Record review: Judas Priest, “Nostradamus” (Epic)


How bloody wonderful.

Imagine that, late in middle age, you’re one of the world’s top classic metal bands, riding a strong comeback. Your iconic singer has reclasped your sweating palms after a decade of indulging himself. You’re selling out colosseums on tour with the Dio-fronted lineup of Black Sabbath. You’ve established your continued vitality three years previous with a charged-up reunion album.

What should your new music sound like? More of the same? No! No! No! You can do any damned thing you want now! Where lies the path? One word: “Nostradamus.”

Since the 1970s, few rock units have dared thrust forth their prowess with orgiastic progressive concept albums to match Yes’s “Tales From Topographic Oceans,” Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Tarkus,” Meat Loaf’s “Bat out of Hell” or Spinal Tap’s “Jazz Odyssey.” Why not? 1) They couldn’t sell their labels on it. 2) They were pussies.

Judas Priest, however, are he-men. Read what their disc notes relate about the reasons for adopting the 16th-century French prophet and Black Plague physician Nostradamus as a parallel to their own story: “Our rich history with metal has covered many of the elements and messages that are both the backbone of his life and what we compose: overcoming difficulties; standing up against those that misunderstand what we believe in; and many other virtues that attest to what we do with our music.” While Priest are too modest to proclaim directly their status as healers and seers (viz. past songs such as “Ram It Down” and “Electric Eye”), they do hint at how an artist can get misunderstood: “Nostradamus was perceived by some to be working in the black arts,” a conclusion that unnaturally suspicious observers might also draw from titles on the last Priest album -- “Judas Is Rising,” “Deal With the Devil,” “Demonizer,” “Hellrider.”

We do not come to heavy metal for restraint. Yet many surely cowered at the 13-minute “Lochness,” which concluded the aforementioned album, 2005’s “Angel of Retribution.” Not exactly metal or even rock, the song uncoiled in great glistening twists of what can only be called amplified opera, daring listeners to “confess your terror of the deep.” If we were scared then, the time for cardiac arrest has now arrived: “Nostradamus” is “Lochness” to the sixth power.

And unless you’re a Coldplay fan, you will give it a chance. You might even light some candles and run through all 110 minutes. Several times a month. Most important, neighbors be damned, you must play it LOUD.

Because: The point is the ride, not the tunes, though many of the songs ring strong as such. As “Dawn of Creation” breaks, Priest immediately announce their intention to slaughter you with sound -- the HUGE, thigh-vibrating bass, the “Apocalypse Now” helicopter/Pegasus wings flapping and whooshing across the stereo field. The ensuing “Prophecy,” with its deadly Sabbath guitar riff and Rob Halford’s unearthly shrieks, catapults you into a familiar metal groove.

After that, the mind expansion begins. I often say there’s no loud without quiet, and “Nostradamus” plies dynamic range masterfully. There’s ironshod opera, madrigal folk, Stonehenge grandeur, monkish chant, gooshy balladry, all woven together without pause or obvious track boundaries -- acoustic and electric, near and distant, sensitive and crude.

Meanwhile, rock is not forgotten. The first disc anchors its stern with the slo-mo gallop of “Conquest” and the sword-stabbing “Persecution.” The second disc leans heavier on the hooks: the wassailing waltz “Exiled” (is that a mellotron?), the thundering declamation “Alone,” and a conclusion no metal fan could fault -- the rip-roaring “Nostradamus” and the grand outbound processional “Future of Mankind.”

Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing seize many opportunities to bolster their axman credentials with silvery interthreaded leadwork, classical expostulations, perverse Arabisms and, on “Persecution,” a thoroughly insane dual shred. Ian Hill makes sure the bass rocks very, very bassily. Perhaps least pleased will be the usually rambunctious drummer Scott Travis, whose cracking snare recedes somewhat into the general operahouse echo and whose beloved double-kicks gather dust. Halford plainly has an enormous time exploring the shades and depths of his miraculous voice in sustain-laden passages obviously written for that exact purpose; he seems especially to enjoy rolling Verdi-esque Italian off his tongue on “Pestilence and Plague.” Still, he reserves special moments when his screaming highs can pierce the thickest skull -- “We don’t wanna belong . . . we just wanna be -- LEFT ALONE!” (A triple outsider parallel, maybe: misunderstood Nostradamus, outcast metalheads and homosexual artistes.)

The “Nostradamus” production team (producers Tipton & Downing, engineer Richard Wood, mixer Attie Bauw) expertly straddle the fine line between full-blown and overblown. And one credit deserves particular attention: “Special thanks to Don Airey.” Unless a whole lot of the “synthesized guitars” credited to Tipton and Downing are geared to sound exactly like orchestral keyboards, there’s no question but that Airey -- keysman for Deep Purple, Rainbow, Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake, etc. -- dominates the instrumentation of “Nostradamus.” Again and again, if you didn’t know this was Judas Priest, you’d think it was a latter-day manifestation of some organ/synth outfit such as Procol Harum or Deep Purple or Uriah Heep or one of the more keys-blanketed Dio outfits. As well as Airey plays, a lot of longtime Priest fans will have a big problem with a non-member wielding that much clout.

“Nostradamus” will face other challenges. Priest care zip about the current listening audience’s piecemeal listening habits; the album’s interlocking structure, confusing title system and lack of track numbering are deliberately designed to thwart cherry-picking of favorite tunes. Its length makes it an event around which you need to plan an entire evening. Contrary to every expectation, this is not a record to which you can consistently rock out. And the format foregrounds Halford’s painful shortcomings as a narrative lyricist: “The feelings you gave to me I’ll never forget.” “I was alone, no one in sight.” “What I predict will terrify.”

A lot of questions arise. Whose idea was all this? (There are no songwriting credits.) Since it resonates very much as a Halford project, was such an effort a precondition of his rejoining the band? (Everyone contributes at top click, though.) What happened to Roy Z, who produced “Angel of Retribution” and was initially reported as the “Nostradamus” recorder? Rob: Call me.

On tour, Priest are performing just a few selections from “Nostradamus.” They knew whatever they put out would have no impact on ticket sales; this one was a virtual freebie, and a chance to add a distinctive landmark to their catalog. Well, good. It’s one of those statements that can make you say “Ick” or “Wow” or “Hooray for freedom.” Or quite likely all three.