By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Outside of Birmingham's metal godfathers Black Sabbath, arguably no band has influenced the sound and look of heavy metal more than Judas Priest. While the band has roots dating back to 1969, the classic line-up of the group featuring singer Rob Halford, guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, bassist Ian Hill and drummer John Hinch (the first in a long line of drummers to occupy the chair) didn't come together until just before Priest entered the studio to record its 1974 debut for Gull Records, Rocka Rolla.
Though the album touched more on psychedelia, progressive rock and hard rock than metal, hard-hitting tunes like "Cheater" and "Never Satisfied" showed the group could deliver a heaviness equal to Sabbath and Deep Purple. Their sophomore album Sad Wings of Destiny had some of the same production issues that plagued the band's debut, but it marked a turn towards a style that would help define heavy metal.
The effort included some of Priest's earliest gems, including Halford's epic, operatic showcase "Victim of Changes" and the charging, twin lead guitar-fueled tracks "Tyrant," "The Ripper" and "Genocide" that proved to be the influential template the group would refine on future releases. Their major label debut Sin After Sin in 1977 continued to push faster tempos and darker subject matter with the galloping rockers "Let Us Prey/Call For the Priest," "Sinner" and "Dissident Aggressor" that pointed the way toward the sound of UK disciples Iron Maiden and even the rise of thrash metal in the '80s (Slayer would later cover "Dissident Aggressor" in tribute).
By the time the band released its seminal live album Unleashed in the East, members had embraced the leather and studs wardrobe that would codify metal fashion into the next decade while embracing a more pop-minded (yet still undeniably heavy) sound on songs like "Hell Bent For Leather." Priest had a commercial breakthrough in 1980 with British Steel, enjoying its first real taste of chart success and radio airplay with "Livin' After Midnight" and "Breaking the Law."
With that album and the platinum follow-up discs Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith, the quintet established itself as one of the most popular metal bands on the planet. The band's success would continue through the decade, though some longtime fans would be thrown by the group's new glam image and use of guitar synthesizers on Turbo in 1986. Ram it Down two years later continued the trend toward towards a more commercial sound, but the group rebounded with 1990's Painkiller, a recording that introduced more thrash elements and was hailed as Priest's heaviest effort in a decade.
The '90s would bring new challenges to the band, with members forced to appear in court for a civil suit that claimed backwards masked messages in the song "Better by You, Better than Me" (a cover of a Spooky Tooth song) led to the fatal suicide pact of two young metal fans in Spark, Nevada. The suit would be dismissed by the judge, but a far more seismic change for Judas Priest would be the departure of Halford in 1992.
The singer would record and tour with the thrash-oriented group Fight and the industrial project 2wo before his return to traditional metal with the eponymous band Halford in 2000, while Priest would find new singer Tim "Ripper" Owens, touring extensively and tracking a pair of studio albums. Still, any interview with Halford or members of Judas Priest inevitably turned to the question of a possible reunion. Fans finally got what they wanted in 2003 when the singer rejoined the group.
High-profile live performances like a co-headlining slot at Ozzfest the following year and a string of successful album releases beginning with Angel of Retribution in 2005 have reaffirmed Priest as one of the quintessential purveyors of metal. Even after the retirement of K.K. Downing in 2011 during the Epitaph World Tour (a jaunt that the band had suggested would be their final farewell), Priest has soldiered on with the addition of new guitarist Richie Faulkner. The fresh blood seemed to reinvigorate the group, who released their 17th album Redeemer of Souls to solid reviews in 2014.
Two years later, Priest teased that the band had begun work on it's next recording. Working with classic-era producer Tom Allom -- who engineered the first three Black Sabbath records and a 10-year stretch of Judas Priest efforts from Unleashed in the East to Ram It Down -- and modern metal production maven Andy Sneap (who has helmed albums by Megadeth, Accept, Testament and Saxon among many others), Judas Priest put together nearly an hour of new material for it's latest opus, Firepower.
Hailed by some as the best Priest album in nearly 20 years, Firepower was finally issued this past Friday to great anticipation from metal fans the world over. Bassist Ian Hill recently spoke with CBS SF about the process of writing and recording the effort, the shocking announcement last month that guitarist Glenn Tipton would be retiring from full-time touring due to a struggle with Parkinson's Disease and the controversy surrounding recent comments by former Priest guitarist K.K. Downing. The band will bring it's current U.S. with Saxon and Black Star Riders (featuring former members of Thin Lizzy) to the Warfield in San Francisco on April 19.
CBS SF: To my ears, Firepower splits the difference between Painkiller's heaviness and more thrash influenced sound and the hooks of British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance. Did the band have any preconceptions before heading into the studio as far as what you wanted to do with this album?
Ian Hill: Not really. It's the way it came out. We've been lucky like that [laughs]. We come up with the songs and stick them on an album. The only thing we can do when we get a bunch of songs together is make the album flow, if you know what I mean. So you don't have too many midtempo powerhouses or too many thrashy songs or too many ballads in a row. You've got a mixture of all of those things and they need to flow one into the other.
But other than that, we've been luck inasmuch as the songwriting team with Glenn and Richie and Rob of course come up with some superb material. It's just a matter of us all learning it and kicking it around a little bit and refining it and making sure you put it down properly. I don't think there's any secret [laughs]. If there is, I wish I could bottle it.
CBS SF: How different was the recording process working with two producers? I know Tom Allom has a long history with the band, while Andy Sneap brings in a more modern metal production sensibility. Did it ever become a matter of there being too many cooks as you worked in the studio? Or did the album benefit from additional input?
Ian Hill: They worked very well together. With every time you mention a producer and Judas Priest, Tom Allom's name pops up. But we wanted someone with a fresher outlook as well. We looked around and saw Andy Sneap's record of what he'd been doing with other metal bands and decided to give him a go and see if he was willing to work with Tom.
They met up and both seemed to get along together. In fact, they got along better than that at the end of the day. They were close personal friends by the time we left the studio. I don't think there was a cross word between them. They both made very relevant suggestions -- some large ones and some small ones -- and they agreed with each other.
We had a bit of a dream team really. We had Andy with his knowledge of new recording techniques, and of course nobody knows this band as intimately as Tom Allom. It worked out great. You've heard the album: it's paid dividends.
CBS SF: Absolutely. That's interesting that they got on so well without having a working relationship before this record...
Ian Hill: I think we might have started one, oddly enough.
CBS SF: In past talks with Rob, he said that Priest's creative process has always been him hashing out riffs in a room with both guitarists to come up with song ideas...
Ian Hill: That's right. Glenn and Richie, and before him obviously Ken, come up with their own ideas -- the riffs and the chord sequences and whatever. And then the two guitarists would pool their ideas and start get the structure together for a coherent song and then get together with Rob. He's always got lyrics. He's very prolific. He's always got ideas in his head and is writing stuff down.
He'll generally get a nascent set of lyrics that will fit the song. And then they'll kick it around a bit until they get a bonafide song structure together with a start, middle and end. That's when Scott and myself will get a copy of that and start putting down drum patterns and bass lines and that will get passed backwards and forwards a few times until we've got a pretty good idea of what we're going to do before we get to the studio.
It makes it a hell of a lot easier once you're there. But having said that, changes are made -- bits are added and bits are chopped out; layers are added and taken off. But that's basically the routine with the two guitarists and Rob and then with Scott and myself afterwards.
CBS SF: And that process has pretty much stayed the same since Richie joined? It sounds like that's been the band's modus operandi for its entire history...
Ian Hill: That's absolutely right. Ever since the very early days. It did become apparent that Ken, Glenn and Rob came up with some great stuff and whatever drummer happened to be in the band at the time and myself backed off and let them get on with it. An if it's not broken don't fix it sort of thing. And they've done an extraordinary job over the years.
CBS SF: The press materials suggested there was a bit more of the band working all together in the same room while working on this album. Was that just during the recording?
Ian Hill: We did. We put it down as a three piece mainly with Scott and Richie and myself with a rough vocal while we were putting drums down. We ditched the click track, so the whole thing sounded more real. We were all a little bit wary of the idea. Fun enough, you would have thought that it would have been Tom Allom to suggest that, him being old school. But it wasn't; it was Andy who suggested we play as a band.
More recently we'd been doing the instruments individually; getting the guitar down and the bass down. But when we were listening back to these tracks in the control room, it sounded so real and full. You get those almost imperceptible tempo lifts and drops with different parts of the song. It just gave it a life, you know? It wasn't that mechanical "chunk-chunk-chunk!" where everything is precise. But it sounded all the better for it. It gave a great live feel to it. And again, it paid dividends. The album sounds so natural.
CBS SF: It definitely feels organic...
Ian Hill: There you go! That's the word I was looking for [laughs].
CBS SF: An interesting departure on Firepower is "Guardians," the short piano introduction that leads into "Rising from the Ruins." At least, it seemed a major departure, but after a little digging I remembered that "Epitaph" from Sad Wings of Destiny was completely piano based and had more of a Queen vibe. What inspired the band to incorporate the piano for that one piece?
Ian Hill: We were just looking for something different really. We get these big orchestral guitar pieces generally that start out quiet and small and then build up and build up until it gets to a crescendo and "wack!" the song will come in. So we decided to try it with a little more subtle approach with the piano this time around. I think it sounds great. You have the guitars coming in with the high end, and as you get towards the start of the song, the guitars take over and "wack!" the band come in. It just sounded right.
CBS SF: I wanted to talk a bit about K.K.'s recent comments. There's been a flurry of discussion online and some back and forth. Rob and Richie have already discounted what was perceived as K.K. suggesting that Glenn's illness led to Andy Sneap playing his parts on the album...
Ian Hill: Yeah, I'm not sure where Ken is coming from, to be honest with you. He retired seven years ago. It's a bit like your quarterback retiring. You get a new quarterback and he gets injured, you don't go back to the quarterback who retired! You go find a new quarterback, which is pretty much what happened here.
I mean, with Glenn we had this terrible news that he couldn't really carry on; that he couldn't do the tour at least. Not in the whole anyway. He does intend to go up onstage and play the odd number when he's feeling well enough. He's coming on a large part of the tour with us to do just that.
But whether that will happen or not, I can't promise anything. It's all down to his condition. So I don't know where Ken was coming from saying he was upset that we didn't get in touch with him. He would have had to play Glenn's stuff anyway, which he wasn't doing, if you know what I mean. It just would have been a huge, huge job.
Or Richie, who has been playing Ken's stuff would have to play Glenn's stuff and switch over to the other side of the stage. And is Ken going want to play songs off of the last two albums? And the idea of Andy Sneap playing Glenn's part on the record, that's just absurd really. I don't think he meant that, but unfortunately that's the way it came across.
CBS SF: Yeah, think he has said since that he felt he was misinterpreted. As far as the discussions about Glenn not playing on this tour, that didn't come up until after the recording? I get that it didn't keep him from writing and playing on it...
Ian Hill: No, that's the whole point. It's a terrible condition. Glenn's great for about ten minutes. He'll stand up there and he'll play through a song. Which is great from an album point of view. He rarely has to play longer than that if he does a song from start to finish. The longest song on the album is only seven minutes. That sort of thing he can handle, and of course [in the studio], he's sitting down on a stool.
But if you put him on a stage and he to stand up there for the better part of two hours, that wasn't really realistic. We were hoping it was going to happen. We went through a similar scenario the last tour. We all knew then he was having his problems. So we started rehearsals and he was rough, no doubt about it. But as we went on through the week, he got better every day. And by the end of the rehearsals, he was ready to go. And he put in awesome performances on the last tour.
So we were expecting -- or at least hoping -- that would happen again. But into the second week of rehearsals, it was quite obvious to everybody it wasn't going to happen this time around. It was...an achingly painful thing to him to do; to admit to us and the rest of the world -- and to himself mainly -- that his body wasn't going to let him do what he loved to do above all else anymore, you know?
I mean, we were all upset when he came out and said it. The hairs on the back of my neck are sticking up now just talking about it! It's a cataclysmic thing to happen to someone. And Andy just happened to be in the recording studio. He brought some effect tapes down that he'd put together for us for the new album. And just said, "You know, maybe Andy would be able to do it."
So he asked him, and after he picked is jaw up off the floor [laughs], he agreed to give it a go. So for the last couple of weeks I've been going to his studio. Andy's got a studio of his own, being a producer, so I've been going up with a drummer mate and helping break him in. He's certainly good. He's a very good guitarist. So we're getting ready to fly off to the Boston area to start production rehearsals. And we're in good shape.
CBS SF: I guess from a practical standpoint, who is more familiar with the new material than one of the producers you recorded the album with...
Ian Hill: That's right. He was playing through it in his head as we were putting it down, being a musician. So the new stuff came naturally to him. Obviously with the older stuff, the rhythm guitar parts came quite easily. The lead things, Glenn has some awesome lead breaks that he's got to learn, which is why I've been going up there to play through the live thing so he's not just sitting there in front of a desk getting the solos together.
So the last day was today. That's where I've been all day today. But like I say, we're in good shape now. I'll be flying out in a couple of days and Andy's coming out a day or two later, I believe. We're in excellent shape.
CBS SF: That's good to hear! The package that you put together for the tour is fantastic. I've seen Saxon in the last year and they were great. I've never seen Black Star Riders, but I caught the latter era versions of Thin Lizzy a few times. Do you have any memories of touring with either Saxon or Thin Lizzy from back in '70s or '80s?
Ian Hill: Oh yeah! Saxon we bump into all over the place. They've toured with us a couple of times. We get on great with Biff and the lads. And Scott Gorham and Black Star Riders, they did a bit of work with us on the last tour. They did some Australia dates at one point. Yeah, it's going to be a good, happy atmosphere I reckon. We're all headed in the right direction and we're all of the same era; the same ilk if you will [laughs]. So I think it's going to be great.
Judas Priest play the Warfield with Saxon and Black Star Riders on Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m. The show is sold out.
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