It’s been a funny few years for veteran Brummie metal band Judas Priest; their last album – 2008’s “Nostradamus” – was an ambitious concept double-album but it was built up as the last word in Priest albums for months before its release, so when it arrived it was a bit of a disappointment to have two discs packed with sub-symphonic padding and only two or three songs capable of fitting into their live show. Not only that but after a successful bout of touring to support the 30th anniversary of their classic “British Steel” album founding guitarist (and one half of arguably the greatest metal guitar tag team) K.K. Downing retired from the band on the eve of what was to be their final world tour. Ever the soldiers, the rest of the band decided to continue and recruited young guitarist Richie Faulkner (Lauren Harris/Voodoo Six) to replace Downing – which was fortunate as Faulkner is a dead ringer for Downing in his younger years – to do a tour celebrating the band’s career (and fit in an ill-advised appearance on American Idol) before getting down to the business of recording a new album.
And here it is. “Redeemer of Souls” is at once an album that is very current but with one eye on the band’s legacy, peppered with riffs and rhythms that remind you where this band came from musically. One such example is ‘Crossfire’, a greasy, bluesy, biker rock stomper than could have been from any of their ’70s albums and is one of the album’s highlights. It also comes before the epic crawl of ‘Secrets of the Dead’, which is easy to picture the band playing live, singer Rob Halford stalking the stage amongst the dry ice as guitarists Faulkner and Glenn Tipton trade solos, underpinned by drummer Scott Travis‘ precision footwork. It’s a huge song kept until the latter half of the album but has all the makings of a future Priest favourite.
But before we get to that the album takes a little time to find its feet. Opening track ‘Dragonaut’ has all the right parts if you were to disassemble it but as a finished song it’s a little underwhelming and unremarkable, as is the title track which follows. The main riff is fantastic and Halford sounds mighty during the verse but the chorus seems to slow the flow of the song, sounding too low key in a song that should be massive in every respect.
But after the slow start the album picks up pace with ‘Halls of Valhalla’, which gives us our first full-on Rob Halford scream. This is how the title track should have sounded, the pace set early on and the band keeping it going through the multi-tracked vocals of the chorus and the windswept guitar work. ‘March of the Damned’ is a mid-paced rocker that stands out due to a rich, melodic vocal hook and a heavy main riff that veers a little closer to Black Sabbath than the band normally do but seeing as Rob Halford has fronted that band on occasion it’s actually more surprising that there aren’t more songs like this in their catalogue.
Not every song on here is a cast-iron classic-in-the-making but after the self-indulgence of “Nostradamus” the band needed to go back to basics and hit us with short, sharp shocks of metal goodness. At six minutes long ‘Halls of Valhalla’ is the longest track but it doesn’t feel like a slog to get through and that has always been one of Judas Priest‘s strengths; not overstaying their welcome by making albums full of overlong, messy songs with no direction (alright, apart from “Jugulator”) but instead writing catchy, heavy and relatively short songs packed with hooks. The bass-heavy ‘Hell & Back’ and closing ballad ‘Beginning of the End’ slow the pace down without ever letting up on the intensity and you’ll remember them long after the album has finished.
So overall, it’s safe to say that “Redeemer of Souls” has… ahem… redeemed the band after the side-step of “Nostradamus”. Where it fits in their back catalogue only time will tell, although it isn’t “Painkiller” or “British Steel” (but then again, what is?) but neither is it “Jugulator” or “Ram It Down”. The guitar work is some of the best that the band have ever recorded, with Faulkner duelling with Tipton in the classic Priest way and more than holding his own, and Halford still has the voice and presence to make the songs come alive more than most frontmen of his vintage. The ever-reliable rhythm section of drummer Scott Travis and bassist Ian Hill sound as tight as Halford‘s leather trousers, and watching Travis batter his kit in the live arena to these songs is going to be a thing of true joy, especially as the man doesn’t get enough recognition when it comes to great metal drummers. Like all of Priest‘s albums since “Painkiller”, “Redeemer of Souls” is lacking a ‘Living After Midnight’, ‘Victim of Changes’ or even a ‘Painkiller’ itself; that one song that will rise up above all others and mark itself out as a classic, but taken as whole piece of work it’s an excellent return from a band that shouldn’t sound this focused and intense forty years into their career.