With customary fanfare and hero worship, Judas Priest’s latest heavy metal offering has arrived; yet despite its excellent opening moments, Firepower does little to pull the band from their seemingly perpetual slump into mediocrity. It’s not for lack of trying though. A 14-track playlist provides a hefty dose of classic heavy metal, and touches of Priest’s long discography shine through at various moments for a pleasant bit of nostalgia. As a pivotal act in the history of true heavy metal, the band has rightfully earned themselves a loyal fanbase, and it’s hard to resist the allure of a potential return to form for the metal pioneers. However, the album’s inconsistency delivers far more ugly and cringeworthy moments than otherwise, leaving the end result with little real value, particularly in the midst of the excellent new wave of traditional heavy metal (NWOTHM).
It isn’t said nearly often enough: Judas Priest hasn’t released a great album in 28 years. That’s longer than a chunk of Priest’s current fanbase has been alive for, and longer than some of the group’s original fanbase can remember. Following Painkiller and Rob Halford’s departure from the group, the band entered a protracted and wasteful period with two disposable releases featuring “Ripper” Owens at the helm, followed by three mediocre-at-best recordings with Halford once again behind the microphone. With this in mind, the expectations for Firepower are necessarily low, especially on the heels of dismal recent efforts from fellow heavy metal trailblazers Iron Maiden and Accept.
Yet hope springs eternal for the music fan, and no matter how many disappointments Priest cranks out, there’s always a twitch of excitement at the mention of a new release. The mind starts stirring and asking optimistic questions in spite of obvious answers, such as, “Could this be the album that revives the band’s past glory?” After all, Priest dropped lackluster efforts in its heyday and still bounced back, such as from 1981’s Point of Entry to the following year’s Screaming for Vengeance, and from 1986’s Turbo — and to a lesser degree, 1988’s Ram it Down — to the group’s most recent quality record, 1990’s Painkiller.
Firepower initially answers these hopeful questions with a resounding affirmation on its opening two tracks, “Firepower” and “Lightning Strike.” The songs recall the band’s power metal ventures in the Ram it Down and Painkiller era, and it’s safe to say they stand among the best pieces recorded by Priest since those albums came out roughly three decades ago.
Their placement up front on Firepower is a smart choice, as was the advance release of “Lightning Strike” as a single to build anticipation for the full album. All the earmarks of classic Priest are there: top-notch sound production, chunky and satisfying guitar riffs, Halford’s signature shrieks, and an undeniable passion for the music that reveals itself in the band’s fiery performances. The songs are irresistible classics from heavy metal royalty, and they’re worthy of any greatest hits compilation from the band. Tragically, the high standards of the opening tracks abruptly crash and burn through the next four entries, revealing yet again that behind Judas Priest’s apparent splendor, the emperor has no clothes.
“Evil Never Dies” begins the rollercoaster ride of song quality with an embarrassing effort featuring a mewling vocal performance from Halford, who cranks out laughable lyrics that are every bit as cliched as the title. The hokey chorus is easy enough to skip past, though it starts to feel like there’s nowhere to hide from the assault of similarly hackneyed, cookie-cutter heavy metal tracks that follow. “Never the Heroes” is even more grating than “Evil Never Dies” with artless instrumentation and a mind-numbing chorus. Ditto for “Necromancer” and “Children of the Sun,” which echo the shallow, repetitious, and wearisome creations that infested Accept’s 2017 release The Rise of Chaos.
Listeners who survive the onslaught of uninspired songwriting will be pleasantly surprised to find “Rising From Ruins” hiding in the middle of the album, offering a thumping anthemic track in the same vein as Priest classics like “Pain and Pleasure” and “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll.” Despite a couple rough patches, Halford is in mostly solid form on the piece, and Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner contribute some of the recording’s finest guitar solos in the song’s back half for an all-around enjoyable entry.
Just as hope begins to stir on “Rising from Ruins,” Judas Priest buries the album once more with the ghastly “Flame Thrower.” Simplistic riffs, childish lyrics, and a dull, monotonous vocal hook make the track next to intolerable, and it’s a challenge to survive the very first playthrough. Without mercy, “Spectre” arrives next to rub salt in the wounds with another four and a half minutes of aural abuse.
Metal traditionally has empty-headed song lyrics; it’s an integral and sometimes lovable part of the genre’s identity. But like all art forms rooted in counter-culture, that lowbrow identity can range from brilliantly self-aware to stunningly dimwitted. “Spectre” falls cleanly into the second camp, with Halford whimpering out:
Like a thief in the night
With the blade held tight
Trapped inside the mind
Of the spectre
The generic mindlessness of the music and lyrics would be cringeworthy from any band, but from a group of men approaching their 70s, “Spectre” feels like watching Judas Priest play with Tonka trucks. In conjunction with other grandpa-reads-Goosebumps tracks like “Evil Never Dies” and “Necromancer,” the song represents an unfortunate tendency for the band to stick to a completely outmoded identity for themselves, one that was better suited to young men playing in the considerably more conservative musical climate of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
For whatever it’s worth, the third act actually improves over the vast majority of the album’s middle entries. “Traitors Gate” is a huge step up from the songs that preceded it, though it’s not without its flaws; the verse section offers some of the recording’s most aggressive moments with quality riffs, yet Halford tackles an awkward rapid-fire vocal delivery on the chorus that quickly grows monotonous and detracts from the song’s other strengths. The end product is mildly enjoyable in spite of its paint-by-numbers style and relatively few memorable qualities.
The next track, “No Surrender” actually provides the most sincere entry, with a classic hard rock songwriting approach and some genuinely endearing vocal hooks from Halford. Even better, instead of the thoughtless attempts at writing music about monsters and serial killers, the lyrics turn personal and introspective:
You know the way that I feel
If you’re with me you better hold on tighter
I’m only keeping it real
That’s who I am, I’m just a non-stop fighter
Run out of road
The end of the days
Not for the weak
Only the brave
It may not be eloquent, but it’s tough to argue with that kind of honesty. It’s also no coincidence that musically, “No Surrender” easily surpasses songs on the album that offer generic horror themes. The track also smartly checks out in less than three minutes, dodging the mindless repetition of some of the recording’s longer entries.
Firepower concludes with the flameless ballad, “Sea of Red,” which gives a Halford a chance to show off what’s left of his voice. His performance is pitchy and often strained, and he certainly never ascends to the lofty notes that gave him his reputation, but all things considered, it’s a fine tune with one of the album’s better series of guitar solos kicking in late to support Halford’s wavering performance.
The recording finishes with a decent push, at least in comparison to its many early earaches, but burdened by the dead weight of the middle section, the best the closing songs can do is scrape the album back to mediocrity. Despite the bulky 14-song tracklist, only six hold any merit, and at least two of those lean closer to ordinary than admirable. It may not be a surprise coming from the band’s deeply troubled discography, but that doesn’t make it any less of a disappointment.
Firepower is tailor-made for two types of listeners: long-time fans riding the nostalgia train who are happy to support Priest through anything without a critical ear, and younger listeners who missed out on the experience of plunking down hard-earned money on lousy Judas Priest releases of the past. For everyone else, especially those old enough to know there’s better heavy metal being made in 2018 and those who don’t feel obliged to support bands on principal alone, Firepower is yet another misfire in Judas Priest’s discography that deserves little more than a cursory glance.