"Heavy metal has consistently been called a low art form, a base, nihilistic art. Two or three years ago, we were pessimistic about whether it could pull through."
Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford spoke those bleak words in a Rolling Stone interview in 1980, commenting on how he and his fellow motorcycle-riding, leather-clad headbangers had survived the rise of New Wave and emerged with their defining record, British Steel. This was a new beginning for the band, who throughout the Eighties would build on the lumbering riffs of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple with the sort of galloping rhythms that still pulse through records by everyone from Metallica to the most obscure grindcore screamers. Decades later, Halford and his bandmates' affection for metal remains almost unrivaled.
"The press just said, 'Fuck off, heavy metal, it's over,'" the singer says upon hearing his 1980 quote. "We said, 'No, it's not.' We saw that New Wave was gonna be a very short-lived experience. I found it very insulting that someone would dismiss not only the bands but also the fans. So that made us even stronger."
Last week, the metal trailblazers issued their 17th studio album, Redeemer of Souls, a fairly straightforward Priest record that Halford praises as a "very strong, classic metal statement," as well as a "reaffirmation of what we love to be as a metal band." This puts it in juxtaposition with 2008's Nostradamus, which, though strong, was too high-concept and synthesizer-driven for some fans. "We absolutely love Nostradamus, and we think it's a tremendous achievement as a band," the singer says. "But I think we needed time to think and not exactly refocus, but to make the ultimate statement, the true essence of what Priest is all about." And while the idea of a band returning to its roots would usually reek of cliché, Judas Priest give it their own twist.
"What I love about this record is we've got dragons, aliens and religion," Halford says. "If you talk about it, it sounds silly, cartoonish and ridiculous, but it's not. These are the real, core attributes of classic heavy metal, the real heart and soul of what we've tried to be as a band for years."
"The great thing about the wealth of the Priest material is that nothing's off the table," guitarist Richie Faulkner says. "Thrash, whatever type of metal, it was all inspired by Priest in one way or another."
The quintet, which also features guitarist Glenn Tipton, bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis, has come a long way from sleeping in a van outside of the studio, as they did while making their first record, Rocka Rolla. And they no longer have to stay in motels with puke-green pool water, as they did when opening for Led Zeppelin in 1977 ("That concert was the day Priest captured the West Coast," Halford says, still beaming). Because the group has done so much, its members understand what they're capable of.
When the singer looks back at the group's Epitaph Tour, which spanned 2011 and 2012, he remembers how tough it was on the band. "I think we realized that we don't have to keep doing that kind of thing to keep getting the satisfaction and pleasure for ourselves and for our fans," he says. "All our fans want to do is come to a Priest show and hear Priest songs. As long as you get to see your favorite band play any of the songs you love, you go home happy."
"After our dates in the fall, we'll see where it goes from there," Tipton says.
"It does have the tendency to keep going, doesn't it?" Faulkner says. "All of a sudden, you're the Eagles on your farewell tour. Probably not that long, but it definitely has the tendency to grow."
"Probably not as much money as the Eagles," Tipton deadpans.
Even if "Never Forget," the power ballad that closes out the deluxe edition of Redeemer of Souls, includes maudlin lines like, "This is just farewell and not goodbye, my friends," the band insists that they aren't giving up.
"The lyrics to that song are very poignant," Tipton says. "'Looking back to all those moments that we shared/Where it all began with all those dreams we dared/We leave with no regrets.' You dare to dream. Sometimes those dreams become reality, and we share those moments with the audiences."
"It's very sincere," Halford says. "That's what I love about metal: The true metal experience doesn't have to be all rip-your-face-off. It can still be poignant and still be strong. It can be reflective, but still feel resilient and feel made of metal."