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Album Review: JUDAS PRIEST Redeemer of Souls

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2014 marks the third year after Judas Priest singer Rob Halford took to the media and announced that his band would be pulling a kind of reverse rock & roll retirement: they would continue to record new material but no longer engage in extended tours, the polar opposite of the usual "play the hits until the wheels fall off" dinosaur ethos. Of course, our collective skepticism was justified earlier this Spring when Priest announced first a headlining gig at Fun Fun Fun Fest and then, a few weeks later, plans for the full blown US tour that we all knew was coming. Say, though, what about that new material all this extra free time was supposed to allow you to compose?

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Granted, the band spent three years touring on the back of 2008's indifferently received Nostradamus, but we've now doubled down on that total. If there's anything Nostradamus taught fans it's that Priest are the not kind of perfectionists that are capable of maximizing the extra studio time allotted. Bloated and overlong, that album's ambition was undermined by same-y sounding songs, a middling tempo and scant lyrical inspiration… not exactly the portrait of a group toiling away at a masterwork until it's just right (or even second guessing themselves into irrelevance a la Chinese Democracy).

You can't blame the guys for swinging for the fences these days, though: their fellow British luminaries Iron Maiden had been soaking up heaps of praise and goodwill in the wake of several Bruce Dickinson-helmed comeback efforts, nearly all of which had been cited for their creative restlessness and artistic vigor. Why wouldn't Judas Priest want a piece of that action? No virile heavy metal band appreciates when their fan base see them as lazy has beens whose new records are just an excuse to get out and churn out the hits one more time.

So Nostradumas obviously stung, which you can tell because the band immediately rushed out a live album that no one really asked for the following year (a classic "see, the new stuff doesn't sound so bad sandwiched in between the standards!" move that few fans ever seem to actually fall for). Priest has taken their time following up that semi-debacle, but as mentioned above, they're at their best when penning stripped down riffs wedded to anthemic vocals, so the extra time off has really just resulted in a greater quantity of songs, not necessarily more sophisticated ones.

Make no mistake, however: that inability to put over high falutin' material is not a character defect when a self-awareness of those limitations is present, and this year's Redeemer of Souls has a cathartic air of Judas Priest coming fully to terms with their mortality (also, a band's 40th anniversary is not exactly the best time to be getting all avant-garde, especially when your tour is touting that very landmark).

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Even at the mere 13 tracks of the standard CD edition, the album runs just over an hour, making this their second longest album, but when you kick in the five bonus tracks on the deluxe edition even the deliberate sprawl of Nostradamus only bests it by 20 minutes. Eh, why not… those tracks are in the books, might as well get all this stuff out now as opposed to waiting ten years for another obligatory reissue campaign. The five extra songs are stowed away on their own appended EP, and from Glen Tipton's comments in recent interviews they were deliberately isolated from the rest of the album due to tone, so they really deserve to be treated as optional extras rather than fleshing out the intent of the original LP.

One of the more interesting tracks to make the LP proper is "Crossfire", a late-sequenced update of the 70's Priest sound, with an impressively catchy blues rock backbone (maybe that tour with Whitesnake a few years back rubbed off). The novelty of hearing a blues lick in a Priest song this late in the game would be a pretty disposable joy if it weren't for the fact that the tune is one of the strongest on the album.

Indeed, that's not the only goodie saved for last. The penultimate track, "Battle Cry", begins with a shrill, overly processed triplet attack that seems to deliberately recall 1982's "The Hellion". The track picks up its own identity from there while remaining firmly rooted in that era's songwriting. "Beginning of the End" closes out the regular edition with a somewhat pedestrian ballad that, in evoking the (frankly kind of interchangeable) ballads of their pre-Killing Machine era, nonetheless offers a sort of satisfaction by bringing the band's sound full circle.

Elsewhere, there are a small handful of uptempo, mythology-building tracks ("Metalizer", "Dragonaut") that cross Painkiller's production crunch with the brassy tone and lyrical chutzpah of Stained Class. Also amply represented are the darker, modern tracks that made up the bulk of Painkiller's material ("Cold Blooded", "Secrets of the Fire") and then plenty of songs that, in their thematic indeterminacy, seem to span multiple eras simultaneously (ie. "Sword of Domocles" and the title track both sound like they could have been written during the sessions for Point of Entry or Ram It Down either one, with the production values effectively splitting the difference between the two!)

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If this review seems especially insistent on drawing comparisons between individual albums, it's because the band themselves seem to make a concerted effort to be all things to all fans, with a very blatant self-conscious insurance that all album eras are properly represented here. Truly the only epochs absent on Redeemer of Souls are the poodle rock shenanigans of Turbo and the hippie dippie boogie hangover of Rocka Rolla (the Tim Owens groove metal years are gratefully overlooked as well).

The five bonus tracks are all completely worthy and most could have been swapped out with a similar tune that made the proper LP, but with the exception of "Never Forget" – another schmalty throwback ballad – they all have the same scrappy, uptempo vibe that sounds like 1979 down to the minute, so it's easy to see why the band wanted to isolate them from the primary track list: if anything they'd dilute the diversity that Priest went out of their way to sequence on the album proper. They're worth having, though, so don't skimp on the deluxe edition even if you plan on saving the bonus disc for those infrequently completist mood swings.

All in all, Judas Priest have acquitted themselves admirably with Redeemer of Souls. If there's one gripe to be had it's that they continue their post-reunion streak of not having any obvious classics that jump out at you and cement their place in the canon immediately… no hooks here as electrifying or bulletproof classic as "Breaking the Law" or "The Ripper", unfortunately. On the other hand, there's something to be said for putting together an album of this breadth that is devoid of true clunkers. Having talents as specific as Priest's enable them to laser focus in on what they do best, which is bombastic-yet-simple anthems that sound just as great in concert as they do on a shitty car stereo. Horns in the air, bitches.

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