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Epitaph

Judas Priest wraps up its final large-scale world tour with a storming set at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. Captured in May 2012, “Epitaph” features songs from each of the metal band’s albums made with singer Rob Halford.

Metal Painkillers

3 Min Read

The ankle-length black-leather jacket enveloping vocalist Rob Halford during the opening songs of Judas Priest’s concert at London’s Hammersmith Apollo functions as more than an accessory that would inspire envy at any motorcycle rally or sex boutique. Dripping with spikes, chains and studs, and defying the heat of surrounding lights, flashing strobes and flame plumes, Halford embodies a message understood by legions. Tough and resilient, audacious and intimidating, Halford and his attire scream “heavy metal.”

Few, if any, musicians can lay claim to playing a more important part in shaping both the genre and its look than the singer and his mates. When “Epitaph” was filmed in May 2012, Judas Priest had already logged more than 40 years of history and survived a forgettable period that witnessed Tim “Ripper” Owens, plucked from a Judas Priest tribute band, stand in for Halford, who chose to entertain solo aspirations in 1992. Yet the British collective, reunited since 2003, again faced an uncertain future during the “Epitaph” trek.

What transpired instead trumpeted the arrival of a new era — one fully in accord with Halford’s signature boast that ‘the Priest is back.’

After management announced the outing would constitute the group’s farewell, longtime guitarist K.K. Downing unexpectedly quit weeks before the tour commenced in June 2011. His replacement, a then-31-year-old relative unknown named Richie Faulkner, appeared to signal the kind of desperation move veteran bands often make to conceal internal strife and safeguard nostalgia. What transpired instead trumpeted the arrival of a new era — one fully in accord with Halford’s signature boast that “the Priest is back” — that extends through the quintet’s most recent record, the aptly named 2018 release “Firepower.”

Performed on the final date of the tour and roughly 120 miles away from Judas Priest’s hometown of Birmingham, England, the same blue-collar industrial area that spawned Black Sabbath, the career-spanning show depicts a band bonded by reinvigorated ambition, passion and confidence. Over the course of 140 minutes, the quintet touches on at least one track from every Halford-helmed album completed at the time, a stretch spanning the bluesy 1974 track “Rocka Rolla” through the conceptual 2008 piece “Nostradamus.” Such variety underscores the collective’s mastery of two seemingly disparate traits — consistency and diversity.

Glam-kissed anthems (“You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”), sinewy shredders (“Starbreaker”) and a rearranged rendition of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” feel at home alongside one another. The decades-spanning scope also positions “Epitaph” as an ideal entrance point for newcomers and a feast for diehards, particularly given the presence of deep cuts such as “Never Satisfied.” And Judas Priest remains up to the task at every turn, even furnishing the synthpop-tinted “Turbo Lover” — whose plastic production forever preserves the studio version in an outmoded 1980s sonic amber — with a set of sharp teeth.

Mirroring the cutthroat efficiency intimated by the group’s razor-blade logo, Halford’s deliveries slice right through torrents of anvil-hammered riffs and powder-coated rhythms. Largely immune to the vocal decay that traditionally accompanies age, his singing surfaces from nether regions, rises to manic highs and touches vibrato-tinged spaces in between. Visually, whether crouching forward, stalking about in circles akin to a caged lion, brandishing a rider’s crop or marching lock-step with the beat, the shaved-headed singer mirrors the outlaw freedom and brazen attitude the lyrics extol.

Another Judas Priest hallmark, its twin-guitar attack, receives a fresh injection of vitality courtesy of Faulkner. Embracing a fluid, slightly flashy approach related to that of former Ozzy Osbourne right-hand man Zakk Wylde, the recruit complements guitarist Glenn Tipton’s classical, linear techniques. Steeped in harmonics and melody, the tandem’s playing balances heaviness and complexity, speed and control. They steer a path forward through ferocious thrash (“Painkiller”) and catchy favorites like “Breaking the Law,” whose verses and choruses get shouted by the crowd while Halford watches on in relative silence, adopting the role of conductor and cheerleader.

As the front man throws a leg over a Harley-Davidson and rides it to center stage amid a flurry of smoke for “Hell Bent for Leather,” he cements the pact between fan and artist. Those present speak the same language and pledge a common allegiance. Judas Priest not only triumphs. So, too, does the entire metal community.

Bob Gendron is the associate editorial director at The Coda Collection. He has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and former Director of Communications at Music Direct, he spent 11 years as the Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role for eight years at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.

Bob Gendron is the associate editorial director at The Coda Collection. He has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and former Director of Communications at Music Direct, he spent 11 years as the Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role for eight years at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.

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