Playbill

Sure, the Tim "Ripper" Owens story is pretty compelling. Going-nowhere dude ekes out a living in Akron, Ohio, fronting a Judas Priest tribute band called British Steel. A world away, Priest parts company with founding vocalist Rob Halford, whose hard partying didn't sit well with the band, and whose coming out of the closet didn't sit well with many lager-swilling fans. Owens tries out with Priest and wins front-man slot.

Owens's good fortune sounded almost like it was made in Hollywood. Well, golly, now it is, as Rock Star, the unintentionally Spinal Tap-ish tale starring Mark Wahlberg, attests.

Too bad the story of the real Judas Priest and Rob Halford isn't as warm and fuzzy as this celluloid rockumentary presents it to be. Priest already was slipping by the time 1986's Turbo was released. They tried touring with younger opening acts like Metallica and Anthrax in the early '90s, but the kids would split before the headliner appeared, leaving half-full arenas of older lads whose spare tires were starting to bulge over their leather trousers. Halford, meanwhile, was running on fumes, looking more like he should ride a Rascal out on stage, not a Harley. The band's old-style, Sabbath-inspired riffs and songs about machines ruling the world, immoral government and moral oppression also were sounding anachronistic.

After the breakup, Halford tried twice to start his own band. Not only were fans unimpressed by his solo takes on Priest hits, but they also snoozed through his new material. As for Priest, the first album released with Owens, 1997's Jugulator, was absolute piffle.

Still, things might be looking up for Priest now that '80s nostalgia is again aboil. Demolition, the band's new album, is what Jugulator should have been. Half the time Owens sounds eerily like a vintage British Steel-era Halford (check out "One on One" or "Hell Is Home" -- gosh, even after all these years, Priest favors those silly three-word song titles).

But unlike his aging predecessor, Owens can hit the upper-octave screams with plenty to spare, while also sounding contemporary enough. (In "Jekyll and Hyde," he's got the Metallica exhale-grunt thing going, and in "Devil Digger" or "Lost and Found," he's as dreamily stoned-sounding as any tattooed nu-metal front man.) Sure, they may never again headline arena tours except on the nostalgia circuit. But it's interesting to note that on Demolition, all of the elements that made Priest a huge stadium act, circa 1980, have found new legs, especially the band's crunchy, twin-guitar mega-noodling attack of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, who remain the best recycling riffmeisters this side of Angus and Malcolm Young.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr