One Harley, onstage. Two years spent on a Nostradamus concept album, which peaked at a fitting No. 11 on the stateside Billboard charts, the same number of years platinum-throated front man Rob Halford spent on hiatus from Judas Priest. With an alleged five-octave vocal range and 14 costume changes over the course of a show, Halford has spent a clean 25 years with the Priest: 35 million albums sold since 1970. Sneer if you dare.
There’s only one Metal God. And his gentlemanly nature belies his commanding presence. With grandeur and gravel, leather-clad to the point of absurdity, Halford intrigues even those who find the enduring, grinding success of his band inexplicable.
Priest’s new Nostradamus is smartly timeless, and touches on all the themes these blue-collar workhorses have tackled more successfully than punk rock ever did: the unifying force of isolation (“Alone”), biding one’s time under tyranny, and ultimately triumphing (“Nostradamus”) while looking toward the future (“Visions”). Halford trills in Italian (“Pestilence and Plague”) and French (“Future of Mankind”). Epic psychobabble, or something that will ultimately prove as enduring as Puccini? I challenge any pop-opera fan — or anyone who’s ever donned a studded wristband — to find fault with “War.”
Aided and abetted by Motörhead and Heaven and Hell (Black Sabbath fronted by its arguably best singer, the elfinly magical Ronnie James Dio), Judas Priest headlines the Metal Masters tour this Saturday. Halford recently spoke with L.A. Weekly from the road.
L.A. WEEKLY: Rob, how are you?
ROB HALFORD: I’m fine. Did you survive the earthquake?
I was in Northern California at a UFO convention.
Oh, for the band?
No, not the band.
The things in the sky?
The things in the sky.
Well, I’ve got some stories to tell you. I’ve had one or two encounters in England, not close encounters, but things that have totally freaked me out. It absolutely fascinates me. I think maybe just because it’s an artistic thing. People that are in tune with their emotions and creativity, I think that a lot of us are prone to that almost sixth-sense phenomenon. Having said that, people from all walks of life see those things in the sky, you know. But I think it’s something very bizarre and it’s been with humanity forever.
Ezekiel’s Wheel, Zoroaster, heck, Muhammad, the Dogon tribe … I’m curious. Do you feel certain camaraderie with Nostradamus because he was basically exiled, somewhat like heavy metal, and ultimately triumphed when he gained the patronage of Catherine de Medici and wrote the quatrains?
Yeah! Thank you for picking up on that! You’re one of the few journalists that has. But that was one of the appealing parts of the man’s character. You know, in metal, we talk about rejection, and running up against people that attack us. That’s exactly what that guy went through. He was looked upon as a bit of a freak, and he had this gift, this uncanny ability to have these visions and prophecies, and he was looked upon as being someone — at least by the Catholic Church — dabbling in the black arts.
I definitely see a parallel between your music and the man’s life.
Oh, but it was a terrible time to live, the 16th century, to a certain extent. There were still remnants of the Inquisition going on, which was hideous. He dealt with all that, and we thought, man, this guy led a bit of a metal life with some of those emotional elements, but he stood up for himself and he was triumphant in the end, and that’s just a great story.
Where did you guys get the bug to do a concept album?
Everybody’s surprised, and we’re kind of, like, blinking … I suppose it’s just an unusual thing to do. It’s certainly unusual for someone like Priest — at least from an outside perspective — who’ve been around since the early 1970s. We’ve wanted to do a concept record forever. But we never really got ’round to it, because we’ve had a life of “write the songs, go into the studio, do a world tour … write the songs, go into the studio, do a world tour.” We’ve been doing that for over 35 years, you know? So it was our manager Bill Curbishley, he knew that this was the right time; he’s a savvy guy. We thought this is just another incredible Curbishley moment, and so we went off into the studio and fulfilled this dream.
So maybe he’s got that intuitive sixth-sense thing going on. It seems like a perfect fit, and the music itself is kind of like a step back for Priest into something dirge-y, not bluesy, but timeless and epic. Nothing obvious, like fifes and mandolins; it’s your own, misty past.
I know exactly what you’re saying. You have to be very, very careful with something like this, Skylaire, you know? To be able to do this without it falling flat on its face, without literally loosening the reins on it. You can just go off in all different directions. If we’d tried this 15, 20 years ago …
You guys just toured Europe, and now you’re headed across North America.
We’re roaring away on the American leg of the world tour. I’m in Kansas City about to get my head together and go and have a sound check for the big show we’ve got here tonight. We’ve got a couple of shows on our own before we commence the Metal Masters tour, which will be [full of] legendary moments, and which we’re all very, very excited about. I’m like a fan, I just get all excited myself. I can’t sleep!
If I were in your position, I’d most want to arm-wrestle Ronnie James Dio.
I’m obviously a huge fan of everything that Ronnie’s done with Sabbath and with Dio and elsewhere, and Lemmy is — I call him Lord Lemmy. Lemmy has just got this character, he’s just so strong with his presence onstage, and he’s a fantastic bass player and songwriter. Motörhead are legendary in their own right. Testament’s been around since 1980-something. I think it’s great that we’ve got this bunch of metal minstrels. I said minstrels because I’m slogging my way through a 700-page book by Kate Mosse called Labyrinth. [Which fictionalizes the Fourth Crusade, proclaimed against the Cathars, during which the nobility doubled the size of their country.] It’s set in 12th-century France. In 11th- and 12th-century France, you know, bands were famous. The courts and courtiers, the nobility, they would book these bands to come and play at their feasts and weddings, and here we’re doin’ it in 2008!
Judas Priest perform with Motörhead, Heaven and Hell and Testament in the Metal Masters tour at Glen Helen Pavilion in San Bernardino, on Sat., Aug. 30.