Judas Priest return with new guitarist Richie Faulkner and an awakened Scott Travis on Firepower, an album which is the living definition of "pretty good."
On this album, Halford's shrieks are limited, and as the recent live Priest albums show, he cannot scream across the stratosphere as well as he once could. (His last 150% recording was the double live Halford album, which has the unbelievable shriekfests, "Hell's Last Survivor" and "Sad Wings".) Even with a lower ceiling on his voice, Halford is terrific, my favorite singer in metal history, and he sounds great singing any reasonably good vocal idea. Whether rough or smooth, high or low, staccato or melodic, angry or dolorous, Halford is the master. (Perhaps only Eric Adams and Ronnie James Dio have ever turned in comparable work.)
So...there are a bunch of thoughts on only the vocalist of this classic metal band...and there's a reason for that. This album feels like a Halford solo album more than a Priest album. A similar argument could be made about Black Sabbath's 13 for similar reasons: The riffs aren't particularly memorable or unique to their respectively historic riff writers. There is no “wow” when Iommi and Tiption talk with their axes on these albums. Almost all of the best material by each band has the synergy of great riffs and great singing. The Sentinel. Sign of the Southern Cross. The Ripper. Touch of Evil. One Shot at Glory. The Wizard. Symptom of the Universe. Falling Off the Edge of the World.
And thus, songs on both 13 and Firepower almost entirely succeed or fail based on the quality of the vocal ideas, in particular, the quality of the chorus refrains. The strong riffs and sinister metal landscapes found in the finest Priest songs are wholly absent on this album. So on Firepower, this band that trailblazed twin guitar harmonies and high energy hammer-on riffing is largely there to give Rob Halford something to sing on top of.
And sing excellently, he does. The lush, somber chorus of clear album highlight, "Rising from Ruins" (which conjures up memories of "Night Comes Down"), the anthemic "No Surrender" and the biting, clipped approach he takes in the refrain of "Traitor's Gate" show but three facets of the platinum standard of metal singing. Similarly, songs with lousy or mediocre choruses are thus torpedoed by their refrains--"Necromancer," the dual stabs at modern macho ("Flamethrower" & "Lone Wolf") and the forced album nadir, "Evil Never Dies". Other tunes with pretty good choruses are consequently...pretty good. "Never the Heroes," “Spectre,” and "Sea of Red," (which is a bit too Broadway/chromatic, but not embarrassing like "Loch Ness").
Could "No Surrender" and "Spectre" be Halford solo songs? 100% And to me, that means that the full potential of the band Judas Priest has not been tapped, and the album falls into the category of "fun," rather than “timeless.” Even derided albums like Ram it Down and Turbo have "Blood Red Skies," "Out in the Cold," swaggering, twisted blues like "Love You to Death" and the monolithic stomper "Monster of Rock". All of these tunes and their respective albums feel like all of the guys are creatively participating at a full level. Not so here.
The production on Firepower is the best of their post-Painkiller albums. Drums are beefy and all of the leads sound like they went through blasting amps, which hasn’t been the case for a while. Welcome back producer Tom Allon, (technologically?) aided by Andy Sneap. Perhaps because of Allom or Sneap or some good coffee, Scott Travis woke up. This technically perfect drummer was good on Painkiller, but has been keeping time and creatively unremarkable for nearly three decades, other than on the song "Down in Flames" and a few spots on Nostradamus. He wakes up on here--the extra China crashes and accents in "Lightning Strikes" are quite good and his fills and accents really help all around. Raise an iron mug of coffee to Travis for finally delivering more of his potential.
I wish Priest didn't feel obligated to make hour long albums, since both this one and Redeemer of Souls have enough good material to be far better full experiences if they were 40 or 45 minutes long. It's great that Halford sounds this good, and I'll continue to buy and keep albums of this quality level, but hope for something more. Obviously they were quite inspired as a band when they made Nostradamus--"Alone" and "Death" are their two best post-Painkiller songs--but that huge double album has far too much filler as well.
Should you get this album? Yes, if you're a Priest fan. “Rising from Ruins” is really good and has a departure section that develops other dimensions (and keys) and helps make it feel like grand, classic Priest (and oddly, the departure in the lemon, "Evil Never Dies" also has some cool key changes and grandness in the departure, but is torpedoed by the chorus).
Firepower has 4 winners, 4 mediocre tunes, and 5 decent/above average songs. Very good Halford; pretty good Priest.