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I've always been rather indifferent to much of Judas Priest's catalogue. Their 70's albums were hurt by the flat and punchless production while much of their 80s material sounds dated, especially their big singles like "Hell Bent for Leather." The only studio album of theirs that I can enjoy from start to finish is "Painkiller" because it actually sounds like they're trying to break new ground as opposed to getting more and more commercial appeal. The Ripper albums do not really need to have anything said about them other than that they were failed experiments. A lot of people seem to like 2004's comeback reunion album "Angel of Retribution" even though for the most part Priest just seemed to be going through the motions and doing what is expected of them, as well as a terrible bid for mainstream airplay in "Revolution." There really is not anything on that album worth listening to more than several times other than the speed metal of "Judas Rising" and the epic "Loch Ness," despite the laughable lyrics.
I'm not exactly sure what spurred the creative minds in Judas Priest to go the route that they have taken on "Nostradamus," because judging by the reviews and fan reaction, most people would be quite happy with Priest becoming the AC/DC of heavy metal. Perhaps Halford, Tipton and Downing realized that they were not quite ready to become a nostalgia band, releasing the same basic material every few years as an excuse to tour and play "Breaking the Law," "Living After Midnight" and "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" to thousands of screaming fans. Whatever the reason, Judas Priest have revamped their sound and have put out an album that surprised many a fan, including me.
Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of metal knows that Nostradamus is an idea that has been done to death, and sadly, the lyrics of this album are still pretty bad, although certainly not their worst. However, it seems like for the first time in twenty-five years, the band actually HAS something to sing about, as opposed to more songs about super-heroes, machines, machines that are super-heroes, self-references and gay sex. For the first time in years, it seems like the band is actually trying, without being influenced by what the rest of the music scene is doing like they were on the two Ripper Owens albums. It's obvious that Judas Priest have put a lot of work into this album; a lot of labor is put into the arrangements of the songs. The band has said in interviews that many of the strings heard on this album are real, and the strings do factor prominently into several songs, most notably "War," which actually has a orchestral interlude in the middle.
The songs are almost universally epic in nature, thanks in part to interludes which serve more as intros to the songs that follow rather than displays of self-indulgence (take that Jon Schaffer!). However, despite the epic nature of the songs, there is a wide variety of sounds and emotions on display. Some songs, like "Revelations" and "Persecution" exhibit a sense of urgency that has been largely absent in Priest's music for many years. Others are true epics in nature, such as the aforementioned "War," "Alone" and album closer "Future of Mankind" which features fantastic interplay between the guitars and the strings. Album opener "Prophecy" should remain a concert staple for years as well as the title track. Special mention should go to "Conquest" as well; I cannot figure out why this song is so enjoyable, it is just so well-written that it stays in my head for hours after I hear it. The pinnacle of "Nostradamus" is the track "Death." This is what Judas Priest would sound like if they were a doom metal band, and I am blown away with the result. The atmosphere for this song is lethal, and Rob Halford is stunning vocally, it sounds like he is Death, and Tipton and Downing just slay on guitars.
Tipton and Downing have been one of the most famous and arguably best guitar duos in metal history, but on this album they take their playing to a whole new level. There is genuine emotion along with the shredding. They add a neo-classical influence to some of their solos and they kick Yngwie's ass by introducing an element that he cannot comprehend: subtlety. Some of these solos are not the type that knock one on their ass on the first listen, it takes several listens before it dawns just how well-written these solos are. There are some solid riffs featured throughout the album as well.
In addition to all of the positives mentioned above, Judas Priest have done something that they have not done in their entire career. I mentioned earlier how apathetic I was to most of Judas Priest's earlier studio albums, but I left out just how good their live albums are. I consider the 1979 album "Unleashed in the East" to be the greatest live metal album of all time, and anyone who saw Priest live in the 80's or even more recently can attest to how great their live show is. Earlier songs take on new life in a live setting, even Painkiller songs. "Angel" from "Angel of Retribution" is ten times better when performed live. However, with Nostradamus, Judas Priest have finally written an album where the songs reach their full potential in a studio setting. There are no songs that are watered-down so that they can be played on the radio, even the more straightforward songs like "Visions" or "Prophecy" are not simple enough to receive a large amount of airplay.
Some minor complaints include the fact that Scott Travis seems unfortunately restrained throughout, a shame because he is so talented. Also the two ballad-type songs, "Lost Love" and "New Beginnings" are not quite as good as the songs that follow and precede them. As mentioned before, the lyrics are still pretty weak, but thankfully it is not that noticeable unless one reads the liner notes.
If approached with an open mind, "Nostradamus" is a very rewarding experience. However, people who are expecting "Angel of Retribution 2" (Or "Screaming for Vengeance 3") will be disappointed. Many of the poor reviews for this album come from people expecting another re-hash of an earlier album. In a way, Priest is to blame for this because that's what their fans have come to expect from them, some just are not ready or willing to accept a Judas Priest that does something different this late in their career. Whether you like the album or not, Judas Priest have made a statement that they are not out of ideas yet and that they refuse to be a nostalgia act. Perhaps with a few more albums like this, Priest may experience a second life similar to what Iron Maiden have done with their past three albums.