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Rock hard, ride free

5/13/2015

JPriest_TS14_050714_0156 toned

Judas Priest will bring their “Redeemer Of Souls” tour to
Harrah’s Stir Cove on May 20, with special guest, Saxon.

As a youngster growing up in a predominantly farm-based community in northwest Iowa, my musical palette consisted of heavy AM radio doses of Hall and Oates, Lionel Ritchie and the Village People. The music I heard was whatever was being fed to me on the radio by Wolfman Jack and Casey Kasem. On the solid-state television set, with its four channels (including the Public Broadcast Service channel), it was “Solid Gold” and “American Bandstand.”

I was a lemming, taking it in without question. After all, if everyone else’s idea of the Second Coming was the Bay City Rollers singing “Saturday Night,” by God, they must be right ……..right?

Then came The Awakening. I was in eighth grade and in the locker room prior to basketball practice. Just a day like any other, really. That is until my good friend Todd Roede, the curly haired cool kid who could dribble circles around anyone, shoot with both hands and drain three-pointers like layups, sat down next to me with his cassette player.

Neither of us came from wealthy families, so we had what we had and didn’t know any different. The holes in my basketball shoes were fine. Ventilation. Roede’s cassette player, an off-brand, one-speaker affair purchased at the local discount store, was golden, thank you.

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“Hey, you gotta hear this,” he told me, setting the tiny unit down and pushing the play button.

Three seconds of silence. Then, there it was. The first strains of “Hellion/Electric Eye.” My Duran Duran-soaked ears screamed for mercy, but my brain was telling me otherwise. It was dark. It was loud. And it was good. Damn good.

As if the rush of this newfound sinister music form wasn’t enough, a few seconds later came “the voice.” It was the Metal God himself, Mr. Rob Halford.

“Up here in space/I’m looking down on you/My lasers trace/Everything you do,” he sang as though he was giving us a crystal ball preview of what the world would be like 30 years into the future.

And that was it. An addict was born, and Judas Priest was my heroin.

Thirty years and change later, I had grown up. I’m the father of four children, a husband with a career and a mortgage, all standard fare for a 40-something man with a dome of chrome. In other words, a lemming.

Then came Mr. Halford. Again.

But this time it wasn’t the sonic delight that was hearing his artistry on a Judas Priest album in eighth grade. This time it was as an adult in the professional realm of having a phone conversation recently for an interview in which we discussed the state of metal, what the 1980s were really like, and where this music form is going.

Halford came across not as an egotistical man of metal prominence winding down a storied career, but as an energized, yet humble frontman eager to take on the world.

“Things are going great here, and we’ve been having a great time playing heavy metal for the masses,” an upbeat Halford said via phone from Buenas Aires, South America, where the band was performing as part of the Monsters of Rock tour. “The fans really love their heavy metal here. We were mobbed at the airport when we got here as though we were the Beatles. It was insane.

“We’ve done a couple of these tours before, and this time we’re with our great friends Ozzy (Osbourne) and Lemmy (Kilmister, of Motorhead), so we’re having a great time.”

Halford, Osbourne and Kilmister are legendary frontmen, considered by many to be the godfathers of the heavy metal genre itself, which hit American shores in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with Priest, Motorhead and the Osbourne-fronted Black Sabbath.

Incredibly, despite decades of heavy touring and the requisite indulgences of the ’80s, the three have managed to forge on and continue to hoist the metal flag.

But it hasn’t been easy.

Kilmister, the heavy metal version of Keith Richards, has been hospitalized with health issues on multiple occasions over the course of the past two years. Halford himself has shown signs of wear and tear, undergoing back surgery in 2013 and another surgical procedure the following year.

Halford said he feels better than he has in years following the procedures. And while he’s not the same frontman that commandeered stages and drew in audiences around the world with his three-octave range in the band’s heyday, the 63-year-old still is still in remarkably good shape vocally and relishes the challenge of giving fans the most bang for their hard-earned buck.

Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford.

Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford.

“Life throws challenges at you, and I’ve always felt when that kind of thing happens, you grab hold of the metal as hard as you can and you start fighting back,” Halford said during an appearance on Eddie Trunk’s “Trunk Nation” show. “And I had some incredible people helping me and supporting me through my recovery as well as the amazing neurosurgeon that worked on me in the UK. And I’m back on my feet. But this is what we do. When we hit a wall of any nature, we push back and there are some incredible things that can be done for people with this type of injury in today’s world.

“It was a very, very difficult time — but I pulled through it, thank the Lord, and I’m back on my feet.”

Halford and bandmates Glenn Tipton (guitar), Richie Faulkner (guitar), Ian Hill (bass) and drummer Scott Travis have returned to American shores for a headline tour, which will include a stop at Harrah’s Stir Cove in Council Bluffs on May 20 in support of the band’s latest album, “Redeemer of Souls,” released in July of 2014. The album is a fiery effort and a return-to-the-basics offering, which firmly put any rumors of the band’s recording demise to rest. Whereas the group’s previous effort, the 2008 concept album “Nostradamus” left some fans and critics bewildered with its use of orchestration, keyboards and choral elements, “Redeemer,” is a return to form with its ripping opening track “Dragonaught” and classic Priest guitar harmonies of “Sword of Damocles.”

Ironically, the album almost didn’t happen. Following the departure of long-time guitarist K.K. Downing in 2011, the band was on the verge of retirement and there were indications that Priest had reached the end. Faulkner was brought on board for the “Epitaph” tour, which many thought to be the band’s swan song. In reality, what the tour did was show the band what the blond-haired, youthful guitarist had to offer: the look, talent and a much-needed enthusiasm and spark that created a new energy to continue on. And continue they did, putting together one of their best albums decades with “Redeemer.”

“It was important for us to come back, refocus on our previous work and put together a good album,” Halford said. “And I think we did that. It’s a really strong record. It’s something we’re very proud of.”

The band is also celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the release of its “Defenders of the Faith” album. The set includes a remastered version of the 1984 classic, complete with a two-CD live performance from the tour as well. The release was a follow-up to the multi-platinum “Screaming For Vengeance” album, which took the band to new heights on American shores.

Halford recalls the band feeling pressure to hit capture lightning in a bottle one more after having produced their most successful album of its career to that point in “Screaming.” But once the writing began for “Defenders,” those fears were quickly put to rest.

“We had had the big hit track (‘You’ve Got Another Thing Coming’), and we wanted to keep the momentum and growth going. And we did, and it sort of became a larger than life experience for us. ‘Defenders’ is a tougher record, if you will, and I think there’s a harder edge to it than ‘Screaming.’ I think we basically took the great experiences from ‘British Steel’ and ‘Screaming’ and turned it into what ‘Defenders’ ended up being, which was a great, potent record.”

Halford said the “Screaming/Defenders” era was a unique one for the band in other ways as well. Now a commercially viable entity, Judas Priest began filling arenas and gaining a large, rabid fan base stretching from coast to coast. Halford said that period in the band’s career will likely never to be topped.

“In the ’80s, we saw the global dominance of heavy metal music through the advent of MTV, and there was a hunger for anything metal or hard rock,” he said. “We were there to fill the need.

“We were just hell bent for leather through the ’80s. It was a most enjoyable period, with money all over the place, high spirits and just a decade of overindulgence; in a good way, of course.”

Much has changed since then, including the record industry itself. Once a powerful money-making machine, it is now but a mere shell of what it once was. The digital era of MP3s, the ability to self-promote via social media and record albums in the comforts of a home studio — sans the pressure of record execs breathing down artists’ collective necks for product — have become standards in today’s music world. Large record labels still exist, but with album sales having plummeted during the course of this transition to a new business model, labels aren’t able to provide the financial backing and artist development that once existed. Once upon a time a band was allowed three, maybe four, albums to define itself. Now, it’s one and done. Produce or die.

Halford, in his usual styling, isn’t as pessimistic about the state of the industry, however. In his mind, it’s simply a matter of things going through a cyclical change.

“I think things are for the better right now,” he said. “The landscape is enormous, and there’s a continuous flow of bands that are coming through like Five Finger Death Punch, Royal Blood and Rival Sons.

“It’s a different vibe. Are those glory years going to return? No. The Internet has changed that. But, overall, I think the state of the heavy metal scene is absolutely fantastic, and we’re proud to be a part of that mix.”

As for the future of Priest itself, Halford said things are pointing in the right direction on that front, too. The tours are going well, and new music may be in the works.

“There may be another record from Priest in the next one or two years,” he said. “We’ve spent over 40 years making metal for the people. It’s the fans that keep us going out, and it’s a joy to be able to re-establish that contact with them.” CV

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