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A grower, but less than the sum of its parts - 70%

DarthVenom, June 23rd, 2008

I can appreciate what Priest tried to do with this release – after the reunion album Angel Of Retribution, which was the textbook definition of ‘playing it safe’ albeit a solid release overall, they wanted to experiment. This album, as you’ve no doubt inferred, is a concept album about the prophet Nostradamus, who for those not in the know, was a 16th century purported prophet who made predictions, or quatrains, about major events to come – and whether or not you believe he was the real deal, some of the quatrains are adequately creepy in their similarity to the events that they supposedly predicted – so it’s an interesting lyrical concept and I’m glad to see a band as able as Priest take on the job.

What we have here is a massive album – it’s as long as a full-length movie and spans two discs, so you’re definitely getting your money’s worth in that regard – with a smorgasbord of mid-paced tracks and symphonic influences. So this could have worked out one of two ways: we could have here a sweeping, epic number that uses its symphonic elements in creative and moody ways, building up to majestic swells or brooding tones where the themes demand it, and a solid sense of dynamics between heavy and soft – or we could have an album that ultimately collapses under the weight of its own grandeur, unable to sustain such a lofty concept for its running time and songwriting style.

I’m sorry, Priest. But to me, this album is mostly the latter.

The biggest problem at work here is that the album, especially at the midsection, just drags on without the musical adventurism needed to sustain interest on repeated listens. Look at the song Alone, for example: it’s a number that gradually builds with some sweeping vocal work and tastefully-subdued guitar licks, and it could have worked in half its running time. There’s just not the diversity or freshness to sustain a seven-minute clock-in. Actually, many of these softer songs just aren’t up to par as stand-alone tunes. They’re the kind of thing that you’d see as filler on previous Priest albums, but here they’re placed at the forefront as the meat of the album. They’re formulaic in composition and performance, which gives me the impression that the band wanted to create something with an epic exterior whilst not putting forth as much effort to make it so on the interior.

Okay, so maybe that was a bit harsh; perhaps they really, really did try. Because there are a few points on this album where the whole mid-paced symphonic thing really hits home with exactly the atmosphere that an album like this deserves: take the excellent song Death (Title is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but it’s lovable in its forwardness). Rob’s vocals in the first half go from a slightly regretful, but powerful and subtle rasp to the occasional high wail that hits on just the right emotional frequency. All the while, Priest’s beloved dual guitar attack is there in the background, pounding out doomy licks at just the right places, gradually building in intensity. You can almost feel the cold wind brushing through the nighttime cathedral cemetery, or the feel of the dark one’s scythe against the back of your neck. I typed that last sentence up just by closing my eyes and focusing on the music right now, so it’s very effective for me. The last parts of the song have this strong, sorrowful moaning illuminating the background under Halford’s increasingly-urgent vocal delivery – it’s a wonderful song, and something refreshingly different for Priest.

Unfortunately, Death speaks for the minority of the album. Many other mid-paced songs here suffer from being – I hate to use this term, but it’s honestly the best one I can think of – uninteresting at best, and not at all fitting with their supposed mood, at worst. Come on – far be it from me to tell a band as legendary as this how to write their music, but something like War would be far better served by being an aggressive, vicious thrasher, for example. Speaking of which…

I’m not ragging on Nostradamus for being a mostly mid-paced album. No, it just seems that Priest are out of their element, and it shows. Pestilence And Plague is a genuinely solid song, and guess what? It shows Priest in their more traditional element and rocks pretty hard. I’ll give the up-tempo title track a pass for pretty much borrowing the Painkiller riff in its verse, because the song is very good overall. Halford’s vocals take on a storyteller’s dynamic, shifting appropriately throughout the verses and chorus.

The band as a unit plays tightly. I was worried about Halford’s aging vocals after his performance on Rising In The East (Poor guy seemed like he was going to keel over during Painkiller), but he does very well here. His softer vocals have much more emotional depth here than on the band’s other albums, and his singing is the high point of the interludes – they do slow an already-dragging album down, but at least his vocals prevent me from writing them off as a total loss. The other band members don’t ever seem to go out of their way to really show what they’re made of, but their performance works.

The lyrical direction is something that I’d like to point out on personal preference. Ideally, an album about Nostradamus’s life would strike some kind of balance between his life, and the content of his prophecies. I can’t be the only one who felt that certain prophecies would make excellent stand-alone songs. Instead, we get a series of songs about war, conquest, pestilence and death, and otherwise only vague mentions of the fact that he has prophecies – otherwise it’s just a story about a man persecuted by the Catholic Church, which while interesting from a historical perspective, just can’t be the angle that the band hoped for. For what they are, though, the lyrics are eloquent and effective. So that’s just a personal point.

You almost had it, Priest. Much of the album suffers from not being interesting enough to keep one’s attention through a whole listen. Interestingly, Loch Ness from the last record was like a foreshadowing of this album: a unique and intriguing lyrical concept that nobody’s really dared to tackle before, albeit bloated more than Garfield the cat. But make no mistake, there are some gems to be had: the before-mentioned Death, Pestilence And Plague, the building Persecution, the well-plotted Revelations and the rousing title track, for example. This album definitely works better for me when the individual tracks are picked apart and listened to separately, rather than having to sit through much of the bloat. Die-hard Priest fans owe it to themselves to give Nostradamus a look. All told, I’m glad I bought this, because repeat listens – mainly, of individual tracks – have fallen in the album’s favour, so I amended my ranking of this album from a 65% to a 70% - to me, a low B and a commendable effort. If you’re just getting into the Metal Gods, avoid this album for now and pick up Sad Wings Of Destiny, Painkiller or Unleashed In The East. I went in with a reasonably open mind, but the problem isn’t with the direction – it’s the execution.