After a band has been around for a certain length of time it's as if the fans stop looking for something new and just want something that relives past glories; it doesn't matter how good it is, just give me something that feels like Sad Wings of Destiny or Painkiller. It's an unfortunate situation for some bands to be in, everyone's heard the old progression vs. stagnation argument but with older bands their past restricts them. When Rob Halford rejoined Judas Priest the silent assumption among metal fans was that the band would pick up where they left off with 1990's Painkiller, which was an odd thing to believe as the band had yet to release two albums that sounded alike. Of course, that's not what happened, and many metal fans didn't get that dream album they'd been wishing for. What they did get in 2005 was an album full of songs that seemed to identify with different eras in Judas Priest's history. While there were definitely different elements in many songs it couldn't be denied that much of the inspiration for the band's comeback came from within.
So with the band's comeback album out of the way and the touring put to rest, the band felt the need to do something left of center and defy expectations yet again. The idea that would make their fans scratch their heads? A concept album based around apothecary Nostradamus, who is known more for his work as a seer with grand predictions about the future than any medical work he did while attempting to cure the plague. It must be said that many of Nostradamus’ predictions are disputed today, most believed to have been misinterpretations and mistranslations by readers of his material, people looking to make Michel de Nostredame a bigger figure in history than he should be. The question becomes why choose Nostradamus? It seems as though many scoffed at the idea from the get go and, even now, most seem to be having trouble really wrapping their heads around this choice. In this case I do think it's important to go straight from the source and quote the liner notes that come with the Nostradamus album.
"Our rich history with metal has covered may of the elements and messages that are the backbone of his life and what we compose; overcoming difficulties, standing up against those that misunderstand what we believe in and many other virtues that attest to what we do with our music" - Judas Priest
For Priest it wasn't so much an issue of how big of a figure Nostradamus is or whether he actually did predict future events, but the issues surrounding his life that relate, not only to issues Judas Priest have always written songs about, but to topics that have created the basis for heavy metal music as a whole. Of course it isn't worded like poetry when you look at the lyrics, but with Priest it's always been about the approach and the delivery. One thing I have to complain about lyrically is the constant dropping of the "N" word, "Nostradamus" of course. The word is thrown so much, even outside of the title track; it becomes rather overdone, sometimes to the point that you’re simply sick of hearing the name again and again.
Using this grandiose figure as their point of interest, a historical figure who has been heaped in mystery and intrigue, lends itself to a very large production, which is something the band has been hinting at during the interviews that were taking place during the writing process. It becomes clear that with two discs and over 100 minutes of material that there's not only a lot to digest here, but that the band didn't exactly feel the need to hold back this time around. Upon listening to this massive album the sound is clearly not "typical Priest". What the band has done is include lots of orchestration, in a style very similar to a rock opera, or for myself, something reminiscent of the last few Virgin Steele albums, right down to the execution, in which keyboards are often used to replicate the sound of a full orchestra.
For some, this issue of imitating an orchestra will be instantly disappointing as I don't think there's any question as to whether the band would have had a problem obtaining the funding to have the entire album orchestrated, as well, for many of the band's more mainstream fans this is going to be something that will induce laughter and scorn because for them it will simply date the album ("Keyboards are gay!"). In my eyes it's an interesting choice and I obviously can't say whether this choice was made simply because it would be easier, that it was more suitable, or just that the band are not experienced enough as producers to pull it off (the production is handled by Tipton and Downing) but it does give Nostradamus a very different, otherworldly sound that it would not have had otherwise. The unfortunate downside to this is that the keyboards, more often than not, drown out the guitars, which are lacking in authority throughout the album. I would have figured an album produced by the band's guitar players would have featured them more prominently, but in the case of the production and mix, the keyboards, vocals, and drums (which are probably some of the better sounding drums I've heard on a mainstream release) have been made the most important pieces to the puzzle.
The album is quite dynamic in tempo and moods and it must be said that I don't think I've had a Priest album feel as "complete", but I also can't deny that, for a Priest album, there is a definite lack of full on heavy metal. There's songs like "Prophecy", "Persecution", or the title track where the band throws caution to the wind and unleashes that heavy metal monster the band has always been, but it's still tempered with these big, grandiose (for some pompous) feelings. Songs like "War", which contains a symphonic bridge, and epic structures are more prominent than Halford's self-proclaimed "screaming heavy metal". In fact, there's barely any screams to be had here, much like the band's reunion album, Angel of Retribution, but Rob still creates many shining vocal moments on the album regardless, the production bringing that out even more and at times one has to wonder if Rob has sounded better in his mid-range.
The album can be incredibly moving, a song like "Exiled", with its pounding drums as a backdrop for soft piano/keyboard work which, in turn, are a backdrop for the powerful vocals. The long drawn out moments, Rob's main lines being filled with passion, with backing vocals that perfectly accent this main line without directly acknowledging it. The lyrics here are quite generalized and could easily relate to the story of Nostradamus or just your average metal fan, the outcast exiled from society. It's actually at this point, early on in the second disc, that the band has already put the listener through a lot musically: interludes a plenty, blasting heavy metal, moody sections, overblown choruses, exaggerated orchestral moments and there's still the better part of this second disc to listen to. The album can be overwhelming, it could even be written off as over the top, or pompous, and yes, that's exactly what heavy metal is about, more is more so to speak. Of course not every album could, or should, be a Nostradamus. Not every band should strive to write an album like this, nor should any band create an album like this every time but an album like this is due at some point, especially when it comes together so well.
It can't be said enough just how different Nostradamus is from the band's back catalog and it becomes dangerous, not only to the band, but to the listener's enjoyment to start judging an album based on past glories and expectations. This isn't the Judas Priest you've grown up with, the one you've been listening to for the past 30 years, this is an entirely different beast. These are guys that should be sitting back, cashing in on the 80's nostalgia, not creating something different, not pushing the boundaries of their sound, and they definitely shouldn't be doing it as convincingly as they do on 2008's Nostradamus.
May the Metal Gods forgive me for what I'm about to write...
Many a press-release has been issued over the past few years about Judas Priest's Nostradamus project, a double-length concept record about the life of the sixteenth-century (reputed) prophet and seer of visions. Yes, that's a lofty goal for the same band that brought us "Hot Rockin'" and "Eat Me Alive," but there's always been an element of theatricality to Judas Priest that made it seem like maybe, just maybe this was a good idea. Hell, if nothing else, these guys helped write the book on metal, so they deserve a chance to branch out and try something new, just like they did with Stained Class and Sad Wings three decades ago. The life of Nostradamus is a heavy concept, and yes, it's heavy metal, but in the end, I feel that it’s just not very well done. Over the course of twenty-four songs in almost two hours, Nostradamus sinks beneath its own symphonic bombast and lack of standout material. At times it lumbers, and at times, for brief moments, it flies, but it rarely kills.
Let me say this up front: I really wanted to like this. I like pompous goofy shit. I love Judas Priest. But overall Nostradamus really isn't very interesting. It's not horrible; it's not unforgivable; it's not St. Anger. It's just overwrought and insanely overlong. It's simultaneously over- and underwhelming.
Rock operas are tricky beasts. At some point, when a plot is involved, inevitably characters and situations must be presented and positioned, so lyrics in conceptual records tend to be tricky. And at some point, to qualify as a rock opera, an opera must rock. While Priest has never been known for particularly brilliant lyrics (witness again "Hot Rockin'" and "Eat Me Alive"), some of the ones here are cringe-inducing, pushing the story along with some awful couplets and heavy-handed lines. I honestly didn't expect much from Halford’s lyrics, based on "Hell Patrol" and the like, but never before have his lyrics mattered so much. On the other hand, I do expect Priest to rock, and barring a few bits here or there, the legendary tandem of Tipton and Downing are under-utilized, the riffage either bland or simply swamped beneath the incessant keyboards and plot advancement and moody piano tinklings. There are scattered moments of decency on this record—the title track, the solo parts of "Revelations," the chugging Sabbath-like riff of "Prophecy" or the driving "Persecution." These are the proud few moments where Glenn and KK escape the Andrew Lloyd Webber-isms, but overall, their contributions are limited. Scott Travis is rock-solid, and Ian Hill does whatever it is that keeps him in the band, pedaling on the root note or following the main riff, just like the last two decades (except for "The Rage" and "Love Bites"). Whether it is or not, Nostradamus seems mostly like Halford's opus, his pipes of steel perfectly suited for the operatics, although he only rarely goes falsetto, so even his always first-class performance is a bit disappointing.
As good as the opening salvo of "Prophecy" and "Revelations" may be, it can’t support the weight of a dozen or so underachieving, aimless interstitial tracks that pad the running time and make the whole experience exhausting. And as good as "Persecution" may be, it and five more like it couldn’t support the dreadful "Lost Love," which may replace "Wild Nights, Hot & Crazy Days" as my all-time least favorite Priest track. Although there are maybe four worthwhile tracks ("Nostradamus," "Prophecy," "Revelations," and "Persecution"), the rest of this just sounds like average Euro-metal, powerful and anthemic and corny.
Based solely upon its sheer being, there’s a certain amount of anti-Nostradamus sentiment that will inevitably come from the die-hards expecting another Defenders Of The Faith or Sin After Sin. With that in mind, I again give kudos to Judas Priest for stepping outside their comfort zone and trying something new. But also with that in mind, I’m unhappy because I, too, wish their new direction wasn't two damn hours of boring grandiose Broadway metal. While Nostradamus has a few minor merits (unlike St. Anger or Mindcrime II)—and while inevitably some of you will like it and accuse me of resisting change—I fear that this project will just anger or confound longtime fans and be ignored by the kids as a bunch of old farts making the silliest possible record.
Priest can do better than this; they have done better than this; I hope to hell they can do better than this again (and soon). If you’re looking for a power metal concept album that works, equally indulgent and almost equally lengthy yet played with such passion and fury that it’s virtually undeniable, may I suggest that you pick up Cage’s Hell Destroyer instead.
The Essential Judas Priest (2 CDs)
4/11/2006 Judas Priest
Angel of Retribution