In the decade since guitarist K.K. Downing left Judas Priest, the iconic six-stringer has kept a low profile while producing albums for Hostile and Violent Storm; penning his 2018 memoir, Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest; and quietly conjuring new musical ideas. But after a few unplanned stage appearances — first with guitarist Ross the Boss in 2019, then with a one-off lineup that included former Megadeth bassist David Ellefson and former Priest drummer Les Binks later that year — Downing felt compelled to return.
After inquiring if Priest would want him back in the fold for its 50th-anniversary tour and being told no, he set out to form a new band. With complete creative control, he wrote and recorded most of his new release, Sermons of the Sinner, in four months, integrating unused riffs from the past with fresh licks, and then making some tweaks after the 2020 global pandemic brought worldwide touring to a standstill.
The debut album from Downing’s group, KK’s Priest — which features former Priest and Yngwie Malmsteen vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens, Hostile guitarist A.J. Mills, former Voodoo Six bassist Tony Newton and DeathRiders/Cage drummer Sean Elg — drops on Aug. 20. It’s a turbo-charged affair propelled by Downing’s and Mills’ rapid-fire guitars, a tight rhythm section and Owens’ intense vocals and screams. Metal fans, particularly those of the Ripper years in Priest, should vibe on melodic anthems like “Brothers of the Road” and “Sacerdote y Diablo,” and faster tracks like “Wild and Free.”
Sermons of the Sinner is a celebration of heavy metal, the romance of the road and Downing’s life at the beginning of a musical movement that still endures. The video for the title track arrives today (June 16), and the initial reaction to the high-energy video to the first single, “Hellfire Thunderbolt,” was generally positive: The clip has racked up 930,000-plus views on YouTube and over 200,000 plays on Spotify. Downing has found the broad spectrum of online comments interesting to absorb, especially when people make comparisons to past Priest efforts, notably its Grammy-nominated 1990 album, Painkiller.
“I don’t quite see that myself, but then again, would I if I’m so close to it?” muses Downing. “It’s all subjective. It’s absolutely down to the fan, and everybody’s individual as to what they perceive and what they hear.”
One comparison that he does not want fans to make is that KK’s Priest is another version of Judas Priest. “I don’t see it that way,” asserts Downing, acknowledging that some fans dislike his group’s moniker. “We’re not a new old band or an old new band. I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but the face of KK’s Priest [on the album cover] has yet to be revealed. It will all come to life [in the video for “Sermons of the Sinner”].”
While Downing admits he cannot separate himself from the name after spending 40 years in the band whose music became a part of his personal fiber, he explains, “This is not just a version [of Judas Priest]. That’s where the fans are looking at this wrong. I understand that, though. This is not me saying, ‘Oh, this is my Judas Priest.’ [But] I don’t want to dispense with the name Priest, because it belongs to me as much as it does anybody else… and more.”
While Downing has yet to determine the setlist for his anticipated future tour that is in the works he relishes the challenge of pulling from new songs as well as Priest catalog that includes deep cuts and the two albums Owens sang on (1997’s Jugulator and 2001’s Demolition) that have not been performed since the vocalist departed the band in 2003. Downing is also open to the whims of the fans, many of whom were excited at the prospect of having Binks play on the album, but a wrist injury hampered that plan.
One thing the guitarist has stressed to promoters is that, seeing as he is turning 70 in October, he wants “to play to as many people as I possibly can in a short amount of time, as you would. I’m quite happy to jump onto festivals or anything that’s going into arenas as support. And I’m just as happy to headline and go out there. I’d obviously love to go out and play a full-blown show. But no delusions of grandeur at the moment.”
Downing, who is still limber and pulls off his usual stage moves, says he does miss traveling and is looking forward to another global trek over the coming year. And his fire for music still burns strong. He says he already has plenty of material for the next album, which would make it easier for the band to come off the road, get to work and not wait a year or more to create a new one.
A standout track on Sermons of the Sinner is its unusual closer, “Return of the Sentinel.” The sequel to the famous Priest epic “The Sentinel” from Defenders of the Faith is an elegiac epic with some fantastic guitarwork that starts heavy and ends soft. In the nine-minute odyssey, the violent avenger of the original song now faces his personal twilight. Downing feels there is a poignancy to that song in particular because, in some ways, it mirrors how he feels about his presence in the music world, as also expressed in the title track.
“Let’s appreciate the music that we love and be loud and proud,” declares Downing. “We don’t care if people think it’s a bit old-fashioned or boring. It’s who we are and what we do. We take our music with us through life on the journey. ‘Sermons of the Sinner’ is that uplifting kind of message. Because we are essentially dinosaurs, and we will actually fade off — everybody that meant anything and did anything in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, those incredible years that created these genres. It’ll be a page in history. But it’s still there, and that’s what this album is there for.”
While that may sound like a downer, Downing looks optimistically to younger musicians to take up the mantle of classic rock and metal, to take tried-and-true ideas and invigorate them with new energy and fresh ideas. “If you look at Greta Van Fleet, for example, a lot of people don’t like it because it sounds like Zeppelin,” he notes, “but I’m totally on board. And if we could have a new Judas Priest or KK’s Priest or Deep Purple, that would be good, wouldn’t it?”
Right now, Downing still has more music to make and shows to play. “I’m a very passionate and very emotional guy,” he says. “Even though I’ve got a Brummie accent, I’m a very deep person, and that’s why maybe I do have it in me to do what I do. I enjoyed doing this record. To me, it sounds fresh. It sounds K.K. fresh, if you know what I mean, and I feel energy from it. I think that’s a good thing.”