Album Review: Judas Priest - "Redeemer of Souls"

Resurrection is a funny concept and particularly ironic for a band with ‘Judas’ in the name. The idea of coming back from the dead is a totally alien concept in the general human condition, but in music it happens frequently and with reckless abandon. A veritable arsenal of artists have proclaimed their retirement only to find after a short time that the heart still burns with passion for the music, or as cynics suggest, the wallet still burns through dollars. No matter the case, we’ve seen the phoenix-like cycle of musical creativity before, in some cases multiple times (looking at you, KISS.) For the record, it was on these very pages that the great Steve Souza (who just rejoined Exodus by the way, which in itself is a prime example of what’s-old-is-new-again,) called it on these very pages – Judas Priest would get bored, not know how to do anything else and come back in grand fashion.

Judas Priest is one of those bands whose reputation so precedes them that their constitution is taken for granted, but for the first time in a long while, the lineup sees a significant shakeup. Founder and guitarist K.K Downing, who in terms of public perception might as well be the brother of Glenn Tipton, is out. Reports vary as to why Downing made this decision, but the result is a clear mountain the band must climb. Can they sell their style without one of the holy triumvirate that created it?

“Redeemer of Souls” sticks to the world famous original Judas Priest recipe, with deceptively simple riffs, solid but not overbearing percussion and the added harmony and presence of Rob Halford, himself larger than life. Right off the jump they throw “Dragonaut” at the listener, which as far as pace cars go, sets a respectable enough clip for the album to follow. Focused more on power and insistence than speed or theatrics, the piece hammers along, following the map like a connect-the-dot puzzle, highlighting all the career-long landmarks of classic Priest.

Right toward the end there’s “Battle Cry,” a classic grinder that wastes neither time nor energy, channeling the gallop of great Priest records gone by. Much of “Redeemer of Souls” is dotted with great guitar solos, and “Battle Cry” is no exception, crashing a solo up against a pounding bridge at the mutual intersection. Tipton and new partner Richie Faulkner sound seamless together, like they’ve played in tandem as long as Tipton and Downing did. Their tone is both recognizable and gripping, a subtle mix of a chainsaw and a violin. So it all sounds like roses, and yet….

All the pieces of “Redeemer of Souls” are fine in a vacuum, but when combined they sound…tired? “Halls of Valhalla” in particular could have been so much more, but just sort of wallows in mid-tempo, measured pacing. The song is brimming with anticipation for a grand release, but it never really comes. “Redeemer of Souls” sounds an awful lot like a band going through motions and relying too heavily on the formula that they’ve used for forty years. Supporters will fire back in fast retribution that such a criticism is ageist, but that’s simply not the case. Judas Priest can be and has been better than this seemingly uninspired, lukewarm effort, which is akin to devouring large amounts of pork fried rice – you can live on it, but you rarely feel satisfied.

The lead riffs of “Redeemer of Souls” are forceful and keep alive the idiom of Priest’s twin-guitar ideal, but they sound clinical and antiseptic. For all the power that they represent, there is a virile bite that is starkly missing, a furnace that is being allowed to burn too low. Whether the missing element can be solely tied to the absence of K.K Downing is hard to determine, but in any event, the cutting snap of “Painkiller,” “Electric Eye” or even “Angel of Retribution” remains a memory. “Metalizer,” the song that keeps alive the trend of Priest songs that, by law, have to have either ‘metal’ or ‘steel’ or ‘leather’ in the title, comes out flat. Where one would expect Halford to unleash his mighty vocal impressions on the chorus, he chooses instead to play it cool, wafting into and out of bridges with a low-toned incantation.

There are those who will justify “Redeemer of Souls” under the guise that it’s better than “Nostradamus,” and that’s probably true, but that in and of itself is hardly enough to elevate the album’s status. Songs like “Sword of Damocles” bring to mind the occasional soft side of Judas Priest which is fine, but is far less excusable when the album does little else. It’s easy to be distracted when listening to this record, and before too long three or four ponderous, similar-sounding songs have gone by before the listener realizes it.

The silver lining of the record is that there’s nothing mechanically wrong with “Redeemer of Souls,” it merely could have employed a greater sense of urgency. So there’s a lot of optimism for the future, especially given that Priest hasn’t exactly batted 1.000 over the course of their career (“Turbo,” anyone?)

It’s great to see that Judas Priest still sees the value in the name and legacy of their band. Their decision to make more music after all, while perhaps predictable, is nonetheless a continuation of one of the great careers in metal history. “Redeemer of Souls” unfortunately, does little to add to the legacy of a band that props up the genre’s throne.

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