystal clear LP. It’s as if Allom lead Priest to a state of the art studio, opened the door and simple told the band to “Rock it”…

Intriguingly, without ever sounding like anything other than Priest record, Firepower manages to weave a thread from Hendrix and Deep Purple through the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal towards thrash and 90s arena rock. This isn’t a conscious effort, Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner are simply adept and knowledgeable guitarists who have a knack of unearthing the fundamental commonalities behind the divergent scenes. And it’s this breadth of knowledge that allows the album to feel so fresh and varied; they find a million different routes to the same fly-by-the-seat of your pants destination. It would appear, despite appearances, that Priest’s sound would have been fit for any era.

If there is a weak point it is Halford’s sonic writing. He is exceeding good at finding clever on topic rhymes that ensure satisfying syllable counts and narrative coherence. He also seems quite committed to good writing and not cutting corners. If a sentence should logically end with “defiled”, but “denied” would make an easier rhyme, then dammit, Rob’s going to contort his voice to ensure the proper word finds it place. This is admirable – undoubtedly, in another life, he’d have made a tremendous rapper – unfortunately, it can’t disguise the fact that the actual subject matter here is pretty threadbare. Fighting for peace and redemption, never surrendering, standing as one to fight evil necromancers and the like. It never really amounts to much. Sadly, Halford has never been able to summon the grandiose scope of Iron Maiden. These are not preposterous epics, they are (strictly lyrically speaking) silly and simple throwaways.The humanity, humor and vulnerability that permeated Screaming For Vengeance is long gone.

Luckily, Halford’s vocal performance is so committed (and the backing tracks so brutally addictive) that this lack of gravitas hardly matters. This is a riot, you raise your fist and scream in solidarity – it’s best if you don’t think about what your actually saying (you’ll only regret it later). Still, Halford cannot be let off some outright howlers. Early on, an intriguing verse about an insidious devil stalking his prey behind closed doors is wasted when the chorus simply shrieks “EVIL NEVER DIES” – a thoughtless and insipid punchline if ever there was one. The worst, however, is saved for further done the line, when a barnstorming blend of darting guitars and chugging grooves is squandered as Rob rasps: “You’re on the run, from the stun of the Flameflower”, Shakespeare it ain’t.

It might be easy to nitpick, but Priest have never been concerned with saving face. They do not cringe and they do no flinch. “Not for the weak, only the brave” they sing on “No Surrender” and that is the lesson of Firepower: it would be easy to be turned off by any number of uncool utterances, but for those who persevere will be rewarded with one of the richest and most luscious onslaughts of riffage imaginable. At 49 Priest have no right to sound this energised and, at an hour in length, Firepower should slow down, come unglued or at least repeat itself, but it never does. This is a thrill ride, but it is no slight punk affair, Priest cave your skull in over the course of fourteen full bloodied tracks. So sit backin awe as they gallop, slide, thrash, squeal and strut with needle eyed precision and ungodly power.

Judas Priest may show the odd sign of age on Firepower, but they never, not for one second, show any signs of growing up. There’s no toning it down, no gropes toward profundity and no concessions to the cutting edge. Where other artists in their 60s sound embarrassed to be making music and try so hard to sound like elder statesmen, Priest are still hell bent for leather. They’ve learnt every trick of the trade and are awash with tonal subtleties and crafty influences, but they are all in the employ of immediacy. This is music that lives and breathes in the here and now. Firepower is alive. It screams from every pour. It’s fast, ferocious and has no interest in aging gracefully. Just the way it should be. God bless Judas Priest.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Judas Priest will not age gracefully, where's the fun in that? Free from self doubt, brimming with ambition and oozing swagger, Firepower is riff-riding joy to behold.

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Judas Priest, David Hayter