Judas Priest Is Back With a Vengeance With a Tour, Which Marks Their 40th Anniversary

Steve Thorne/Redferns
Rob Halford of Judas Priest performs on stage at Wolverhampton Civic Hall on July 21, 2011 in Wolverhampton, United Kingdom. 

Even the heavy metal gods have to do their laundry.

Judas Priest's Rob Halford is calling from his home in England to talk about the upcoming tour by the veteran metal act, and he notes that he's busy washing his underwear at the moment. Thanks for that, Rob.

Of course, his leather garb with metal studs doesn't go through the spin cycle in his own laundry room.

"That's all taken care of by the wonderful team we have on the road crew," Halford says.

Plenty of care is being taken in and around Judas Priest these days.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the band's debut album, Rocka Rolla, which was released five years after the group formed in Birmingham, England.

It's time to recognize Priest's place as a bona fide heavy metal deity, with a catalog of 17 studio albums that have sold more than 45 million copies worldwide, according to the band, and such heavy metal anthems as "Living After Midnight," "Breaking the Law," "Screaming for Vengeance" and "You've Got Another Thing Comin'." While not pop hits, their songs were rock radio favorites. Priest also enjoys a legacy as one of metal's most influential groups, from its sound to its look to its impact on the genre.

 

 

"Judas Priest is everything we wanted to be as a band starting out," says Metallica frontman James Hetfield. "If someone asked you to define what heavy metal is, that's one of the bands you'd show them." 

But Priest isn't just reliving the past.

Judas Priest Talks 40th Anniversary

This year saw the arrival of the band's latest album, Redeemer of Souls, a full-throttle tour de force that is a testament to the quintet's enduring power and rite-of-passage popularity. 

Although the group described its Epitaph World Tour in 2010 as a "farewell" run, the band returns at full strength for a tour of the United States that begins Oct. 1.

"It's a blessing, an absolute blessing," says Halford, 63, who joined the band ahead of its debut release in 1974. "It's remarkable, isn't it? What's really heartwarming about this is the fact that the so-called old guard of metal and rock are still as strong and thriving as we ever were. I have very close friends like [Black] Sabbath, who released a fantastic metal album [2013's 13] and went out on this huge world tour. They've been together longer than we have. Then you get [Iron] Maiden, then bands like Metallica, doing that type of process.

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"All the bands that have been making this music for a very long time are still as strong and relevant as they ever were, so we're part of some very good company."

Maintaining relevance is not easy, of course, especially in a field that can be as tightly strictured as metal, with its fans' clear expectations of what does and does not fit the genre.

But Priest's consistently high profile is the result of "the original [goal] of constant improvement," according to bassist Ian Hill, the sole remaining founding member from the 1969 lineup.

"We've never been afraid to experiment with new effects, recording techniques and whatever gizmos are there. If it works, great. If not, it's forgotten," adds Hill, 63. "That's what makes the band current and up to date, and keeps new projects fresh and appealing."

Priest also has stayed abreast of musical trends through the years and how to incorporate them into its own sound.

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"We've never been stupid enough to think we know it all, and we've always realized you can learn from any band," says guitarist Glenn Tipton, co-producer of Redeemer of Souls and a third of Priest's writing team with Halford and fellow guitarist Richie Faulkner, who replaced co-founder K.K. Downing in 2011.

"For example," says Tipton, 66, "what I loved about the punk and new wave era and what we learned from it was those bands gave us so much energy. They were writing stuff on three chords, but it wasn't three blues chords -- they were coming up with all crazy kinds of stuff. So we got a song like 'Breaking the Law,' which was more simple for us but still fit."

Drummer Scott Travis, who was a Priest fan before joining the group in late 1989, affirms that band members -- and especially Halford and Tipton -- remain metal enthusiasts.

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"The guys all stay youthful at heart," says Travis, 53. "We never want to grow up, so we all think we're making heavy metal records like 22-year-old guys. That's the key to playing and creating heavy metal: You still have to think like a young heavy metal fan. And it's what we love to do."

Halford, meanwhile, says the group was so energized by the sessions for Redeemer of Souls -- especially after Downing's departure had the band contemplating its end of days -- that he's already "ready to jump into the next Judas Priest record." That means a 50th anniversary may well be on the horizon.

"There's a sense that there's another great metal song to write, another great metal album to put together, another great tour to go out on," says Halford. "It's the hunger. If you've still got that, that serves a series of purposes and reasons why you still do it. Maybe we're chasing the elusive finale, but right now I feel like it's amazing to think what might come next from Priest."

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of Billboard.