Thursday, March 15, 2018

album review: 'firepower' by judas priest

You know, I don't even I've ever mentioned my opinion on Judas Priest in any of my reviews before now. And for a band that's one of the foundational groups in the creation of heavy metal, it surprises even me that I haven't really weighed in on them... although if I'm being very honest, I can't really say my opinion is all that controversial this time. Even despite the fact that I'm not the biggest fan of straightforward thrash, revisiting the entire Judas Priest discography before this review reminded me why I still really like these guys. Granted, I am one of those fans that will call Stained Class as his favourite record from Judas Priest and will admit he's not quite as crazy about their synth-infused mainstream breakthrough in the 80s in comparison to their 70s work - although Painkiller was a pretty damn great return to form - but that's more because some of the glitzier 80s production choices haven't quite aged as well, especially around the drums and vocals, less about some pretty great compositions themselves. As for the 90s and 2000s records... look, are were very few if any bands that are consistent twenty or thirty years in, especially given the massive upheavals in metal around that time, and it's not like Judas Priest always had the most consistent discography even in their glory years.

So fast-forward to 2014, and despite having lost one of their founding guitarists K.K. Downing, Judas Priest releases Redeemer Of Souls, and for many it's cited as a big return to form, thanks to a welcome shot of energy from newcomer Richie Faulkner and Rob Halford remaining a powerhouse in front of the microphone. Granted, Judas Priest records have felt increasingly overlong in recent years and that project was no exception, but Firepower looked to be calling back to the past, slimming down under an hour and even bringing on their old producer Tom Allom to assist, along with Andy Sneap to add some modern touches. And like with when I covered Deep Purple's inFinite last year, I was preparing myself for this to be Judas Priest's last: Glenn Tipton had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and couldn't tour anymore, and as much as Rob Halford could still deliver, the band's debut came out in 1974, forty-four years ago - so okay, what did we get with Firepower?

Honestly, this review might wind up being pretty short - because yes, all the buzz is very true, Judas Priest's Firepower is easily the band's best record since Painkiller, and it very much got there by simply adhering to the hard melodic riffing, terrific solos, and knack for big hooks that broke them decades ago. Would I put it among their best work or call this a great record? Honestly, probably not - I'm not sure Firepower would be among my top three Judas Priest records or represents anything more than a very serviceable slice of accessible, thrash-leaning heavy metal that even to casual Judas Priest fans will feel familiar - but at the same time, if you're an easy sell for that sound, Firepower will definitely satisfy.

And the place we're going to start with is instrumentation and production, where I'll admit a little concern going into this record about bringing back Tom Allom - yes, I know he was one of their main producers during their 80s run, but given that I wasn't crazy about that era, I was worried about elements like the vocal pickup or an over-reliance on synthesizers away from the riffs. Thankfully, that's not really the case - there are a few vocal layer choices that are questionable, like on the bridge of 'Lone Wolf', and yes, songs like 'Spectre' and 'Never The Heroes' do feature wiry accents that open the songs, but they're not obtrusive and in the latter case lead to one of my favourites here. And I'm not letting Andy Sneap off the hook either in terms of any concessions to modernity, but really there isn't, mostly through a commitment to more consistent dynamics in the guitar layering, letting the melodies punch off the rhythm guitar work, and a willingness to let Judas Priest play some songs with greater simmer and presence, like the smoldering interlude midway through 'Evil Never Dies' or the misty melodies lines ebbing through the more atmospheric segments of 'Spectre'. That said, there are a few moments that feel a tad choppy or undercooked - I wasn't wild about how clipped the riffs sounded as they opened 'Flame Thrower', and for a band that's always had a fondness for their symphonic side like on 'Guardians' or the ballad 'Sea Of Red', I'm a little surprised those elements weren't given more weight. Granted, it could be a choice to slim things down and call back to their glory years, but why then keep the record at nearly an hour and not trim it down to just the tightest cuts. That's been the frustrating thing with Judas Priest records over the past few decades, they always feel like they run a tad bit longer than they should, and while I wouldn't say any song here is outright bad, not all these hooks are distinctive enough to really earn the full hour.

But really, a lot of that is nitpicking surrounding a very strong core sound, and Judas Priest prove that over forty years in they still have a ton of potency. I love the surging higher guitars on 'Lightning Strikes', the swaggering liquid tones behind 'Never The Heroes', and while it feels a tad short the hook on 'No Surrender' is amazingly catchy as one of the more straightforward cuts here. And that's before we even get to the solos, often traded off or even synchronized between Richie Faulkner and Glenn Tipton, with the big standouts coming on 'Traitor's Gate', the title track, and the other catchy-as-sin track 'Rising From Ruins'. And while Rob Halford can't quite hit the shrillest of high notes anymore, he's smart enough not to try and instead relies a little more heavily on his lower register and multi-tracking, which keeps him just as much of a powerhouse presence without overselling it... and yet with songs like 'Spectre' and 'Evil Never Dies', he proves he still has that cackling presence and personality that remains so fiercely compelling.

Now what isn't all that compelling are the lyrics... and I'm honestly a little split on this, because it's not like anyone comes to Judas Priest for the writing, or that any of it is outright bad or embarrassing. A bit silly, sure - 'Necromancer' is quite literally describing what a necromancer would do and it's kind of underwhelming for a fantasy nerd like myself, and it's a similar case for 'Flame Thrower' and 'Lone Wolf' - but if you can clue yourself into the right mindset, there are some gems here. 'Lightning Crashes', for instance, quite literally is speaking from the point of view of the bolt itself incinerating one speaking against higher powers, and I liked the moral ambiguity of the war-torn soldier on 'Never The Heroes'. If anything the larger complaint about the writing is that it can feel a tad conventional for Judas Priest, which means i'm left wishing they could have pushed a little harder beyond the details - I liked the country reference on 'Evil Never Dies' and the implied stories behind 'Sea Of Red' and 'Traitors Gate', but I could have gone for more. Granted, if they were looking to keep things straightforward to call back to the past, I'd get it, but I still found myself wishing for a little more meat to back up the riffs.

But as a whole, I liked this - but hell, as a Judas Priest fan an album like this is easy to like, especially given how long the band has been active. Again, I wouldn't say it's among my top three from the group, but it's easily the best thing they've put out since Painkiller nearly twenty-eight years ago, and I can certainly respect the talent on display to deliver this brand of metal while not sounding tired or succumbing to gimmicks. So for me, it's a light 7/10 and certainly a recommendation, but if you're new to Judas Priest there's a wealth of other records I'd check out first, this is more for the diehard fans. But if you're curious and looking for some thrash-leaning heavy metal... yeah, you'll have fun with this, definitely worth a listen!

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