Priest mix business with leather

by Ryan Snyder

New Judas Priest guitarist Richie Faulkner may be late to the metal party, but he’s got the look and the chops down pat. Below: Front man Rob Halford is still pitchperfect. (photos by Ryan Snyder)

Who rules? Judas f**king Priest, man. Though Priest are a notch below contemporaries Iron Maiden on the Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness, that truth was nonetheless established decades ago in the cult short film Heavy Metal Parking Lot. The message was echoed there by the typical Priest faithful of the time: scummy Wooderson-types showing off their tenderoni, rotgut-swilling ’70s holdouts lamenting the youthful takeover of the scene, and near-brain-dead nymphs who just want to jump Rob Halford’s bones.’ 

They’re all still around to some extent — except maybe that last one — and during a visit to the Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum by the British heavy metal gods, one still has to wonder: “Where the hell are these people in the daylight hours?” Moreso in music than in just about anywhere else, trends appear and trends evolve. Yet, somehow in the world of classic metal, culture is suspended in a block of carbonite. Sunday night at the Joel, you were as likely to see a heavyset, middle-aged dude with a backwards cap over his mullet banging his head from the seated position as you were a gang of 17-year-old skinheads with real tattoos and matching Priest gear. Peoplewatching at a Judas Priest show is only part of the fun, however, because rarely is there anyone in the crowd as awe-inspiring as the bald, leatherclad figure lumbering on stage, belting an operatic tenor over the crunch of two guitars and a deafening rhythm section.

It’s been well-documented that the Epitaph tour isn’t the final huzzah by Priest by any means. The band will continue to perform on smaller scales, but this is certainly the last time the band will hit multiple continents in a single trek and if this were indeed the last Priest show for many in the crowd, it’s was almost impossible to be disappointed in the tour’s song selection. The set list spanned their entire career from “Never Satisfied” off their 1974 debut LP Rocka Rolla to “Nostradamus” the title track of their most recent studio album, with every album save for the “Ripper” Owens era dutifully represented.

It wasn’t designed to be the enormous spectacle of many “final” tours, though it did have an undeniable epic-ness to it. Openers Thin Lizzy and Black Label Society played to the barroom rockers and shred fiends alike, though both bands spoke directly to the cheesiness that outsiders see in this scene as well. Thin Lizzy was destined to be little more than a well-practiced tribute act the day Phil Lynott died, and despite their ubiquitous presence on classicrock radio, they inexplicably found themselves as the opener’s opener.

On the other hand, any time someone belts out a shrill metal vocal in jest and shreds an air guitar down to the nubs, they’re sending up BLS frontman Zakk Wylde, they might just not know it.

Visually, Priest kept things modest through most of their two-and-ahalf-hour show. Lasers sliced through the dark auditorium during “Never Satisfied” and Halford summoned jets of flame during “Metal Gods,” but the projection screen behind the band was constant with Commodore-era graphics — maybe for nostalgia. The subtlety worked with what the band brought. They let the music speak for itself, adopting a business-like attitude to their set, though at least some already seemed a bit faded on the idea of touring. New guitarist Richie Faulkner brought a youthful energy, but when Halford was leaving for any of his Gaga-esque wardrobe changes from a studded leather duster into a silvery wizard robe into more spikes and leather, he was simply drifting on and off the stage for reasons not entirely known.

Halford was pitch-perfect when he needed to be, however. He can still split firewood with his piercing shrieks on “Painkiller,” and he growled through a brooding cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi.” Great songs make themselves available to any number of interpretations he added. That’s a rare, epicurean approach to heavy metal, but also from one of the genre’s true auteurs and one nowhere close to signing his own epitaph.