Review Summary: 'Nostradamus' benefits big-time from shift in perspective.
The nerve of these guys. Right? What depth of audacity is needed to goad a 35+ year old Metal band into trying something fresh and new this far removed from their creative prime? I had no idea. But, I was actually really eager to find out. I heard that Judas Priest were putting together their first concept album. A Metal Opera. It was to be based on the life of some 16th century Mystic-Prophet. A name we’d all heard before. I wanted a ticket the show. At present, I’m nearing the end of my sixth complete run-through of this double-disc, concept piece, entitled ‘Nostradamus’ . And, the satisfaction drawn from this most recent trial makes me thankful that I didn’t give up after the third. While my current appreciation of this collection is not completely at odds with earlier estimates, my overall perspective on this recording is radically altered.
My initial thoughts on this album were in relation to some of the other writers’ early reviews. I hadn’t even heard the recording yet at this point. But, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the early press on it was quite negative. I wanted so badly to enjoy this new Priest outing, and, have others enjoy it as well. I was hoping that a ‘rush-to-judgment’ on the part of each reviewer was what was leading to these scathing indictments. Reviewers have a number of discs on their desk which they're expected to make their way through and appraise. And, due to temporal constraints, sometimes they fail to dedicate sufficient time to each recording. Or, fail to distribute the time commensurate to how much of it the records actually warrant. I knew that I had shot my own mouth off in the past, only to be proven wrong by the passage of time and repeat exposure. Some albums just aren’t designed for immediate return. And, what might be gratifying in the short-term might prove to be disposable a month or so down the line. I was hoping against hope that the complexity of this piece, the grand, intricate patterns of it, hadn’t fully revealed themselves to these reviewers. Maybe these writers had failed to dedicate the time necessary to let this weighty, one hour and forty two minute titan completely unfold.
But, my first few full spins of the album didn’t lend credence to this notion. I was acquainting myself with the patterns, the rhythms and melodies of each track, and I didn’t hear much of anything comparable to the quality of material evidenced on JP’s reunion album, ‘Angel of Retribution’. Or, the better part of the back-catalog, for that matter. But, with each new trial, I noticed that I was becoming conscious of smaller musical intervals. An instrumental bit or some free-floating vocal strand would ‘pop’ from the larger piece and make itself evident to me. There were recurrent themes surfacing, either as guitar riffs or quiet, supporting symphonic melody. The overall structuring of the songs seemed to be inherently different from anything else JP had ever attempted. It was almost like there was really but “one song” here, and that the seemingly distinct nomenclature of the “tracks” were meant only to denote “separate movements” within the larger piece. This was truly like an Opera. A piece of Classical music with thematically and musically related sub-sections, where vocals are used to tell a story. Maybe the individual tracks weren’t meant to be lifted from the larger piece, separated from their context, and judged on their own. Maybe my early skepticism of this material was owed to some false expectations. Maybe I was evaluating this album using the wrong criteria. Maybe a paradigm shift was in order.
The first thing our brains will do when evaluating new music is search for points of reference. Cognitive Science dictates that the human brain will search its database for sonic templates to be used in comparison. Something old is used as a reference for something new. Similarities are sought. That’s why you don’t “perceive” the entire recording on the first few trials, even though you’re “hearing” the entire recording. Your brain is breaking down the music into smaller chunks, using prior templates. The more dense, complex and intellectually challenging the recording is, the more time the material will take to fully unfold for the listener. The more exposure to the new recording, experience with something similar, and time afforded between trials, will expedite your overall understanding of any piece of music. So, besides being a colossal and convoluted behemoth, ’Nostradamus’ happens to have an one, extra, added dimension, further preventing a fairly accurate assessment at an early stage. It’s structuring is unrelated to anything else in the Judas Priest discography. And, in turn, unfamiliar to the listener. It’s built using a totally different model. A Symphonic, Operatic prototype. Since the music evidenced therein doesn’t sound like anything we’ve heard before, the music will, initially and inevitably, be disappointing to the long-time JP fan. You’ll want to hear the quick and easy fix of a riveting JP riff, the twin guitar assault of Tipton and Downing, a recognizable chorus. And, assuredly, all of these things are part of the package. But, they take much more time to develop and resolve. This is a much deeper piece of music, and thusly, only provides satisfaction in large doses.
Now the question is if you, as listener, are prepared to embrace the band, Judas Priest, for just this one album, using a different ‘musical paradigm’. Can you apply the criteria for a ‘Symphonic/Operatic’ template to this recording, evaluate it as such, and be happy with what you hear? I’ll be honest. At first, I wasn’t ready to embrace the stylistic shift So, at the outset, I was using the ‘Angel of Retribution’ model to judge this recording. If you do that you’ll hate ‘Nostradamus‘. The X doesn’t fit in the O. You need to stop evaluating this piece using an older paradigm. And, this certainly does become increasingly easier with repeat exposure to the material. You really don’t need to do much more than continue listening. Your perspective will alter and adjust to what’s being heard. But, you’ll have to keep listening. Giving up on this album after the first three trials is selling the material, and this band, way short. Believe me, the depth of quality here is well worth it. That’s not to say that you won’t fight ’Nostradamus’ at first. No matter how open and progressive-minded we like to believe ourselves to be, we still like to cling to music which sound familiar. So, make 'Nostradamus' familiar to you.