Judas Priest singer Rob Halford and guitarist Richie Faulkner are in a lively mood when they sit down with Billboard to talk about the band’s 18th studio album, Firepower, which arrives March 9 on Epic.
Co-produced by Tom Allom (Priest’s producer from the ’80s) and Andy Sneap, the propulsive release is like a modern day British Steel. On the surface, these metal manifestos deliver what Priest fans crave — impassioned vocals, soaring guitars, thundering rhythms — but when one delves deeper, the lyrics speak to how Halford views the state of the world. It’s not a political record, but if one were to add in names and events, it could be.
“Everybody has made that comment,” enthuses Halford. “I had no idea that this was happening. Maybe it’s the effect of the songs together. Because when you’re doing one song you’re living the life of that song for as long as it takes, then you put that to bed and move on to the next one. This is a very interesting reference that’s coming forward that I didn’t even think about.”
Arguably the band’s strongest outing since their Grammy-nominated 1990 epic Painkiller, the upcoming Firepower has its share of headbanging barnstormers like “Evil Never Dies,” “Necromancer,” and “Flamethrower” (which has some seriously catchy riffing), but other songs stretch beyond the realm of fantasy: “Never The Heroes” and “Sea Of Red” honor veterans of the World Wars, “Children Of The Sun” laments how we are treating Mother Earth, and anthems like “No Surrender” and “Rising From Ruins” (the album’s majestic centerpiece) inspire thoughts of solidarity against oppressive forces. The villainous antagonist of “Spectre” tries to lead the masses astray — you could pluck him from real life: “In a league of his own/ a villain with no morals/ above the law and reckless/mutating day by day.”
As Halford has stated, Firepower‘s lyrical direction evolved naturally. The famed singer reveals that when Priest are in writing mode, he simply comes into a room with a list of song titles. “Sometimes hundreds of them,” says Halford. “I put them down in front of Glenn and Richie and I just go, ‘Pick a song title.’” He adds that the group already had some of the music for “Sea of Red,” which they knew had a ballad-like vibe to it, when that title was selected.
“It was about the poppies in Flanders in Belgium after World War I,” recalls Halford. “A poem was written about them [“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae], and that stuck with me since I was a kid. It’s amazing how sometimes messages take forever… Like ‘Loch Ness’ — I had that idea for twenty-five years before it was made” on the band’s 2005 reunion album Angel of Retribution. “Sea Of Red” offers “this sense of afterlife, hope, belief beyond the physical plane. That’s very hippie-ish, isn’t it?”
Faulkner recalls when Halford showed up to the studio with the lyrics to “Sea of Red”. “We pretty much had the music there,” the guitarist recollects. “Rob came in and sang this poem, and I remember thinking it was unbelievable. It was, like, goosebump territory. You could see the movie in your mind. It was really heartfelt, about remembrance and people who gave their lives. It was a really touching sentiment to hear for the first time.”
There are also darker expressions on the album, as on “Children of the Sun”: “Squander the truth of all we said/you are the reason I feel dead.” “God, that was difficult to sing,” admits Halford. “It’s intense, isn’t it?”
Cumulatively, the fourteen-track Firepower took three months to write and three months to record. Allom and Sneap urged the band to play live in the studio to get the feel for the songs, and that energy shines through on the album. Faulkner and original Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton have come into their own as a team, blasting out riffs, solos, and harmonies with ease.
(Tipton is conspicuously absent from the press blitz, which has never happened in the 20 years that this writer has interviewed the band — it feels odd at the time, but it makes sense as it has since been revealed that the iconic guitarist has entered the later stages of Parkinson’s and cannot tackle the more complicated songs in the band’s oeuvre. Thus, he has enlisted co-producer Andy Sneap, who began his career as guitarist in British thrash ensemble Sabbat, to fill in for him on the tour. Tipton hopes to do some live performances in the future.)
Beyond the twin guitar attack that Priest is known for, Faulkner also recalls that Sneap really pushed Halford on successive vocal takes, which the singer remembers, laughing at an evidently typical studio exchange: “’I f**king did it!’ ‘No you didn’t, do it again.’ ‘F**k off!’ ‘Do it again.’” Allom himself layers Halford’s vocals in a way that often gives them a choir-like effect, imbuing the music with the larger-than-life sound the band is known for.
“Andy’s got this very no nonsense, ‘I know what you need to do, and I’m going to get it out of you’ thing,” remarks Halford. “I love him. I’ve got nothing but praise for Andy. I had never worked with him before in my life. None of us had. Tom didn’t know him that well. They had a few meetings and a few drinks and got along, which is so important. Andy is a tremendous fan of Tom’s work, and they both understood the vision that we were aiming for.”
No one knew how the combination was going to work, but according to Faulkner each man played his role without stepping on the other’s toes. It was a collaboration and not a competition, with respect at its core. The band — Halford, Tipton, Faulkner, bassist Ian Hill, and drummer Scott Travis — trusted Allom because of their past history, while Sneap was a fan, but not enough “where he was going to do anything to the detriment of the band,” notes Faulkner. “He knew what he wanted to hear as a Priest fan and how to get the best out of the band.” The guitarist also expresses tremendous admiration for the legendary Allom, who oversaw the group’s most commercially successful recording period.
Given that Faulkner is the young gun in the band (over 25 years Halford’s junior), one wonders if he is like the twentysomething newbie in the aging prog band from the movie Still Crazy, going out and partying while the other guys just try to survive the tour. Once this image is invoked, Halford starts laughing and nods to Richie: “That’s him! On the floor of the van in Sweden after being out all night. ‘We’re going to the airport now.’ ‘Ohhhhh.’”
“They’ve all done it,” states Faulkner. “They did it all years ago, so they let me do it. They let me blow off some steam and learn the lessons the way you’ve got to find them out. Staying out all night and burning the candle at both ends.”
“There wasn’t a candle left,” teases Halford.
“There’ve been a few times,” confesses Faulkner, “But it’s all good fun.”
“You’ve got to do them,” insists Halford amiably. “It’s a rite of passage, and why shouldn’t you?” The frontman also remarks, “It’s almost like a fistfight when you’re on stage in a metal band. It really is. I mean, when you come off stage with all that adrenaline, it’s like a Spinal Tap vibe.”
For a band whose elder members are between 66 and 70, the new Priest should probably not sound as intense as it does. But it’s not just their passion that compels them, it’s the bond they share. “We’re having a blast in the studio and on the road,” declares Halford. “There’s no friction, there’s a lot of just love and respect for each other. What better combination can you have? We have friends in bands and we don’t know how they work, because there’s so much going on behind the scenes. We count our blessings that we’re in this great place. If you’re having a blast, if you love each other, if you’re just hanging out and writing music and recording it and touring, that’s got to be infectious. That’s got to go into the music.”
As anyone who reads his Twitter account can attest, Faulkner is a huge Star Wars aficionado. Both he and Halford draw parallels between the universal themes of that famed movie franchise and the music of Priest. “Judas Priest is Star Wars — there’s a title — because we’re always battling against evil,” proclaims Halford. “We’re giving you hope.”
“It’s going back to that perfect blend of fantasy and reality,” asserts Faulkner, noting fantasy lyrics in songs like “Painkiller” and “The Sentinel” and more social topics in tunes like “Breaking the Law” and “Children of the Sun”. “It’s ‘Evil Never Dies,’ those universal messages portrayed in a fantastical way,” he adds. “Which is Star Wars — the same messages, but it’s on another planet far, far away.”
In the way that Mark Hamill cloaks himself in Luke Skywalker onscreen and has become that person to fans, Halford is aware of being himself offstage and becoming “The Metal God” onstage, remarking that it would be strange if he could not distinguish between the two even as fans admire the latter. Like his bandmate Faulkner, he is playing the role of rock star and embracing that duality in his life.
“Yet again, in referencing Mark Hamill and Luke, that’s the fun of what we do,” says Halford. “It’s one foot in reality, and one foot floating into space.”