I'm in Bucharest, Romania, right now, about to leave for a festival gig," relays Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford. "We're in Turkey tomorrow — it just shows you the reach of heavy metal music!"
Though known for his distinctive high-pitched wailing on a slew of essential head-banging tracks spanning 35 years, Halford's speaking voice is that of a calm, proper English gentleman, one you'd find down at the pub or in the halls of Parliament. (Albeit dressed in studded black leather and riding a Harley.)
Priest is currently on tour supporting Nostradamus, its new double-length concept record about the life and legacy of the eponymous 16th-century French apothecary, philosopher and seer whose written "quatrains," some believe, predicted everything from the French Revolution and the rise of Hitler to the moon landings and 9/11 attacks.
5:30 p.m. Saturday, August 23, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005Lake Robbins Dr., The Woodlands, 281-363-3300.
"We had all heard of Nostradamus, of course, and it seemed like his story was just waiting in the wings for us," says Halford, who wrote the album with Priest guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing. "His story was the perfect vehicle for a conceptual musical piece, and it was like striking gold after doing some research. Plus, we liked the idea of doing something adventurous."
Nostradamus took two years to write and record — an eternity in music, and especially metal. It is — to put it mildly — unlike anything else the band that produced Hell Bent for Leather and Turbo has ever done, and fan and press reaction has been decidedly mixed.
Many give the group kudos for trying something boldly new at a point in its career when it would be easy to put out a "normal" Priest record. But others have balked at the project's length, far slower tempos and Spinal Tap-like characteristics — spoken-word intros, strings and synthesizers, bombastic lyrics of vaguely D&D-ish savagery and sorcery. Ultimately, Nostradamus demands listeners' time and attention; it's not a Priest record to put on at a party or while driving, and Halford knows that.
"All concept records are very unusual moments for groups," he says. "It's almost like you're getting a new band, and it has to be treated and listened to differently than a studio record. Like [Pink Floyd's] The Wall or [The Who's] Tommy, they kind of stand apart in the [artists'] catalog, and that's what this one will do."
Nostradamus certainly lends itself to a dramatic presentation, something not lost on the band.
"Could it be a western musical? A Broadway musical? A video? Could you get Johnny Depp to play Nostradamus in 2009? Why not!" asks Halford rhetorically — though it's unlikely you'll see Captain Jack Sparrow hitting the multi-octave notes Halford does on quaintly titled tracks such as "War," "Pestilence and Plague," "Death" and "Exiled."
"Our fans know we're diverse," notes the singer before reeling off a bunch of Priest's best-known song titles. "One minute we could be the 'Painkiller,' then your 'Turbo Lover,' then we go 'Living After Midnight' and we end up 'Breaking the Law.' I know this won't be for everyone, but if you're a hardcore fan of Priest, then you know to expect the unexpected. We don't want to be repetitive."
Judas Priest was formed in 1970 in Birmingham, England, by childhood friends Downing and Ian Hill (bass), using the same name as original singer Al Atkins's recently broken-up band (a name taken from a song on Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding album). After Atkins left in 1974, a woman Hill was then dating suggested her brother, Rob Halford, might be up for the job. He was. That same year, second guitarist Tipton came aboard as well.
Throughout the '70s and '80s, this core foursome (with a series of drummers) released albums including Rocka Rolla (their 1974 debut) and hands-down metal classics Stained Class (1978), British Steel (1980) and Screaming for Vengeance (1982). The albums sold well among the metal faithful, but Priest also broke through in the singles market with more commercial fare, namely, the songs Halford mentioned above and "You've Got Another Thing Comin'."
Alongside acts like Iron Maiden and Saxon, Judas Priest was at the forefront of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (abbreviated NWOBHM), music which often featured fast-fingered twin guitars, screaming vocals and double bass drums, breaking away from the bluesier, slower tempos of earlier metal pioneers such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.
Halford eventually left Judas Priest in 1991, going on to front other bands including Fight, while the other Priests soldiered on with replacement Tim "Ripper" Owens, whose fan-to-frontman journey was the basis of the 2001 Mark Wahlberg film Rock Star. Halford returned in 2003, as Priest resumed heavy touring and released the well-received Angel of Retribution two years later. The current lineup is that original quartet plus Scott Travis on drums, which brings us back to the future with Nostradamus.
"We do a couple of songs from it on this tour, and I'm having fun getting into the character," Halford says.
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Some shows, adds Halford, Priest plays "the whole goddamn thing start to finish," but in Houston they simply won't have time. Priest is headlining the "Metal Masters" package bill over Motörhead, Heaven and Hell — the rechristened Ronnie James Dio-led version of Black Sabbath — and a reunited Testament. With apologies to Iron Maiden, it's hands down the classic-metal show of 2008.
Halford admits he can't exactly replicate his voice of 30 years ago, but notes that it is stronger since he gave up smoking five months ago. Previously, he'd been tobacco-free for 20 years, but then fell off the wagon.
"I can get pretty close to the mark, and I do get as much physical rest as I can," he laughs. "But I don't delve too much into the mystery of the voice!"
Sounds more like a job for a certain French prophet.