Ah, yes. Face-peeling demons, the rising flames of hell, poisonous air, war, executions, and blood-filled oceans. These are the things nightmares — and Judas Priest's latest record, Firepower — are made of.
But what is surging at the core of metal's most malevolent and beloved pioneers is something far less sinister — surprisingly, it's a whole lot of love.
While 2018's Firepower follows suit with what Judas Priest has been known to do best — namely, dexterous arrangements, Rob "Metal God" Halford's vocal resolve, and rhythmic carnage — Priest made a sharp left turn with their 18th studio record. Firepower marked the band's return to its organic recording roots (they ditched the click track), and reunited them with frequent producer Tom Allom. The album's success, however, has been overshadowed somewhat by the news of longtime guitarist Glenn Tipton's ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease.
When we chat with bassist and founding member Ian Hill, he is void of both gloom and doom. In fact, he is nothing but hopeful for the future and is admittedly humbled that people are still listening. With a half-century under the band's collective studded belt, Judas Priest remains rock 'n' roll's most unconventional institution. And as Hill reminds, they're nowhere near finished.
Metro Times: Judas Priest serves, for so many people, as an introduction to metal. What were some of your earliest influences as a band and where do you draw inspiration 50 years later?
Ian Hill: Jack Bruce, who also passed away a few years ago, was a great influence on me. My father started me off. He played double bass in jazz bands, folk bands, dance bands, and anything he could do. He was the one who started me off playing bass. He died when I was 15, so that was the end of my tuition. I taught myself bass after that — the contemporary rock and blues bands at the time, Fleetwood Mac, Purple, Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath.
Now, we are inspired by our fans, you know? We're amazed they still want us after all these years. Not just that, I mean there's a lot of new fans, a lot of young faces in the audience these days. That's probably due to the new record, which has gotten quite a bit of airplay. It's got to be the fans and the fact that we enjoy it. We don't do it for any other reasons than that. It keeps us young, you know?
MT: There is such physicality to metal, and with touring especially. Has it gotten easier?
Hill: It depends. Sometimes it is, if it's well put together. Other times, we're going 7,500 miles a day. We don't work ourselves that intensely these days. We don't do any more than a couple of shows back-to-back. That's really to preserve Rob's voice and preserve my back and things like that. We try to make life easier on ourselves, more enjoyable, and that probably extends the life of the band. You can't keep on flogging something at top speed, it won't last as long than if you were to conserve your resources.
MT: Firepower isn't going to be Judas Priest's last record, is it?
Hill: We're not planning to. There's no reason why there shouldn't be another one. We want to get this new album across to as many people as we can. And we'll see where we are then.
MT: It's an incredibly sharp record and arguably one of the band's most successful records of the past 20 years. What was the recording like? Has the approach changed?
Hill: The recording process is thoroughly enjoyable. We did change it around a bit. For a long time, we've been basically doing things one at a time to a click track, getting the drums down first and building it in blocks. We had two producers this time around — Tom Allom who we all know and love and Andy Sneap because we wanted someone with knowledge of the newer processes, who's been working with newer bands and techniques. And we returned to the studio and played as a band which is something we hadn't done in a long time. It was great. As soon as we started playing through the songs we had big grins on our faces.
MT: Is there ever pressure on the band to reinvent the metal wheel?
Hill: We did what we've always tried to do and that's to take a step forward. So, you're keeping current and relevant all the time by pushing the envelope just a little bit. It's something we've done for nearly 50 years. You learn new things every day. That's our philosophy when we go into the studio and when we go on tour. That's what's kept us fresh.
MT: It helps that you love the band. I've read that you are a fan of your own band and that probably helps keep the band moving.
Hill: That's pretty true. We are the band's best fans. We all love it to death. For all reasons. It's not just from a musical point of view. It's friendship, comradery, and income, especially in the early days. It's all things to all of us.
MT: With 18 records over 50 years, Judas Priest can be broken down into eras. Do you have a favorite?
Hill: You're asking a musician and they're always going to tell you the new album and where they are now. And that's very true for me. I think this is the best record we've ever done. When the next one comes along, I might change my mind. Other than Firepower, my favorite album is probably Defenders of the Faith. We make little changes from album to album and it all culminated in Defenders of the Faith.
MT: We have to ask about Glenn Tipton. How is he doing now that the news of his Parkinson's diagnosis is public?
Hill: We've known for a while. He was diagnosed before the last tour, actually. And of course, when we rehearsed for the last tour, he was very rough to start. But as the days went on he got better and better so by the time we were done rehearsing he was raring to go. And we were expecting the same thing to happen this time around and unfortunately, it didn't, you know? He had to admit to himself that his body wasn't going to let him do it anymore. It was a very sad moment. We could all see it. He was trying and trying and fighting. I can't imagine what he's going through, I really can't. It's not as if he's being stupid and fallen off a motorcycle or whacked out on drugs or something like that. It's something completely out of his control. Having said that, he's as good as anyone can be given the situation. Glenn is out with us most of the time, anyway. And when he's feeling well enough he'll get on stage, and I can't promise anything, but he'll get up and do the encores with us.
MT: What would you say to your Rocka Rolla, 1974 self if you could?
Hill: Listen — it's easy to go back and say if only we'd done this, if only we'd done that. And the thing is, there's only one way of finding that out and that's by going back in time and doing it. There's nothing saying it would change anything. I just say, do it all over again. I would happily do it all over again. Even with the ups and the downs, it's been a great ride.
Judas Priest will perform with Deep Purple at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 24 at Michigan Lottery Amphitheater at Freedom Hill; 14900 Metro Pkwy., Sterling Heights; 586-268-9700; 313presents.com; Tickets are $30+.
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