Gauging the pre-release fan chatter out there, "Redeemer of Souls" rings more like Judgment Day than the release of a new JUDAS PRIEST album. This should be cause for celebration, since it's JUDAS freakin' PRIEST, damn ya. Nevertheless, "Redeemer of Souls" arrives amidst skepticism following their sprawling metal opera "Nostradamus" that sent most of their fans into a panic.
Of course, PRIEST's been here before. As commercially successful as "Turbo" may have been for them in the late Eighties, the band recognized they'd attracted the wrong crowd and set out to make things right for their long-timers. "Ram it Down" was a valiant step back to where they once belonged and the same opportunity is presented them now with their 17th album. KK Downing is unaccounted for on "Redeemer of Souls", which only fuels the pre-game hate. Richie Faulkner, tie your shoestrings extra tight, young man; you're in for a wild ride.
So let's get one thing straight, people. Inhale, exhale. Stay calm. "Redeemer of Souls" is not another "Nostradamus" or even "Angel of Retribution". Despite the appearance of a few mini-epics on the new album, which hardly wank, this is a straightforward rocking JUDAS PRIEST album. Rob Halford and the band have alluded they're out to satisfy their fans by giving them what they want. There are a couple of a new tricks revealed from their leather-clad sleeves on this album, but for the most part, "Redeemer of Souls" sits snugly in a vibe caught between "Ram it Down" and "Painkiller" with a few faint touches of "Defenders of the Faith".
"Dragonaut" drops the hammer with a trad PRIEST clouting tempo, brushing riffs and a gusty drive that yells of ignition. A couple of rough patches are detected and Halford works a bit harder than usual to get into gear, but the song still works as an effective launch pad for the album to take off and it does. The title track assumes a proper thrust straight out of "Dragonaut" as the riffs get a bit more aggressive and the melody assumes a heroic stride for JUDAS PRIEST's diamond-eyed biker lead. It would be just as cool whirling behind Ghost Rider, who probably had an inspirational hand behind the song.
"Halls of Valhalla" may intimidate listeners by its six-minute length, but the band learned a few things post-"Nostradamus" on this track. A minute-and-a-half is used to set up "Halls of Valhalla" with a theatrical intro and some gnarly greeting solos before it hops aboard a steel horse and sticks to a flailing course. Halford is magnificent in keeping the sweat pouring from this song, particularly with his morose swills on the bridge and his dramatic soars on the choruses. At one point in the song, a brief (yes, brief) signature change plunges the song into an abyss over which Halford growls demonically. His soaring vocal ascension to high alto out of that plummet is guaranteed to send chills dancing down your spine. He is the Metal God, after all.
The only thing that really seems missing from the first two and many other songs on "Redeemer of Souls" is the famed twin solo merges that made KK Downing and Glenn Tipton unbeatable lords of their stations. Tipton and Richie Faulkner work just fine together, trading off solos and keeping their riffs glued tight. Finally, they amalgamate on "Halls of Valhalla" and it feels good, not tacky. Later on the first few bars and the solo of "Down in Flames", they not only unite, they sparkle.
"March of the Damned" plows like a beast as one of the heaviest cuts on the album. "Down in Flames" has its heart in the right place by dipping its ladle into PRIEST's early Eighties grooves, but Rob Halford is hit and miss vocally here as he tries to heft the song's plodding anthem to a bigger height. Ian Hill plugs the gaps with enough bass to keep the track from fading while Glenn and Richie decorate it tastefully. On "Hell and Back", Hill dominates the slow-grinding drive as Halford begins the song with a nod back to the "Sad Wings of Destiny" years before assuming a gravelly touch to his delivery the remainder of the way.
"Metalizer" brings the speed and you just figure Scott Travis was licking his chops for the chance to run havoc. There's a nostalgic, if slightly corny approach to the final chorus here, but the song keeps to a brisk course you hardly care, even with the mid-tempo shuffles of the verses and bridges that give the illusion this thing has hardly slowed down at all. Again Hill gets a bigger presence in the mix while the riffs are ceaseless, if choppy at times. As they've always had a talent for, JUDAS PRIEST melds neoclassical sweeps into "Metalizer" and they work like champs.
In a couple of spots on the album, you can hear subliminal Jimi Hendrix fuses, i.e. portions of "Sword of Damocles", which is largely set upon a slow NWOBHM march, plus the opening licks of "Crossfire", which will conjure lower-keyed echoes of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)".
If you buy the deluxe edition of "Redeemer of Souls", you'll get a five-song extra disc. They're simplistic, stripped down tunes and better yet, fun, quite likely cookie cuts to get Richie Faulkner acclimated with the band in-studio. "Snakebite" would've flied back in the Eighties as a "Screaming for Vengeance" outtake, "Creatures" the same for "Defenders of the Faith", "Tears of Blood" could've made a killer B-side to "Blood Red Skies" from "Ram it Down". The longer, career-reflecting ballad "Never Forget" reveals an entirely different dimension to JUDAS PRIEST, even while carrying a hint as the band's potential swan song.
It's evident Rob Halford and JUDAS PRIEST are seeking a higher art from themselves despite the mass rebuke of "Nostradamus". On "Redeemer of Souls", they linger on the easels to outline "Sword of Damocles", "Secrets of the Fire" and "Halls of Valhalla" as if declaring their lack of fear to progress. Nonetheless, they've smartly focused on delivering the goods. "Redeemer of Souls" isn't perfect and it's undercooked at times as the band breaks in their new guitarist without suffocating him. Yet most of this album crushes and sounds pretty much what the title plies for: a moment of redemption in light of the fans who have largely written off their newer material. This is a very entertaining album that potentially sets up for something majestic, if the history between "Ram it Down" and "Painkiller" repeats itself.