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The Boston Phoenix Priest Power

The return of an '80s titan

By Bryan Reesman

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Heavy-metal stalwarts Judas Priest are back after a seven-year hiatus with a new album, Jugulator (CMC International), and new singer Ripper Owens, who has taken over for the departed Rob Halford. Owens's previous gig was fronting a Priest tribute band -- a fact some people find amusing. But Priest have always had a sense of humor about themselves, even though as titans of '80s metal they maintained a loyal audience who took their music very, very seriously.

Jugulator finds Priest guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing still shredding with their trademark gothic riffs, and bassist Ian Hill and skinbeater Scott Travis relentlessly hammering out aggressive rhythms. Owens sings about standard '80s metal themes like religious wars and the right to die, enlivening vengeful tunes like "Blood Stained" and "Burn in Hell" with gleefully over-the-top performances. There are points where he could tone things down a bit, but his bloodcurdling screams prove he's up to handling even classic Priest material when he hits the road with the band. Jugulator also balances aggression with quieter moments, such as the apocalyptic elegy "Cathedral Spires," a tune that closes the album in epic fashion.

But Baptizm of Fire (Atlantic), Tipton's first-ever solo album, offers an even better example of the power of Priest. Featuring heavyweight cameos by drummer Cozy Powell and bassists Billy Sheehan and John Entwistle, Baptizm takes traditional British metal, with its heavy mix of blues, thrash, and classical influences, and gives it an industrial '90s kick in the ass. At heart Tipton, who sings with a raspy growl, is a guitarist who integrates the flash of a Steve Vai with the melodic sensibilities of a Ritchie Blackmore. He balances expressive solos with striking melodies, skillful chordings, and unexpected dynamics. And on Baptizm he displays his talents in songs that range from the majestic, classically inspired riffing of the gothic title track to the thrashing punk interpretation of "Paint It Black" and the segues from delicate acoustic passages to ominous metal grooves on the eerie "Healer."

With Priest, Tipton helped define one of the signature arena-metal sounds of the '80s. He and Halford delivered dark, cathartic songs brimming with gothic overtones, influencing bands-to-come like Slayer, Pantera, Queensrÿche, and Skid Row. (It's also probably no accident that Nine Inch Nails master Trent Reznor recently signed Rob Halford's new band Two to the Nothing label.) Although you won't find tunes by Reznor, Slayer, or Pantera on Legends of Metal: A Tribute to Judas Priest (Century Media), the CD does feature nine classic Priest tracks revamped by worthy contemporaries. Doom Squad (featuring members of Anthrax, Accept, and Ugly Kid Joe) serve up a grungier incarnation of "Burnin Up," a funky song with tense S&M overtones. The Seattle power-metal quintet Nevermore transform the tongue-in-cheek vampire scenario "Love Bites" by playing the first half of it as a slow, menacing churn and the second half with furious double-kick drumming and high-speed riffing. Even the more straightforward covers from Helloween, Overkill, Devin Townsend, and Kreator still deliver a jolt.

Although the American version of Legends of Metal has some good homages, it's not nearly as potent as the two-volume European release of the same name, which features new metallurgists like Gamma Ray, Skyclad, and Stratovarius. But here in the US, there have been hints of a shock-metal resurgence in the rock world of '97, with Ozzy Osbourne triumphing over the summer with his Lollapalooza-style Ozzfest, and Marilyn Manson generating headlines. And both Legends of Metal and Baptizm -- not to mention Jugulator and the forthcoming The Best of Judas Priest: Living After Midnight (Columbia/Legacy) -- should provide younger metalheads with a valuable introduction to a band who left an indelible mark on mainstream and underground metal, both in the US and abroad.

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