It's safe to say that, in a year in which Tool's long-awaited fifth album might finally see the light of day, there is no-one on heaven or earth who expected the most exciting, vibrant and above all vital comeback release of 2018 to come from an act as deep into their twilight years as Judas Priest.
OK, to describe 'Firepower' as a comeback album is to stretch the term somewhat. Since 1974 the British heavy metal titans have shuffled their line-up from time to time without ever actually breaking up (though they came pretty damn close when vocalist Rob Halford parted ways acrimoniously for much of the ‘90s), releasing brilliant records like 1990's 'Painkiller' and 2005's 'Angel Of Retribution' long after their genre's golden age came to a close.
But, despite the insistence of their most die-hard fans, the last decade has not been kind to Judas Priest at all. The mighty dinosaurs of old have evolved into flightless birds, turning Priest from a byword for pure metal into an embarrassing embodiment of the stereotypical geriatric band who don't know when to call it a day. This seemingly terminal decline was largely the fault of a brace of late-career turkeys: 2008's turgid 'Nostradamus' and 2014's plodding 'Redeemer of Souls', two records on which the band sound every one of their collective 300 years. The retirement of founding member K. K. Downing's in 2011 was seen by many as a missed opportunity for the band to bow out with grace, their decision to shuffle on like a slowly disintegrating Frankenstein's monster a cynical move to maximise their nostalgia retirement fund.
Incredibly, it has turned out that these legitimate concerns were absolute bollocks. The possibility that Judas Priest's shambling corpse had been reanimated was raised in the first week of 2018, when the supercharged lead single 'Lightning Strike' struck with a force nobody could have predicted. It wasn't a flash in the pan either (sorry), as the brute power with which that track hits is replicated again and again across the record.
From the title track's frantic opening riff to 'Sea of Red's cathedral-sized close, 'Firepower' finds Priest sounding a band half, no wait, a quarter of their age. If it wasn't for Halford's unavoidably dated style of delivery (which has always sounded a little like Andrew Lloyd-Webber adapting Beowulf), even a seasoned metalhead could be tricked into thinking it was the debut release from the most exciting metal act to emerge since Ghost.
There's a coiled menace to the material which, when considering its creators' ages, makes it tempting to use the term 'sprightly'. But 'Firepower' isn't sprightly, it's swole enough to deck your dad. 'Evil Never Dies' chugs along with the sinister grind of 'Facelift'-era Jerry Cantrell, while 'Necromancer's verses nearly veer into death metal, a nice nod of the hat to a whole genre that wouldn't exist without Priest's pioneering late-70s work. The cream of the crop is the colossal 'Flame Thrower', which boasts a riff from guitarist Glen Tipton that wouldn't sound out of place amongst the thunderous thrash of Power Trip's 'Nightmare Logic'.
Listening to the record with the knowledge Tipton's losing battle with Parkinson's Disease is a bittersweet affair (though he will continue to write and record with the band, he has recently announced that he will retire from touring). This information makes 'Children of the Sun's spine-tingling solo all the more impressive given that he rips it out while spitting in the face of physical adversity, but it also makes you long to hear him perform it live.
Usually returns to form of this degree are coaxed out of a group through collaboration with some superproducer ('Firepower' was recorded with longtime producer Tom Allom and Hell guitarist Andy Sneap, who have both worked on sterling records but aren't exactly Rick Rubin level) or some similar change of tactic. But, as far as I can tell, Judas Priest just woke up one morning and suddenly remembered how to be the greatest heavy metal band on the planet again. Though it is far too early to start talking about this as one of their finest records, I have no doubt that 'Firepower' could slip through a wormhole in time to stand in the mighty presence of 'British Steel' and 'Screaming For Vengeance' and feel no shame.
Words: Josh Gray
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