Rob Halford is the leather-clad avatar who has helped define heavy metal’s look and sound with his daring biker chic and triumphant screeches over the past 50 years with Judas Priest. He also does a mean Bob Dylan impression.
It’s early December and he and two other members of Judas Priest have gathered in a small room on the 28th floor of Sony Music’s Manhattan corporate headquarters to hype their new album, Firepower. The room itself is unremarkable with its beige walls, maroon furniture and a standard-issue metal door. But its walls are adorned with images of some of Sony’s most famous artists.
When Halford spots a pic of the man formerly known as Robert Zimmerman – the artist whose spry, folky 1967 ditty “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” begat the metal band’s name – he turns reflective.
“I’ve only met Bob Dylan once,” says Halford, who is bedecked in chain necklaces, a vest and deep-purple shades. “I was in the Sony studios with the Fight band [in the mid-Nineties], and we did a show and I found out he was there. ‘Can I meet him?’ So we went through a couple of rooms, and he was on a couch with about five or six chicks around him and a big plate of fruit.” Halford laughs heartily. “Somebody tells him, ‘This is Rob Halford, the singer for Judas Priest and he’s got a new band called Fight.'”
And then the singer’s voice becomes scratchy and slidey like Dylan’s. “He goes, ‘Yeaaahhh'” – dramatic pause “‘How’s Ozzy doing?’” Halford laughs again. “I go, ‘How’s Ozzy doing? He’s doing all right.’ ‘Yeah, say hi to Ozzy for me.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and that was it. I had to leave.”
“Do I sound like Bob Dylan?” Halford turns and asks his bandmates, drummer Scott Travis and guitarist Richie Faulkner, reverting back to his West Midlands, U.K., accent.
“That was pretty good,” says Travis, an incredibly tall American with a deep voice.
“That could be my second job.”
Luckily for him, Halford’s main gig keeps him plenty busy. With the exception of a nine-year gap when he fronted the harder-edged Fight, the industrial experiment 2wo and his own Halford band, the singer has spent the past 45 years as Judas Priest’s ringmaster. The group is on the verge of its 50th anniversary – having produced a half-century’s worth of electrifying, dictionary-definition heavy metal with songs like “Breaking the Law,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” and “Heading Out to the Highway.” And now that Black Sabbath have completed their final tour, it has effectively become the longest-running heavy-metal band – a legacy that had Priest on the ballot for this year’s class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though they ultimately didn’t clinch the nomination.
Nevertheless, Judas Priest are well aware of both their status as metal’s elder statesmen and the need to keep things fresh. Firepower, the band’s 18th studio LP, bears all the hallmarks of a classic Priest album – aggressive riffs, driving rhythms and Halford’s eardrum-piercing shrieks about evil, voodoo, necromancy and specters – but there’s an urgency to tracks like “Lightning Strike” and the title track that sounds like a younger band still proving its mettle. It’s the group’s sharpest collection since 1990’s Painkiller.
The band members’ goal with the album was to make something that sounded both classic and modern and they say that enlisting two producers – Tom Allom, who helmed the band’s Eighties success, and Andy Sneap, who’s worked with younger bands like Arch Enemy and Devil Driver – helped achieve that balance. They also recorded the songs live in the studio to keep them sounding fresh. “This album is an overview of everything Priest has done literally from Day One,” Halford says. “We’ve coalesced and filtered it into one moment.”
So far, the hard work has paid off for the band, as “Lightning Strike” has been slowly climbing Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart. Despite the fact that Judas Priest regularly play arenas in the U.S. and have multiple gold and platinum plaques, radio play has become a rare commodity for the band in recent years; their last charting song was “Revolution,” off Halford’s comeback album with the band, Angel of Retribution, in 2005. “Only until recently, I have had this naïve perception that Priest were in a place generation-wise where rock radio was playing age bias,” the singer says. “Whenever we’ve been in the studio in recent years, we’ve always gone, ‘Oh, maybe this will get on the radio,'” Halford says. “And we’re told, ‘They don’t play Priest on the radio.’ It’s apparently this thing where you’ve got to be young and beautiful.” Halford laughs. “I’m just so grateful radio has picked up on this track. It’s an affirmation.”
It’s a bright moment in what might otherwise be a dark time for Judas Priest. In mid-February, the band announced that guitarist Glenn Tipton, who joined Judas Priest in 1974 and has co-written songs on every album by the band, would not be participating in the band’s upcoming tour. The guitar player, who is 70, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a decade ago and decided that the disease, which affects the nervous system and causes issues with mobility, was inhibiting his playing too much in tour rehearsals for him to commit to several months of performances.
He requested that Sneap, who is 48 and has played in the bands Hell and Sabbath, fill in for him on the road. It’s a turning point for the band since Faulkner, a 38-year-old with long blond hair, replaced founding guitarist K. K. Downing in 2011. For years, the dual guitars of Tipton and Downing were the benchmark of the Judas Priest sound. But Tipton has maintained that he’s not leaving the band. “I want everyone to know that it’s vital that the Judas Priest tour go ahead and that I am not leaving the band – it’s simply that my role has changed,” he said in a statement. “I don’t rule out the chance to go on stage as and when I feel able to blast out some Priest! So at some point in the not too distant future I’m really looking forward to seeing all of our wonderful metal maniacs once again.”
Although Tipton declined an interview for this article in light of the news, Halford says the guitarist is doing well. “He’s forging ahead,” the singer says on a February phone call. And with a laugh, he adds, “He’s already playing around in the studio with potential riffs and ideas for the next batch of Priest songs. That’s how forward-thinking he is.”
The singer is also looking forward to the time when Tipton will be able to join the band onstage again on the tour, even if for a few songs. “It’s totally Glenn’s decision,” he says. “It’s a flight form the U.K. over to America, which he’s able to do and then get in the bus. Personally, I’m feeling very optimistic that he’s going to be showing up at quite a few shows; that’s just me knowing Glenn. I know he’ll do everything in his power to make it happen. It’s the fucking Parkinson’s that’s the decider. I would love to drag Glenn out onstage and just say, ‘Stand there and feel the love. You don’t even have to play the guitar.’ But he wouldn’t want to do that. And the future’s looking bright.”
Another damper on the tour was a statement released by Downing about Tipton. In one paragraph, he exclaimed, “I have to state with great sadness also that I am shocked and stunned that I wasn’t approached to step into my original role as guitarist for Judas Priest.” The other contentious line seemed to be a jab at Tipton’s playing ability: “I know Andy Sneap … I have no doubt that his contribution to the new Judas Priest album was much more than just as a producer.” Halford fired back immediately in the press, saying he was present to watch Tipton record his guitar parts. “He worked really, really hard,” the singer told Fox Sports 910. “Imagine this guy in the tenth year of Parkinson’s. I’ve never seen anybody so brave in the fact that every song was a challenge for him to make it work.”
It’s a back-and-forth that still rankles the singer. “I thought the timing of K. K.’s statement was a little bit suspect, quite frankly,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Why now? This band is a very private band when it comes to things like this, and it detracts from all the great things Judas Priest has done and is still doing. It was just unfortunate. I personally had to respond to the insinuation that Andy was doing Glenn’s guitar work. That was just not true. I wanted to get it off my chest.”
For his part, Downing later walked back his statement, saying that Sneap likely brought fresh ideas to the band, since the producer is also a musician. “Even George Martin, I believe, provided much more for the Beatles than just the role of a normal producer,” he said in a statement. “An extra musician in the studio, like the aforementioned talented producers, really does bring a great benefit.”
As for a reunion with Downing, Priest bassist Ian Hill told Metal Wani, “He retired seven years ago and he made it clear at the time that he didn’t wanna come back. So I’m surprised that he’s saying that he was surprised that he wasn’t asked. I think we all thought he probably would have been surprised if we had asked him.”
That said, when the topic of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame comes up, Halford says he would not stand in the way of a reunion with Downing for the event if the band were to be inducted. “Life is too short to hold a grudge,” he says. “And you have to look at the big picture before you make a decision. So when the time arrives, we’ll be ready.” He laughs.
Back at the Sony building, the vibe is loose and friendly, as Halford recalls another meeting with folk royalty. In 1977, Judas Priest recorded a revved-up, metallified cover of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds & Rust” (a song, incidentally, about her relationship with Bob Dylan). It quickly became one of the band’s set-list staples, and by 1985 Priest were big enough to play three songs at Live Aid, where he ran into Baez backstage. “I just did some work with MTV that was going live and as Martha Quinn left, I saw Joan Baez coming towards me,” Halford says. “I thought, ‘God, she’s going to complain about “Diamonds & Rust.”‘ I go, ‘Hi, Joan. Really nice to meet you.’ She goes, ‘Yes, I wanted to talk to you about something. My son told me to tell you that you did a better version of my song than I did.'” He pauses for a laugh. “I thought, ‘That was sweet. Sort of self-deprecating, but very nice.'”
The mood grows more earnest as the band members recall how they began work on Firepower. In 2015, after they concluded their tour in support of 2014’s Redeemer of Souls, Halford, Tipton and Faulkner convened for three months to demo songs. It was a crucial moment for Faulkner, who dipped into his music archive for a riff that stretches back a decade for the album’s ballad-y closer “Sea of Red,” as he felt he needed to prove himself this time. “On my first one, I was happy and fortunate to be there,” he says. “This one was more serious in the sense of, ‘It’s the new boy’s second record – is he going to perform as well?’ So there was a bit more importance to it.”
“Confidence,” Halford adds.
“A bit more confidence without a doubt in creating something that’s a bit more … what am I trying to say?”
“Make a statement,” the singer rejoins.
Halford’s main concern when writing lyrics this time, as the group’s self-proclaimed “word dude,” was that he wouldn’t repeat himself. “I try my best to find titles that nobody else has done,” he says. “Then we’ll be halfway through the recording and go, ‘Ah, fuck, the Misfits did a song called “Evil Never Dies.”‘ There was no ‘Firepower’ that I could find. No ‘Sea of Red.’ ‘Lone Wolf’ may have been used, but the dilemma there is if you’ve never used that title, you can claim it for yourself unless it’s a worldwide title.”
In the case of “Evil Never Dies,” a heavy number with a chunky riff, Halford drew inspiration form the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” “I’m going, ‘What if the Devil moved from Georgia?'” he says. “The Devil’s moved from Georgia and is still alive.” He pauses. “And then I got to use the word ‘oyster.'” The three musicians laugh.
“I texted Rob when I heard it and said, ‘Dude, has anyone ever used “oyster” in a metal song?'” Faulkner says of the opening couplet, “The Devil’s moved from Georgia/His mission’s still the same/The world’s become his oyster once again.” “He’s like, ‘Nope!'”
“We are the only band in the history of heavy metal to put ‘oyster’ in a song,” Halford says, laughing. “Fuck, dude, that’s a T-shirt.”
But despite the humor, he says the song is serious. “There’s always fucking evil in the world,” he says. “It’s intrinsic. It’s like a bizarre genetic flaw that humanity’s got. Why do we have to be evil? What purpose has it? Killing people, blowing people up – what’s the point, dude? It’s evil. It’s strange. That’s the devil right there.”
Although he denies it at first, the album has several references to politics, too, which he hadn’t initially planned. He sings about ecology in the lumbering “Children of the Sun” (“Every day when I open the drapes in Phoenix and there’s pollution across the valley, it’s horrible,” Halford says), the growth of poppies on battlefields in Belgium after World War I in “Sea of Red” and the way soldiers are treated after they return from war in the sinewy “Never the Heroes.” “It’s about people who are drafted into wars around the world,” he says. “If you’re a kid, male or female now, and you can’t get a job or afford rent or college, it’s ‘The army or the navy will have me.’ the last thing you think is going to happen is to be shipped to Afghanistan and be shot up by the Taliban. So it’s about the people who come back – they never wanted to be heroes. They are heroes. They will be heroes, but they’ll never be recognized. ‘Oh, the guy walking down the street, he’s a hero.’ Oh, by the way, he’s homeless from Vietnam.
“I’ve just discovered this record does have political undertones,” he continues. “Thank you, Rolling Stone. But I’ll say the only virtue of fighting is that evil never does die but it does get defeated, with the World Wars specifically. Sometimes you have to fight for peace.”
These sorts of messages are all part of group’s DNA, and for Halford, this album is the apotheosis of the Judas Priest experience. “The simple directive that we were aiming for was a classic, heavy Judas Priest album,” Halford says. “I mean, something that wasn’t heavy per se … you can’t ‘heavy’ it up. But we were really disciplined and very, very focused.”
The process of reclaiming their sound wasn’t an academic pursuit, though, the way that Metallica analyzed their first few albums when making 2008’s Death Magnetic. “It’s not like we sat down with the turntable,” Travis says. “Everybody knew what old Priest sounded like. But again you don’t want it to sound ‘old.’ You want it to sound new.”
“Well, what is the ‘classic’ Judas Priest album?” Halford counters. “Is it British Steel? Is it Painkiller? Is it Screaming for Vengeance? Pick the one you want to pick. But we’ve never had to listen to how we wrote the songs. We’ve never been short of material or stuck in a rut. We’ve never needed to listen to something that we did 30 years ago to do it again 30 years later.”
For Halford & Co., the quandary was to figure out what Judas Priest means in 2018. Although the singer remembers a similar feeling around Redeemer of Souls, he says that making Firepower special was “way more important” than its predecessor. “For me, it’s making a statement about the relevance, purpose and importance of Judas Priest and heavy metal in 2018 – not some nostalgia trip from the past,” he says. “This is the longest surviving working heavy-metal band in the world, and yet we’re making a record that is able to have its place and have its respect from the metal world in general in 2018. And that’s not a pompous thing to say. If we didn’t believe in this, if we didn’t have the self-belief and determination of the value and importance of this album, we wouldn’t release it. It’s not a record we’re throwing out there because of a contractual obligation. It’s very important.”
The singer says that with every year, he feels more pressure to deliver the goods, to use Priest parlance. “Just living this long now and being in music and singing and being in this band, and seeing all my mates – Slayer, Metallica, Maiden – that’s got to be in your head when you’re writing,” he says. “There’s a built-in expectation about your performance for anybody who’s had success in the creative sense or sports sense, and you have to meet that level.”
On that note, he says the album’s title Firepower has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with bowling over their fans. “It’s a reference to the power of metal,” he says. “Firepower is the great worldwide cause of the heavy-metal community – the firepower of metal. It’s inspiration. It’s hope. It’s overcoming difficulties. It’s a metaphor for winning and overcoming evil.”
The significance of metal in the music world is a cause that’s pressing for Halford and his bandmates. When the group members huddled together at Sony in December, they were still Rock Hall nominees and they were excited about the prospect of being inducted.
“It’s a big deal,” Halford says. “My perception is that you’d be in this hallowed hall of very important people in the music world, whether it’s Madonna or Black Sabbath, which is how it should be. It should be significant artists that have made a very important contribution, culturally to music.”
Does it bother him that so few metal bands have been inducted? “Eh, yeah.”
And why has the mainstream been so slow to embrace metal? “It’s always been the underdog of rock & roll,” the singer says, “forever.”
“We heavy-metal fans and promoters of it, if you will, have learned to relish it,” Travis says. “You don’t mind being the underdog because it always give you something to strive for, to fight for. Heavy-metal fans feel a little bit under the radar, underappreciated. And that’s also a reason why when you have heavy-metal fans, they stick with you for 30, 40,50 years, because they’re in it to win it. They believe in you. Whereas when you’re a pop star, it’s fleeting. You’re a flavor of the week.
“But I remember what it meant to be a heavy-metal fan,” he continues. “I remember being a young teenager, doing the heavy-metal parking lot thing and seeing Priest or Saxon or Rush or Van Halen at the venues. Rush weren’t on the radio for the first fucking for or five albums. But you, as a fan, have the records. Same with Priest. The early albums weren’t commercially popular or successful, but we owned them. We wore the patches. We drew them in our notebooks and shit. ‘Judas Priest, man,’ next to a bong or whatever you had.”
“There are only two metal bands in there – Metallica and Sabbath, right?” Halford rejoins. “It’s not only important for Priest and the Priest fans but for metal in general. Priest is going to be kicking down the door and hopefully getting in.”
“If we don’t get in this year, Priest will be in there,” Travis says.
“We’d rather be in there while we’re alive,” Halford says. “It would be nice since 2019 is the 50th anniversary. It would just be a wonderful celebration to set up the 50th-year party.”
When the singer phones Rolling Stone in February, after he’s learned that 2018 won’t be Priest’s year for the Rock Hall, he says the news got him down a little bit that but that he’s still optimistic for future. “We were just very thrilled even to be nominated and to be in the company of all the great talent,” he says. “And the funny thing is, we probably got more out of not going in than we would have if would have gotten in, because the metal community was in an uproar. Some people dismiss the Hall of Fame, but I never have. It’d be a great place to be. But certain people dismiss it and go off on rants and rage about it. It just shows you the tremendous value that the Hall of Fame has, so bring it on. I’m ready.”
Regardless, the band is eager to mark the achievement of existing for half a century. Back at the Sony building, Halford has his eyes set on the future. “We’re starting the tour in March, and it’s going to bleed into 2019,” he says. “The simple fact that we’ll be on the road somewhere playing,” he hums the opening riff of Priest’s signature song, “Breaking the Law,” and does a jazzy little dance, “that’ll do it for me. I’ll be perfectly happy. This band will be on the road, 50 years later, blowing people’s minds.”