Monday, March 12, 2018

Judas Priest - Firepower (2018)

It'd been clear to me for well over a quarter century now that one of my favorite childhood bands had long jumped any shark of possible progression or creative stimulus. So I apprehensively bounced back and forth between the frustrations of the tryhard Ripper years, or the overly 'ambitious' dullard Nostradamus, which was anything but, to the slight disappointments like Angel of Retribution which teased at having some redeeming qualities until I realized that I had no compulsion whatsoever to revisit them as years dragged on and I could just listen to the extensive backlog that I already owned and adored. With 40 years behind them, they were no longer just in contention with themselves and their post-midlife metal crises anyway, but with generations of bands that had fostered their inspiration into magnificence and already produced extensive careers unto themselves. So it's with no small degree of surprise that I sit here in 2018, entirely absorbed by a Judas fucking Priest album that I held little to no expectations for whatsoever, an easy favorite for me since the mighty (and apparently divisive) Painkiller back in 1990.

The cliche is that when veteran bands with gaping holes in their discographies drag themselves out of the dregs, and crawl back on the quality wagon, they tend to start by releasing an effort that sounds like the next natural step after some breakthrough or popular recording of their studious past; often playing it safe with material that sounds like it could have just fit on a prior album. I'm not sure that Firepower eludes that trap, since so much of it feels like an extension of where the band was at through the 80s, culminating in their hardest hitting material at the dawn of the next decade. From the very cover art, of which the symmetry and design channels Defenders of the Faith or Screaming with Vengeance, to the ridiculously strange, over the top imagery paraded through the lyrics in the heavier tunes circa Painkiller, this is well-trodden terrain. But here it's being crossed with such a high level of dignity, care and professional pageantry that I can excuse any and all redundancies, because it doesn't just exceeds its five predecessors in one or two categories that give it an edge. No, it clobbers them in every conceivable department. Not merely a Painkiller II, that a teenage me would have slavered over had it arrived around 1992-3, but a more mature, dynamic offering packed with 14 tracks, not all of which are equally memorable, but any of which I'd take over the entirety of a Demolition or Redeemer of Souls.

The production is excellent. Smooth, streamlined, consistent from fore to aft, whereas the last album from 2014 sounded like someone dicking around a little with ProTools for the first time, or some other software and unevenly distributing the punch of the riffs and the overall tones. Scott Travis' drums thunder along seamlessly to the rhythm guitars, while the leads and vocals are placed at just the right level to stand on the shoulders of the workmanlike riffings and beatings. The leads here are wonderful, volcanic little explosions that punctuate strong bridge sequences, memorable to listen through on their own despite their brevity. The rhythms sound excellent without any big studio gimmicks, just a vibrant and fluid tone that flawlessly delivers that balance of aggression and majesty which the double guitar attack has conjured up on all their better material. As for Rob, while he is clearly and understandably not offering up screams on par with his youth, he otherwise doesn't sound like his voice has aged a day past 1990, and the verses and choruses here are well arranged even if they aren't going to come off as highly original to anyone who's been kicking around heavy or power metal these last several decades. Not much to say about the's there, just as relevant as on any of their older material, but not a major feature.

Synths and acoustics are tasteful and sparse, the band never relies too much on pure balladry, as with the closer "Sea of Red" which proves to be a better rock opera than anything on Nostradamus by several orders of magnitude. A good portion of the album is devoted to Screaming With Vengeance or Painkiller styled ragers, which you can usually spot from miles away by titles like "Lightning Strike", "Flame Thrower" or "Firepower" itself, but as much as I dug these, and the fact that they weren't too intensely cloned from earlier songs, it was really the mid-paced, epic stuff like a "Rising from Ruins" or a "Spectre" which really drove this one home for me, a lot of which happens after the halfway point of the album. Still, this is not something I plan on listening to in pieces, I really wouldn't want to skip any of it as it establishes a great momentum and continues meting out pleasurable if not unpredictable riffs and vocal lines which, thankfully, don't always mimic others they've done, even if there is a good deal of familiarity. All in all, I'm just beside myself at how much I dig this, and my appreciation has only increased as I've listened to it repeatedly since it arrived in the mail. Doesn't quite ascend into the starting lineup of my 'Big Five' Priest albums (Sad Wings, Stained Class, Defenders, Screaming and Painkiller), but it might just be first off the bench if I need to swap out a center or power forward. At the rate they're going, I'm not sure whether I'll die before this band disappears into the annals of time, but if this was the very last Judas Priest album I ever heard, I could go off satisfied. Well done, gentlemen, and because I could never say it enough in all the years you've entertained me, thank you.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (we are terrible in truth)

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