Monday, April 23, 2012

Judas Priest - Jugulator (1997)

When I think back on the Tim 'Ripper' Owens era of Judas Priest I have to consider it against the greater schema of the band's legacy and my reactions to it. By the time Painkiller had been released, it was in my opinion the pinnacle of their career. They were touring arenas, kicking asses everywhere, much to the surprise of those who might have felt underwhelmed at Turbo or Ram It Down, and they had honed their traditional nuance for catchy chorus melodies and huge, inspirational riffs to its most aggressive and memorable potential. They were, in short, on the top of the world, and I think they would have easily been forgiven, if after all that touring and murdering audiences, they took a break through most of the 90s to pursue solo projects and perhaps ease tensions in the ranks.

But that's just not how it panned out. The band wanted to continue without Rob Halford, and he wanted to try his hand and lungs at different sounds like the street-oriented thrashing groove outfit Fight, or the later NIN clone Two. The rest of the band had families to feed, a reputation to uphold, and a genuine desire to keep touring and enjoying the lifestyle and livelihood they had pursued for over 20 years. Granted, unless they had been pissing their money away on coke and gambling, these guys were probably already set for life. A well paid and well loved entity who could tour the world on short notice, and whose famous singles were so heavily embedded into radio rotation that royalties would be paying for the education of their great grandchildren. And, fuck it, as mediocre as their following studio output would prove, they had every right to go on about their business and leave Halford behind them.

But here's the problem: if you took the best elements of EVERY studio record this band would record post-Painkiller, with Owens OR Halford at the helm, and mashed them together into the skeleton of a single album, it would not be good enough to serve Painkiller its high tea. Or clip that album's hedges. Or deliver its milk to the door. In fact, I don't think a single full-length produced past 1990 could compete with any album the band released prior to that date, not even the heavily divisive efforts like Point of Entry or Turbo; and unfortunately, Jugulator, the debut of Rob Halford's 'replacement', was the first in the barrage of lackluster studio offerings which itself has now spanned nearly two decades. This is a downright miserable record which attempts to season the aggression of their magnum opus with a relish of darker, trendy thrashing 'tough guy' hostility (circa Pantera) while at the same time introducing a new voice which, despite an obviously earnest effort, fails to meet expectations.

Now, everything I've read or seen of Tim Owens tells me that he's a stand up guy, with a good heart and a professional attitude. On a personal level, I think a chap like this deserves a shot. His performance on the Winters Bane debut Heart of a Killer seemed to suit him well, and he's a well practiced technical singer with a range, part of which encompassed the shrieking heights of his predecessor. This was no 'Blaze Bayley' choice. Priest were intent on snapping up someone who could handle their vast backlog of material without rocking and capsizing the boat. But for some reason, when listening to his throughput in either of the records he fronted for the metal gods, I can't help but think Owens tries too hard. Whether this was at the direction of the band veterans or producers or his own judgment is somewhat obfuscated, but his inflection always seems like a chameleon attempting to blend into a new environment rather just relaxing in its native climate.

His presence here is splattered with all manner of schizoid dynamics and special effects that are balanced off against a rather dry, central scream which is devoid of that same, piercing timbre that was so memorable about Halford. You can barely go through a handful of lyric lines on this album without some erratic, distracted bullshit happening, like the lame gang shouts in the first track ("Jugulator") itself, or the constant multi-tracked sneers and snarls or almost guttural vocals he uses to support his angrier mid range ("Blood Stained" and elsewhere). Again, on a technical basis, he hits his targets and does not shy away from the angrier persona required to complement the 'toughness' of the guitars' thrash orientation, but ultimately it feels the least genuine performance on any Priest record. Incredibly forced, as if you were to trace an image on paper, peel it off the original, then try and match them again physically to find that they weren't quite congruent.

But then, I can't really blame Owens for the underwhelming bravado of the musical composition, which lies squarely on the shoulders of the old timers. Predictable, power/thrash architecture which sacrifices much of the melodic, memory searing brilliance of the previous album for the sheer weight of force. The riffs and rhythm section are incredibly precise, with Downing and Tipton never backing down from their own physical exertion, but it's just so banal and boring. Manic, frivolous leads that build upon the Painkiller formula sans the catchiness, and even where the pair rips into tremolo picking sequences or churning hardcore/thrash grooves, they still do not seem to be able to implement this belligerence into anything that warrants recycled listens. Even after 15 years and numerous returns to re-evaluate Jugulator, I can find nothing new here, nothing 'grown' upon me, nothing subtle or interesting, just a washed out meat tenderizer to the face, bludgeoning away past its shelf life.

Seriously, listen to the riffs in the verse of "Blood Stained" or the slower grooves in "Abductors". Any quartet of Pantera-driven 15 year olds in my county in 1995 might have crafted a more compelling, violent groove than this mundane, muted patterns. Jugulator is not without some atmosphere, as they incorporate a lot of dour, cleaner guitars to let Owens resonate with his multi tracked screams (much like Rob), but even at its most 'tender' moments the album feels like a dud. I can't imagine that if Halford were to jam with, say, Dimebag Darrell or Rob Flynn, that the results would turn out so soddenly average and uninspired. Are there a few exceptions? Perhaps "Bullet Train" maintains an interesting, mechanical aesthetic for 30 or so seconds, and the epic finale "Cathedral Spires" is stronger than everything leading up to it, but even these tunes have their moments of disinterest me like the bombastic bridge grooves of the latter.

To its credit, Jugulator is not the very worst of the Judas Priest records, nor is it as awful as other midlife crisis records like Risk, Diabolus in Musica, Virtual XI or St. Anger. It still draws a pretty clear lineage from the band's prior works in 1988-1990, and it feels distinctly 'Priest' even with Owens at the helm. I like the loud and abrasive production of Scott Travis' drums, and where the band layers on the effects and atmosphere, even the varied vocal tracks it all gels from a production standpoint as this modern evolution of their sound. The lyrics are very often trite and pedestrian but at least many of them have a relevant point. I just can't help but think that the Brits would have turned out better if they just waited for a reunion album (which did happen eventually) or toured with guest singers. Or maybe they should have just gone and hired Ralf Scheepers, whose wild and absurd tones feel like a better, more powerful match to the band's material for me (hell, for all my post-1990 JP needs I just turn to the better Primal Fear records like Black Sun, Nuclear Fire or Jaws of Death).

There simply aren't enough of those wonderful vocal melodies here for me to grasp, or volcanic guitar riffs that drove Painkiller into an instant, accessible immortality. Jugulator is heavy, and it tries to keep with the times, and I don't fault it for those traits, I simply wish they had been better implemented. The jump da fuck up chorus parts like in "Blood Stained" are like a terrible foreshadowing to crap like Drowningpool's "Bodies", and despite the myriad personalities of Owens' inflections, I never felt a genuine threat to the music, whereas "Painkiller" made me clutch my blankets in nervous sweat as I looked out into the night, fearing what might be coming down through the skyline in a wreath of irradiated fire. Jugulator seems little more than weak flesh being grafted onto a solid steel skeleton, and I'm no more able to get into it today than I was in 1997.

Verdict: Fail [4/10] (now it's time to jugulate!) (....really?)

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