There’s so many moments on Judas Priest’s Firepower that caused me to break into gleeful cackling, my surprise at what I was hearing having no other reasonable way to manifest itself when listening to the album alone in my car. In lieu of grabbing someone by the arm and shaking them profusely, or shouting a variety of expletives as adjectives to verbalize my bubbling thoughts, my growing enthusiasm manifested itself in absurd ways. My first time listening to it was when driving one evening to the MSRcast recording studio, and the moment that really set me off was “Guardians”, whose epic, isolated piano intro was harmonized by multi-tracked guitars in a wave of epic euphoria building majesty. Its pure, heroic melody recurs in the song it immediately feeds into, the soaring eagle that is “Rising From Ruins”, together the two songs forming as glorious a one-two punch as anything in the Priest catalog, recalling instantly the storied “Electric Eye/Hellion” pairing. I throw around the term inspired a lot on this blog (among many other adjectives I’m sure), but on the “Guardians/Rising From Ruins” duo, Priest tapped into that rare magic that exemplifies the unique ability of metal to convey emotions that are wholly foreign to other styles of music —- feelings of urgency, desperation, and conviction channeled through a funnel of raw power. Upon first hearing the pair, my mind was blown, and I spent the long drive-thru wait in the ritual pre-podcast-recording Starbucks run playing them on repeat. It took every bit of maturity and calm not to babble incoherently about it when I arrived at the studio, but if you heard the last MSRcast, you’ll hear bits of that leaking through.
By now the consensus is agreed that Firepower is a first rate Judas Priest album, with some claiming its their best since Painkiller, something I won’t disagree with in spirit. The overwhelming sentiment that I’ve detected being expressed among metal fans, bloggers, and journalists everywhere however is one of genuine astonishment, for what I suspect is largely credited towards the manner in which Priest pulled this off. Its not just an excellent album, its perhaps the best sounding recording in their catalog, the production team of old school Tom Allom (he helmed the production for British Steel thru Ram It Down) and modern metal recording guru Andy Sneap honing in on a sonic sweet spot that is vital, bracing, muscular, and crisp. For all the praise I heaped on Redeemer of Souls for Ritchie Faulkner’s revitalization of the Priest songwriting unit, the one knock against it I could agree to was its somewhat muddled, murky production. Its predecessors Nostradamus and Angel of Retribution were no better, both lumbering with this strange mix of weird reverb and flabby ambience that dulled riffs where they needed to be razor sharp. Halford would sometimes be pushed back farther in the mix than he needed to be, and it made him sound his age in moments. In general they suffered from what Maiden has been hamstrung by in continuing to work with Kevin Shirley, the sense that their albums could sound better if they simply remembered what they were supposed to sound like.
It stuns me to say this, but Firepower may be a better album in terms of songwriting and production combined than any post-reunion Maiden album has been. Regarding production alone, perhaps Brave New World is its only near match, but I wonder if that’s due to how vibrant and lively it sounded relative to the dire thud of Virtual XI and The X Factor? Throughout their career arcs, its been natural for many to compare the two bands, and I’ve tried to avoid doing that myself, but with Firepower the comparison screams for examination: Maybe Maiden need to rattle their own cage with a shake up at the producer spot —- and although the first name I’d advise would be Andy Sneap himself, its could be a variety of people (Roy Z for instance…). Of course we wouldn’t even be discussing this if Ritchie Faulkner hadn’t worked out as a talented songwriter in replacing KK Downing, terrific production job or not. We’re paying attention because these new Priest songs have been sharper, hook-ier, meatier, and downright more Priest-ish than ever before because of his outsider perspective and his innate ability to use that to direct the band’s focus. I know they’ve been saying in interviews that Glenn had a lot to do with this album, and I do believe them, but in regarding the difference between Nostradamus’ two pretty decent songs and Redeemer of Souls being such a terrific front to back album, Faulkner was the not so secret weapon.
So back to Firepower, where you’d be forgiven for thinking “No Surrender” sounded like a prime-80s era Priest hidden treasure —- it has that electric sonic energy, the Big City Night/Restless and Wild street swagger, and Halford’s vocals are commanding. Or that the mid-song rhythm guitar breakdown in “Lightning to Strike” at the 2:25 mark that hearkens back to the polished thrash metal of Painkiller and late 80s Slayer. Sometimes everything works in such perfect lockstep its like imagining the interplay of drum patterns and riffs as some well oiled engine, as on the repeating verse riff sequence in “Never the Heroes”. It instantly conjures up the image of that iconic Tipton/Downing stage performance move, the classic synchronized back and forth movement set to the rhythm of the almighty riff. Throughout my years as a metal fan online, I’ve seen some snarky comments made here and there making fun of that stage move, to which I say, “Clear the hall!”. The Priest-ian riff-synch move is a heavy metal live show classic, an oft-neglected joyful ritual (Hammerfall are keeping the faith!), and to hear the band knocking out new material that will conjure up that stage move again with full on conviction is a gift to us as metal fans. Cherish it dammit!
I see no weak tracks here, not in the middle when things could naturally get toned down a bit (they’ve wisely placed the “Guardians”/”Rising From Ruins” combo in the center of the tracklisting), and certainly not towards the end where one of the most vicious cuts Priest has written in decades is unleashed in “Traitors Gate”. I love the tempo acceleration in Halford’s vocal delivery during the opening of the chorus (“…out of the dark / into the light…”), and the major key melodicism of the instrumental section towards the end, which is as unexpected here as it was during the break in “Ram It Down”. Halford has rarely sounded this fierce, so absolutely brutal and withering —- its a little crazy to think he’s sounding this awesome this late in the game. While the bulk of the credit goes to the metal god himself, you’ve got to again look to the Allom/Sneap production team in finding a way to make Halford sound younger than he’s sounded, well… maybe ever. And then there’s the haunting, doomy ballad “Sea of Red”, speaking about the carnage of war with the gravity it demands, almost hearkening to Maiden’s relatively recent “For the Greater Good of God” with its acoustic strummed intro bed. Its old school in spirit though, bringing up memories of Coverdale era Purple’s “Soldier of Fortune”, while simultaneously mirroring the album closing duty and spirit of “Beginning of the End” from Redeemer, another Sabbathy ballad.
Its by now been a week or two since this album was released, and while the press has properly conveyed just how earthshaking a release this is and the band seems to know it too, I wonder if we’re still some months or years away from truly defining its impact on the band’s ultimate legacy. No longer can it be written that Painkiller was the last high point, that the band limped on through the Ripper years and when Halford rejoined, they staggered on with some semi-decent records before calling it a day. I’ll hammer this point again and again, that Ritchie Faulkner rejuvenated the Judas Priest songwriting machine and with his tenure in the lineup, they’ve released two knock out albums back to back including this one which is downright intimidating in its blistering attack. Its a case not only for the greatest concluding chapter a legacy metal (or rock) band has ever had on a creative level (Maiden’s post-reunion commercial success is hard to match), but also for the argument that new blood in long running bands can work to maximize the potential of a legacy sound. Fellow Brits Cradle of Filth enjoyed similar creative renewal with their past two efforts with new six stringers in the band, and its been a marvel to behold. Draw whatever conclusions you may from this, but its been a revelation as a fan of so many bands that have changed members and lost certain core songwriting teams. It begs the question: Who’s next up?