Having spent the last month immersed in the back-catalog of the legendary Judas Priest, a nagging thought kept running wild through my mind. What if I get through this ginormous ranking of the Priest albums, designed to coincide with their latest release, only to hate it and have to bash it? As a life-long fan, that idea didn’t really fill me with joy, but all I could do was grit my teeth, get the countdown done and hope there was a decent album waiting for me on the other side. Firepower is Priest‘s 18th full-length, and marks what may be the end of the road for the legendary act, with founder Glenn Tipton’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease forcing him to retire from touring. It’s a disheartening backdrop for a new release, but whatever fate may hold for Judas Priest going forward, they sure as hell put out an aggressive, balls out metal album this time around. It’s easily the heaviest thing they’ve done since Painkiller, taking influences from Rob Halford’s solo albums and his Fight side-project for a direct, no-nonsense outing with surprisingly sharp, focused song writing. Firepower indeed.
Wasting no time, the album gets down to metal business with the title track’s heavy riffing and straight-ahead bullying. There’s a Painkiller era flavor and intensity, but it doesn’t feel derivative. If anything it reminds me more of Halford’s Resurrection material. It’s satisfyingly heavy and Halford sounds in good form, screeching and growling along with the extra crunchy riffs. “Lighting Strikes” keeps the momentum going with another nut-buster full of thick riffage and heroic vocals. It’s quite catchy and sounds like the output of a much younger band.
What makes Firepower such a pleasant surprise is how consistently good it is and the sheer number of album high points. “Never the Heroes” really grabbed me on the first spin and got under my skin. It reminds me of the recent Saxon output and has a simple but deceptively addictive chorus that really sticks. “Rising From the Ruins” is the best song the band’s written since 1990, steeped in rebellious attitude and vintage metal tricks and tropes. Halford delivers a powerful and poignant performance on a very upbeat, fist pumping “defeat the world” kind of song with a great chorus and enough chest thumping machismo to get you through several barroom brawls. It’s hard to believe this is the same band that put out Redeemer and it’s a revelation that they still have this level of vim and vigor. “Spectre” is also impressive, meaty and uber-catchy, with some interesting guitar-work woven around the edges. The late album tandem of “Traitor’s Gate” and “Never Surrender” show Priest functioning at their highest level in 30 years, crafting punchy, hard-hitting metal with serious staying power and bite.
The only song that feels superfluous is penultimate track “Lone Wolf.” It’s not bad, but it’s not up to the standards of the rest of the album and should have been dropped. Since the album clocks in at 58-plus minutes, that kind of trimming makes good sense. Luckily the songs are all concise, running 3-5 minutes, and there’s no album killing “Lochness” slog, so the 58-minutes doesn’t feel too long. The production by one-time band mainstay and confidant, Tom Allom1 is loud and crushing, but it works with this material. The guitars have a ton of power and Rob is placed appropriately high in the mix.
Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner slathered this album with thick, crunchy riffing more like the first Fight album than what Judas Priest is known for. This gives it a much more intense, modern sound and the aggression definitely works in the band’s favor. They layer on the flashy solos too, and some of the fret-work is surprisingly subtle and tasteful. Rob Halford sound better here than on Redeemer, and though he still stays in his mid-range much of the time, he does attempt more upper range wailing here. He sounds particularly vibrant and powerful on cuts like “Children of the Sun” and “Traitor’s Gate,” and it’s great to hear him belting it out again like a man possessed.
I approached Firepower with realistic expectations, and merely hoped the band could top Redeemer of Souls and put out a consistent album. This is considerably more than that, and easily the best thing they’ve done since Painkiller. It’s heavy, hooky, full of piss, vinegar and whiskey and has few glaring flaws. I really hope the band can keep going in this form, as it’s clear they can still deliver the goods, but that looks less and less likely given recent developments. If this is to be the swan song for one of metal’s most legendary acts, it’s a damn good one to go out on. Thanks for a lifetime of great music and memories, and thanks for Firepower.