Former Judas Priest leader Rob Halford screams for vengeance once again
by Eric Layton
Holy angel lift me from this burning hell
Resurrection make me whole
Son of Judas bring the saints to my revenge
Resurrection bring me home
During the past decade, Rob Halford was a victim of changes. First came his separation from Judas Priest, the vastly influential, multiplatinum British heavy metal band he’d fronted since 1971. Next came some self-imposed changes: albums with the brutally riffing outfit Fight and, most surprisingly, a Trent Reznor-assisted effort with a project named Two that found this metal screamer diving headlong into Gothic-industrial sounds. Suddenly, longtime followers of Halford were confused by his mindset and intentions. Had he turned his back on the millions who bowed at the feet of Judas Priest? (Never mind Halford’s fanbase-dividing, long-overdue public admission in the late-’90s of his homosexuality, a fact that in hindsight seems quite obvious if one paid any attention to the singer’s attire and lyrics throughout his Priest tenure.)
Stylistic reinvention and sexuality aside, Halford remains one of the most commanding and legendary singers in the hard rock/metal lexicon. With his wide-ranging operatic voice — glass-shattering one minute, baritone-low the next — and leather-enhanced charisma, he is the quintessential metal frontman. His journey through the career valleys of Fight and Two may have been less successful than Priest, but the vocalist admits in his current press bio that he “needed to do the other things in order to get back to what I’m doing now.”
What Halford is “doing now” is the classic style of metal that made such Priest LPs as Screaming For Vengeance, British Steel and Stained Class indispensable parts of any self-respecting metal fan’s record collection. Halford’s brand-new collection, a skull-rattling, eardrum-piercing return to form, is a rebirth into the hallowed genre he helped define. This is metal. This is Resurrection.
Yes, Halford is once again a defender of the faith — screaming for vengeance and hell bent for leather. With his latest group, simply dubbed Halford, he’s just released Resurrection on Metal-Is, a division of Sanctuary Records. Clocking in at a decidedly vinyl length of 48 minutes, it contains some of the finest metal songs to arrive in ages: the balls-out, statement-of-intent title cut, the whiplash-inducing “Made In Hell,” the epic “Silent Scream” and many more.
Sitting in a West Hollywood hotel suite (guzzling coffee, eating a Kit Kat bar and even smoking to keep his energy up for a long day of interviews), Halford is a low-key and cordial presence. The 48-year-old legend, who readily admits he has a bit of difficulty of getting his “old body” up and running in the morning, is in casual mode, wearing shorts and a tank top that reveal his many tattoos. This isn’t the fist-pumping banshee in skintight black leather famous for barreling onstage on a Harley-Davidson; this is kick-back Halford, enjoying some rare down time before he heads out on Iron Maiden’s “Brave New World” tour. The six-week North American trek, which also features Queensrÿche (Halford will open the show), hits Southern California in September. And if you’re skeptical about the viability of Halford and Maiden’s old-school metal sounds in today’s competitive concert market, you’ve got another thing comin’: the tour’s Madison Square Garden stop sold out in just two hours.
Halford agrees that the extremely self-assured title of his latest disc doesn’t just communicate that he’s back in the metal game, but, more importantly, that he has something to prove.
“I’ve always got something to prove,” he says plainly. “I think everything that I do is a proving moment. That’s what drives musicians, I think. We’re always trying to prove something to ourselves… But I think [the title Resurrection] is particularly relevant for me, because it’s my first metal album since (Judas Priest’s) Painkiller, and if I’ve anything to prove to myself and to everybody else, it’s that I can still do a great job as a metal singer and be part of a great metal band. And that’s what I feel Resurrection represents.”
Sipping his java, the Birmingham, England native shared how his status as a metal legend is both a blessing and a curse.
“There’s a built-in expectation, and the last thing I want to do is let myself down and let the metal fans down. So I work hard at making sure that I don’t leave people with a bad taste, you know? I want people to be excited about what they’ve heard and what they’ve experienced. That’s important to me.”
To insure he didn’t disappoint his devoted following, Halford recruited an abundantly talented crew of players for the 12-track Resurrection: guitarists Mike Chlasciak and Patrick Lachman, found through cassettes and videos submitted to the singer; bassist Ray Riendeau, a holdover from Two; and drummer Bobby Jarzombeck, who used to pound the skins for Riot. The quintet proves a tight, dynamic unit, capturing both the pummeling, dual-guitar assault of Priest as well as its knack for melody. Shades of vintage Priest material is evident — there’s the grind of Hell Bent For Leather, the catchy thunder of Vengeance. What distinguishes Resurrection from Halford’s earlier achievements, though, are its highly autobiographical lyrics, encouraged by the album’s producer, Roy Z. Halford acknowledges that turning his self-examination into art wasn’t easy.
“It was tough, because when we came to think about [the lyrics], Roy suggested, ‘Just tell people what’s been going on in your life, what you’ve been experiencing.’ And I said, ‘Well, is that going to work in metal?’ Because metal is fantasy, escapism and illusion, at least in my world. But he said, ‘Just give it some time, and just try to put these experiences and feelings on paper.’ And that’s what I did. It was tough for me, because I’d never been in that area before. But again, it’s about the challenge. I just step up to the plate and start to write… the bulk of the material on this record comes from the heart.”
Lyrics aside, Halford freely admits that the impetus for his return to the classic style of metal he perfected with Priest is simple: his absence from it made him grow fonder.
“I missed it so much,” he says. “It just kept calling me back. I mean, the longer I was away from it, the more the fire was raging inside of me. I just couldn’t escape it — it’s what I’m about. The greatest things happen for me with my voice in that metal environment. It was just something that I couldn’t escape. It’s so vital and such a part of me that I couldn’t wait to get back.”
Indeed, Halford’s been born-again into a genre that might not have existed without his contributions. Between the mid-’70s and mid-’80s, one would be hard pressed to find a more significant or popular metal act than Priest. Sure, they had peers, like current tourmates Iron Maiden, but Halford, along with guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, bassist Ian Hill and various drummers, were in a heavy-duty league of their own. They toured the world, hammering millions of their subjects into sweet submission, and released nearly 20 albums. During their reign, Priest not only indulged themselves with sinister, often slow-paced pieces like “Tyrant” and “Beyond the Realms of Death” (Halford has put the former on his current setlist) but also proved they could write hits like the radio smash “Living After Midnight” and the MTV favorite “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.” They had their cake and ate it too.
Latter-day metal titans like Metallica and Slayer, who arrived in the ’80s, owe a tremendous debt to Priest. (They’re a key member of the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” Metallica often trumpets as an influence.) Of course, yet another generation of metal emerged during the second half of the ’90s, a intermittently satisfying wave of “nü-metal” groups like Korn, Deftones and such rap-incorporating acts like Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit. But however you bang your head, it’s difficult to imagine any of these artists coming into existence without the influence of Priest. So it was intriguing to hear Halford explain why he thinks his beloved genre has resurfaced to such a degree.
“I think it’s still just the feeling and need for that heavy end of the rock ’n’ roll spectrum. It just touches people. It hits a nerve when you play something really loud, heavy, foreboding and full of angst, frustration or anger. These are just parts of life, and it’s one area of rock ’n’ roll that’s always needed. [Metal’s popularity] waxes and wanes… the recording industry pulls it in and out of the picture. Of course, it’s a fact that the love of metal music has [always] been substantial. But I think in recent years, there’s just been a lack of this kind of music, and people obviously want it, they need it and they like the traditional form of metal. It just carries a lot of clout, it’s the roots of it all; it’s the real deal. It’s something that’s not affected by trends or fashion. It’s just very pure and very direct and real.”
Some would argue that the “pure” aspect of metal Halford refers to has been corrupted by the hip-hop element countless popular groups have adopted. But, ever the Englishman, he views rap-inflected rock diplomatically.
“Some of it I can appreciate, some of it doesn’t really touch me. But that’s just down to choice and preferences, isn’t it? I look at it all, and I feel good about it because I know where the roots of it come from. I think it’s natural that it should transform and mutate from generation to generation.”
So are there any specific bands that have really caught Halford’s ear in the last four or five years? “No,” he replies flatly, adding a laugh that suggests he’s just joking (sort of). “The one band that really impressed me is Korn. I think what they do is very cool and special. And Deftones. And there are a lot of fringe bands that don’t really get into the mainstream. I get off on bands that most people have never even heard of — black metal bands like Emperor, Cradle of Filth and Mayhem. There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of great bands that never get covered in the press or played on the radio.”
Hearing Halford talk about all these questionably fated younger acts only makes one appreciate the man’s own accomplishments. In a revealing moment, he concedes that it is totally overwhelming for him to look back on his three-decade career and all the albums that he’s been involved in.
“It’s a blur. It really is. I mean, this is my 23rd release… it’s just phenomenal. The last 30 years of my life seem to have just zipped by. But it’s been wonderful, it’s been great and I have nothing but the greatest memories and satisfaction. And here I am, in the year 2000, about to put out another release and be an opening act [laughs]! It feels great.”
Ironically, Halford is a warm-up band for a legendary metal act whose recent history mirrors Priests’. Iron Maiden lost their longtime singer Bruce Dickinson, replaced him, yet ultimately welcomed him back with open arms for a glorious, fan-approved reunion. Likewise, Halford split from Priest to pursue solo projects, only to see his void filled by Tim “Ripper” Owens, an Ohio twentysomething who used to helm a Priest tribute band (and whose fairy tale story of becoming the singer of his favorite band is the topic of the upcoming Mark Wahlberg-Jennifer Aniston film Metal God). Can Halford envision returning to Priest someday? Would he even want to?
“I’d be a fool and a liar to say that I don’t miss it, because I do miss it. But beyond that, I’ve no control over it, because I’m no longer in the band. My relationship is better now than it ever was with Ken (K.K.), Glenn and Ian — we’re talking, and that’s the most important thing to me outside of the music. But who know where it’s going to go next? I mean, they’re working on their next record with Tim and I’ve got my stuff to do, so there hasn’t been the slightest discussion of any musical possibilities. We’re just too busy with what we’re all doing right now in our own worlds.”
Halford’s right — a Resurrection can be an all-encompassing thing. Even for a metal god.