No one could see this coming. This summer, 34 years after their initial album release, Rocka Rolla, metal gods Judas Priest are weighing in again with an effort that tops one hour and 40 minutes in length and incorporates symphonic strings, all of it part of a rock opera tribute to the 16th century seer, Michel de Nostredame – Nostradamus.
The sprawling 23-track epic is a bold move, often atypical of legendary bands late in their careers. However, Judas Priest, dubbed one of two most influential metal bands of all time by MTV along with Black Sabbath, has always been a bit of a trailblazing outfit. And rather than slowing down in their later years, Judas Priest guitarist K.K. Downing feels the band is just now growing up.
“People have seen Judas Priest make little turns all throughout our career with the Point of Entry and Turbo albums in particular,” Downing says. “I think now, Judas Priest, for all intents and purposes, may have come of age in a certain way.”
That a band that has thrived for more than three decades feels it has finally matured with the production of Nostradamus shows just how much pride the band is taking in their latest work. The double-disk is rife with the familiar lightning-fast guitar licks that recasts the instruments as “axes” and a features a driving drum beat befitting the rhythms of a 12-cylinder engine. These are the sounds that brought Judas Priest to prominence and won them legions of dedicated fans. But now, as the band explores the various aspects of the life of mythical Nostradamus, Judas Priest ventures into new territory for its genre.
The album opens with what sounds like a recorder, then segues to strings and piano. Only around the 1:45 mark does the more familiar instrumentation of drums and guitar enter the tune, and nowhere in the intro track, “Dawn of Creation,” can you find one spot of distortion.
“The Nostradamus project is quite unique and it might turn on a wider audience who thinks, ‘This heavy metal and this Judas Priest band, it sounds pretty good to me,'” Downing says. “I think Priest was always known for trying diverse things. What’s to say that bands can’t push the boundaries of metal even further than they’ve been before. And if that’s possible I think Priest is the band to do that.”
The experimental approach has been a successful one in the past for the band, but ironically that same approach could cost them a few fans. Reviews are starting to crop up on the Internet comparing the concept album to something from Spinal Tap, the fictional, washed-up rockers from Christopher Guest’s famous mockumentary.
But those critics may be staying too close to the surface image of musicians in their middle years writing songs about the middle ages. And indeed, other reviews rave about the band’s ability to bend the subject matter, the strings and other untraditional elements usually unassociated with metal into a splendid alchemy worth savoring. It is work of which Nostradamus, an alchemist himself, would be proud.
For now, Downing and his bandmates in Judas Priest – vocalist Rob Halford, guitarist Glenn Tipton, bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis – have been working the tracks of their newest album into their setlist piece by piece, along with classics like “Breaking the Law.” The band, is currently headlining the Masters of Metal tour, which arrives at Nissan Pavilion Aug. 7, but is ultimately hoping to turn Nostradamus into a full-on musical or stage production. Beyond that, not even Downing is sure what lies ahead.
“Who knows what’s in the future for Judas Priest or what we may do next?” Downing asks rhetorically. After a radical recording effort like this one, not even Nostradamus himself could likely predict it.
As many touring bands have made a concerted effort to “go green” this summer through various methods including bio-diesel buses and carbon offsets, the environmentally conscious will be glad to know that Judas Priest’s Rob Halford will not be leaving much of an imprint with his famous Harley Davidson entrances.
“It’s been a lot of years since the fire marshals allowed us to drive it on stage using full-fledged petrol, I’ll tell you that,” Downing says. “We had to find alternative methods long ago.”
- Tickets for Judas Priest and the Masters of Metal Tour run from $22-131 and are available through Ticketmaster. For more on Judas Priest, visit www.judaspriest.com.