Review Summary: A record almost ruined by its own ambition.
Judas Priest is a band with a long, long history. They were formed way back in 1969 by bassist Ian Hill and guitarist Kenneth Downing, but it was not until around 1973 that their core line-up emerged. Vocalist Robert Halford and guitarist Glenn Tipton arrived before the release of their first album Rocka Rolla
in 1974. The band started off by playing a heavier style of blues-rock, but quickly expanded that to what the world today knows as heavy metal, with their landmark record Sad Wings of Destiny
. Priest afterwards continued to developed their unique style with albums such as Stained Class
, influencing literally every metal band that followed in their wake since the mid-70’s. While true heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath
lay the groundwork for the genre, Judas Priest were also seminal for its development, as their influence spread through even a wider range of genres than Sabbath’s (did you know that Judas Priest actually invented the term heavy metal
, as Black Sabbath were marked as heavy rock
at the time"). The late 70’s and 80’s saw Priest developing a more mainstream, simple, no-nonsense approach (in which their famous British Steel
was released), which would prove to be crucial, along with their famous leather-and-studs image, for the rise of bands such as Saxon
, which rose, together with a wave of others, in Britain and Germany respectively. After a brief stint in glam metal in the late 80’s, Priest went on to create the speed metal album Painkiller
, seen as a classic in both the genre and the band’s own catalogue.
What followed was Priest’s inevitable demise, when Halford left the after the tour for Painkiller
in 1991. It wasn’t until the mid-90’s that the band tried to recover from his departure. The leftover members hired then-unknown singer Tim Owens, who had previously sung in a tribute band to Priest. While he did all he could, the material released by Priest during those years was mediocre at most. Because of the minimal success Jugulator
created, a reunion with Halford followed at last in 2003. The reformed band released their well-received comeback album Angel of Retribution
, building upon what they since long had learnt. Surely, their next studio album was going to be something in a similar fashion, in order to continue to keep pleasing the fans and grab some more cash.
We couldn’t have been more wrong.
After nearly 40 years of existence and 15 studio efforts, Judas Priest didn’t quite feel like becoming generic. They embarked to create something completely new and different for them: a concept album backed by symphonic elements, with heavier use of keyboards as well as the first use of strings and choirs for the band. Undoubtedly inspired by Iron Maiden
’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
, which was also dealt with a man gifted with visions, the theme of Priest’s 16th was to be the life and death of the French prophet Michel de Nostradame
, or Nostradamus
. Not only that, the album was also a double disc set, together resulting in what is arguably Priest’s most ambitious release yet. There have been more examples of these kinds of albums way before, however, and Priest may be doing something new to themselves, but not to heavy metal.
Nostradamus’ Judas Priest was:
- Robert John Arthur Halford ~ Vocals
- Kenneth Downing Junior ~ Guitars & Synthesized Guitars
- Glenn Raymond Tipton ~ Guitars & Synthesized Guitars
- Ian Frank Hill ~ Bass Guitars
- Scott Travis ~ Drums
- Donald Airey ~ Keyboards/Organ
- Peter Whitfield ~ Real Strings
- Mark Wilkinson ~ Artwork
Embarking on a double-disc, symphonic concept album with a theme like this means there are many potential flaws. Nostradamus
could be overly cheesy, overly lengthy, overly symphonic, or in short: too much. This is also exactly where the album falters, in some features more than others. Starting with the symphonic elements, these fill about every nook and cranny in the presented 102 minutes. Sometimes they are very overpowering, especially in War
, but mostly they reside in the background, where they belong and contribute best to the atmosphere. While seemingly outdated, the keyboard work by Airey is very solid, and once again he solidifies his reputation as veteran keyboardist. The same can be said about the strings.
At 102 minutes, Nostradamus
is also too long. We don’t receive a full 102 minutes of solid material, too much of it seeming unnecessary. The intros are a striking example. Taking up a whole 15 minutes of the album’s time, they are mostly filler. The idea is nice enough, surely, and in some places they manage to contribute some great extra flavour to the album, like the opening medieval/mystic-sounding Dawn of Creation
, and the last of the lot, Calm Before the Storm
, effectively announcing the final chapter consisting of the title track and closing epic Future of Mankind
. What is an excellent feature the intros have, is that they flow effortlessly into the song they introduce, as well as the main songs flow excellently into each other. Therefore, Nostradamus
’ flow is actually one of its best points.
Many songs end up sounding like those heard earlier, unfortunately. Intros Sands of Time
and Shadows in the Flame
, among others, lack a sense of identity. As for the main songs, the repetition logically occurs mostly on the second disc. Exiled
and New Beginnings
fail to surprise after the first disc, and also Conquest
seems a repetition, be it of one particular track, War
. Repetitiveness marks one of the biggest mistakes Priest makes here.
That said, the new approach also creates some fresh material, some of the songs ranking among the band’s very best. First real highlight is Death
, which immediately kicks in with the tolling of a church bell and a choir, followed by a nice, slow and effectively dramatic guitar riff. Halford lays down one of his strongest performances on the album, with the high point being him building up slowly to falsetto in the verses. The guitar work is stunning, and Downing and Tipton show they still know their skills. Although cheesy (something you’d better get used to, as the entire album is), Priest can still amaze with the track. The lowest point on the album, the overly clichéd ballad Lost Love
, is followed by another very high one, Persecution
, which marks the first time Priest really speeds things up (something they should have done more often here), with great effects and something to do for Travis. Also taking credit for having the best intro on the album (a strong piece by Airey), the first disc luckily closes off on a high note. As mentioned before, the second disc takes too much from earlier ideas and has a so-so start and middle part, but Calm Before the Storm/Nostradamus
(another faster track) and Future of Mankind
form a dramatic final chapter that couldn’t have wrapped things up better.
Apart from Lost Love
, real stinkers are luckily sparse. While much of the material on the second disc is unoriginal and a few other songs are slightly flawed (Halford singing in Italian on Pestilence and Plague
is just a bit too
dramatic), the non-standouts provide mostly solid material, most notably with Prophecy
(simple but excellent as opener combined with Dawn of Creation
. The band’s performance is strong throughout, the three-manned core being the focus as always. The guitarists are still in fine form and provide riffs and solos that are strong, while still keeping true to the album’s style, and Halford shows he’s got a flair for the theatrical. As a whole, the album is actually not off too shabby.
All this means there is actually quite a lot to like about Nostradamus
, if one is to look carefully for it. The symphonic elements are done well enough, the band’s performance is still rock solid, and Priest’s 16th provides some of their best moments. When cut down to one disc, the album could have been an excellent record for those who have a liking for a theatrical and symphonic approach. Despite its flaws, of which the lack of real standouts and repetitiveness in the second disc are the worst, the album tends to flow very well. Its ambition becomes its own downfall, but we surely could have been off much, much worse than this. It’s quite the different release from the band, so those associating the band with the traditional heavy metal of the 70’s, the straightforward approach of the 80’s or the famous Painkiller
aren’t advised to get this if they want don’t feel the need of a new approach. Perhaps more than any other Priest album, how much you will like Nostradmus really depends on yourself.
+ New approach creates fresh ideas and some of Priest’s best moments yet
+ Symphonic work may be outdated, but is yet solid
+ The album flows very well overall
- The second disc offers little new ideas
- Too lengthy
- Could have used some more punch, as it offers little faster tracks
Calm Before the Storm/Nostradamus
Future of Mankind
Dawn of Creation/Prophecy