The mighty Priest have returned to the hallowed halls of metal with their most ambitions work to date. Titled and concepted after 16th Century French apothecary Nostradamus whose prophetic writings Les Propheties have become know for their astonishing accuracy, this two-record set boasts 23 tracks and well over 140-minutes of bone-crushing, forged-in-steel metal. For a band whose legacy extends over 38 years, to approach a monolithic undertaking of this magnitude is an enormous professional risk especially in light of a collapsing music market. Yet, undeterred, the Birmingham five-piece have soldiered on and created a masterpiece that pulls together a glorious soundscape with some of the most mature lyrics vocalist Rob Halford has ever penned. Joined by guitarists Glenn Tipton and KK Downing, the three wrote, arranged and concept the entire project over an 18-month period. American drummer Scott Travis and original bassist Ian Hill were on hand to assemble a sonic stampede that merges the classic thunder of the band’s past with a modern heaviness of pure brutality.
“The idea behind the record was suggested to us by our manager,” says bassist Ian Hill over the phone from Athens, Greece. “We were all sitting around after the Angel of Retribution tour and he threw the idea out there. Rob really took to it and before long had a list of ideas and lyrical directions.” Aside from the ambitious nature of their subject, the band has expanded their bludgeonry with symphonic orchestration, keyboards (courtesy of Deep Purple’s Don Airy) and Gregorian chant-like choruses. The first disc begins, as others in their catalog, with an instrumental surge that breathes fire into the first track, “Prophecy.” Already a radio and Internet favorite, the song carries the flag of Painkiller complete with chugging twin guitars and chest thumping rhythms shadowed by Airy’s keyboards. There is a sense of 70’s Prog rock texture in the mix making the listening experience far more cinematic than the band’s 80’s records. It’s almost as if they returned to their Sad Wings of Destiny / Sin After Sin days of story telling and musical presentation.
Granted, there is far more on these two discs than one can possibly digest in a couple sittings. This is a record that like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Who’s Quadrophenia oR The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street needs the liner notes, headphones and multiple plays. Once properly digested the songs start to emerge from a sea of production like the marching “War,” the metallic “Death” or the 8-miinute “Future of Mankind” which is Point of Entry on steroids. Several shorter snippets ranging from the 53-second “Awakening” through the just over a minute “The Four Horsemen,” “Solitude” and acoustic “Shadows in the Flame” help guide the record’s mood and showcase the unprecedented skill of the musicians. Key songs transcend the past Priest formula on an epic scale. The closer on disc one, “Persecution” is one of those mind-blowing moments were Halford reaches his stride and nails notes unheard since Ram It Down’s “Blood Red Skies” Both “Visions” and title cut “Nostradamus” from disc two emit greatness that could easily become legendary triumphs.
Ian Hill, the original bassist of Judas Priest is sitting across from the Terra Vibe grounds in Athens, Greece where the band will joining The Offspring and French superstar Manu Chao at the Rockwave music festival that evening. He’s sipping his coffee and reminiscing about his nearly forty years with the metal pioneers. He talks of their early days of struggling as a bar band playing every dive and pub as their only salvation from the Birmingham factories. Black Sabbath also hailed from the same iron mills and brought the teenager much in the way of inspiration and business pitfalls. He speaks of his love of the Yardbirds, Cream and The Who, all which forged a bond between he and schoolmate K.K. Downing. “We put our first band together in school with a guy named Al Atkins and called it Judas Priest after the Dylan song ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,’ says Hill. “Funny how people think the name was much more sinister than that.”
Our conversation concentrates on Black Sabbath. “We were/are friends but for me it’s more a professional friendship,” he says. “I’ve had talks with Geezer, since we’re both bass players, but it’s never like we call each other and go for a pint.” The two bands do share a legacy as Heavy Metal patriarchs, although Hill proudly states that “Priest's are more metal.” We eventually get around to discussing Rob Halford’s exit and his return to the Priest camp. “Rob was interested in pursuing other projects,” says the bassist. “He formed a band and started touring and we didn’t really know if he was coming back or not. He was going through a lot back then and need some time to sort things out. We carried on as best we could with Ripper (Owens) but I think even Ripper wanted Rob back in the band.”
Angel of Retribution, released in 2005 marked the return to the late-eighties Priest lineup. It included original guitarist KK Downing and Glen Tipton, Hill, Halford and Racer X drummer Scott Travis. The record and tour sold very well and saw the return of their fans of legions. “We knew the fans wanted us back together but some shows were fanatical,” says Hill. “It made us feel like we could do this forever. We also got to tour with a lot of upcoming metal bands. They would come up to us and tell us how we inspired them to get into music. I like a lot of them. The future of metal is in good hands with these younger bands.” It was after the Angel of Retribution tour that the idea of doing a concept records was presented. “We liked the idea right off,” Hill continues. “Metal has always been about mystical, over-the-top kinda things. Rob started writing right away, he really did his research. He even sings in Latin on the song “Pestilence and Plague.”
“We all got to know a lot about Nostradamus,” Hill admits. “KK and Glenn were just as eager to start shaping the record. They had a number of ideas, some were just parts of songs, and others were more complicated. It’s the best playing I’ve ever done in years. We all really upped our game. Some of the arrangements were more jazz than rock. It was an exciting challenge but we couldn’t be more proud of the record.” Hill described the scrutiny and complex efforts Downing, Tipton and Halford went into the writing and later the production. “I’m still hearing things I didn’t know were there,” he says. Along the same line KK Downing told Bravewords.com, "In Judas Priest we're never afraid to take risks or push the boundaries of rock and metal as far and wide as we possibly can.”
Hill is over the moon about the fan reaction to Nostradamus thus far. “When we first approached the label and told them we wanted to do a two-CD set with a 3-LP collector’s vinyl edition it was pretty quiet in the room. But we just heard the vinyl addition already sold out and we’re approaching 100, 000 sold on the CD. It’s very exciting that people are responding so well to it.” Hill explained that, for the time being, the band are only doing a couple tracks from the album (“Prophecy” and “Death”) in their current live set but plan to add more. “Yeah, well we’re waiting for it to catch on a bit.” he says. “It’s going to take some getting use to. Eventually we’d like to do a whole tour where we play the whole record front to back. We’d love to see it with a full production and a nice stage set. It would be a tremendous challenge in itself. It would have to be done properly. It would be an entirely different thing than what people see as a Judas Priest show.”
Judas Priest are currently on the Masters of Metal tour sponsored by LiveNation. The line up is Priest, Heaven and Hell (Dio-era Black Sabbath), Motorhead and Testament. After that, Nostradamus will be getting greater attention as the band headline their own tour through the fall and winter with plans to work the epic for over a year. This interview could not have happened without radiant talents of Chipster PR, so a very special thanks to them and the every friendly and always cordial Ian Hill.
Website: Judas Priest