By Martin Popoff
On the 10-yearanniversary of his Winter Songs album, Judas Priest icon Rob Halford has delivered another full record celebrating the Yuletide season metal-style. But this time the artist credit goes to “Rob Halford with Family & Friends,” making for a cosier soundtrack to all your special wintery moments as the snowy season arrives.
Why another round of robust Christmas carols? Well, it really does come down to a celebration of family. No one trots the globe like Judas Priest, especially these days, with the band celebrating the effusive worldwide reception of their 2018 album Firepower. So Halford, strongly rooted in Birmingham and the significance of that city as the birthplace of metal, has always yearned for family time when he could steal it. Celestial has turned out to be a comfort in that respect, through its sentimental representation of such connections.
“They’re miles apart, yeah, for sure,” begins Halford, who has put more miles on his leathers than most metal screamers still standing. “Winter Songs was with a whole different bunch of musicians, which is obviously a vital part of the story. The overall experience of putting together that record with the Halford band, with the great production Roy Z did, really set it apart from Celestial in many ways.
“But you could take the story further back than that. If you remember the Fight band, we had a quick single we cranked out called ‘Christmas Ride,’ and that was just a radio release; I don’t think it got general release. But I remember having such a great time making that song, so we got the opportunity to do Winter Songs, and that was like, let’s try make a collection of songs that captures the essence of the Christmas holidays, the holiday spirit, as they call it. This went out publicly to the metal maniacs around the world and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not exactly a stretch for me as a metal musician, but I wasn’t sure what the connection was going to be. But it turned out really solid; I was very grateful to the fans for supporting me.”
Flash forward 10 years and as we say, Rob’s surrounded by musicians closer to the hearth. “Yes, Jon Blakey is a guitar player in my brother Nigel’s band—he’s got this really cool local indie rock band called Voodoo Sioux. And so Jon Blakey, he’s a friend of Alex Hill, my nephew (Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill was married, ’76 to ’84, to Rob’s sister Sue, who plays jingle bells on the album!), and I believe Robert Jones was with Alex when he had a band called Gravel some years ago. So it really is a connection of those two words, family and friends, which has never been done before—as far as I’m aware—from the metal side of things.”
Besides the pleasure of making a record with his brother and sister, Rob had a secondary motive in assembling Celestial. “Yes, well, it took almost two years to put the whole thing together, because I was away working in Priest, doing the Firepower record and touring. But the guys have all got jobs, full-time jobs. And that again is another part of the heart of the music, which is, it’s kind of an homage to musicians like my brother and the rest of the guys who come home from work, you know, after working at their respective places. They get changed, have a bite to eat, run off and do a local show or go and have a jam, maybe write a song. There are many, many, many musicians like that—hundreds of thousands, if not more, around the world—doing all kinds of music. So this is kind of recognizing and representing all of these wonderfully talented people.”
And beyond those two missions, there’s also the idea that Christmas is taking on more resonance for Halford as he ages—at 68, he’s been with Priest now 48 years and it’s taken its toll, most notably on his back which fortunately is better now but had threatened to end his career about seven years ago.
“As time marches on, your family becomes even more important,” reflects Rob. “So I look to be with my family, at that time of year. I’ll be back there this Christmas time, I’m sure. I was hoping that I’d be back in the Midlands with maybe the possibility of doing a little local show with the guys, but unfortunately time in the calendar just doesn’t permit that idea. But I’m sure we will at some point.”
Priest is also dealing with the unfortunate Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis that has befallen Glenn Tipton. However, says Rob, “Glenn is doing great. I’ll be seeing Glenn again next year when we go into rehearsals for the Ozzy/Priest tour. He’s widdling away, as he does in the studio, and is doing what he’s always done, which is putting down riffs and just general ideas that we may utilize for the next Priest record. You know, it’s all about collecting the information. Getting as much stuff in the vaults as you possibly can.”
It’s a curious comment from the Metal God but a welcome one. Very smart to have Glenn staying active, writing, recording, as Rob says, giving Priest and Priest fans—and his own family—as much of his great talent as he can, when he can. As with Firepower, the next Priest album will benefit from the continuity of Tipton writing and (hopefully) performance credits, especially after the demoralizing split with K.K. Downing in 2011.
At this age there are many goodbyes, and again, Christmas brings them into sharp focus. Asked for a survey of holiday memories since the beginning, Rob recalls, “As a kid, Christmas time, you would get a box of different kinds of chocolates in them—used to call it the selection box. When you’re a kid, Christmas starts when it’s still pitch-black outside. (laughs) You wake your mom and dad up and you run downstairs. You’ve opened all your gifts and it’s like, ‘Mom, can I have a piece of chocolate?’ That’s a strong memory. Then later you’re figuring a lot of things out about the Christmas holidays, and you’re trying to understand what this guy in the Santa suit is about. Is he real? Is he not real? Does it really matter? It’s an eye-opener.
“But as you get older, you’re more reflective, and you’re full of the memories of not only past holiday Christmas times, but what’s going on around you now, being with family and friends, the people that you love and mean so much to you. You get more sentimental, remembering people that are not with you anymore. I guess the heart of Christmas really doesn’t change that much. It’s just that the circumstances that surround you go as you go through life tend to differ.”
Asked about how the closing of the door and ‘heading out to the highway’ might in fact turn out to be the last time he sees someone, Rob says, “Well, I’ve done that with my immediate family, with my mom and dad. On two respective moments. It was difficult for me to leave under the conditions I found myself in, because the touring was calling in both instances. There’s the love and support that my parents gave me, right from when I wanted to get in the music business to this point and you were off to the next place. Mom said, ‘Don’t stick around for me. You get out there and work. You get out there and do what you have to do. If you’re happy, I’m happy.’ So obviously when you lose your loved ones like that, that’s also another beautiful part of remembrance in the holidays. And that’s really what I’m trying to say with the words from ‘Protected By the Light,’ you know, talking about, ‘Hold your loved ones dearly’ and ‘Those that have departed us are still within our hearts.’ That’s a nice little reference to that set of emotional issues we deal with at Christmas.”
Indeed a highlight of the record, “Protected by the Light” sounds like something out of a Parisian café in the 1920s. Elsewhere the band present “O Little Town of Bethlehem” strident and ambitious, beginning it like Yes’ “Close to the Edge” and massaging in fretless bass and dreamy acoustics all atop a soft tribal beat. Original “Donner and Blitzen” is at the other end, galloping metal-mad like Maiden and the Priest of the last two records. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” is overhauled to where it sounds like a new metal original and “Deck the Halls” sounds like Fight.
“I’m glad I made that War of Words record,” muses Rob, asked about the legacy of Fight, his punchy post-Priest modern metal cabal of the 1990s. “It was an important moment for me, because I was able to discover my writing skills. All of that music came out of my own head and hands, using guitar and just putting down all of the music back at the house in Phoenix. That was a practical exercise for me, discovering a part of me that I don’t think I would have, had I not had the opportunity with Fight. Even now that War of Words record is always floated around; people reference it quite often on my Instagram and my Facebook. The music is pretty potent still, especially with the mess we’re in in today’s world. It definitely connects, whether it’s the title track, ‘War of Words,’ or ‘Contortion.’ The messages there are probably more appropriate now than when they first came about.”
Elsewhere on Celestial, “The First Noel” gets a starkly traditional treatment, complete with church organs and choirs. Asked about his approach to vocal harmonies, Halford explains that, “In Priest, they’re pretty much 99.99% me. On this particular track, it was Robert Jones on vocals as well. We decided to do that because when you’re doing such a variety of multiple harmonies, there’s a point within the audio where it starts bumping into each other, and you need the separation to create the depth of perception. Much like when Queen did their big operatic chorus pieces. Because the whole band is singing, you can make a bigger experience out of it. So Robert did all his parts while I was away, and then I came in and did my parts later.
“But we wanted ‘The First Noel’ to be very stripped-down so you could really focus on the message. I felt internally that the simple melody and the fact that it’s almost like a church experience around the holy times, was the best way to go. It gives it separation from all the tracks. You and I have talked about this many times over the years, with regards to the way Priest made sure that there’s definition between songs. It’s the same with Celestial—from the opening instrumental atmosphere of the ‘Celestial’ intro right to the exit with ‘Protected by the Light’—and everything in between—I hope it’s just a really great adventure.”
Most promising in terms of being single material is “Morning Star.” “There’s this slide guitar that’s a bit reminiscent of a pedal steel guitar,” notes Rob on this almost new country original composition. “It’s Blakey just using a slide on his finger on the strings. As that song was coming together, here’s the deal; I said to the guys, ‘Look, this is all about you. I’m going to put my voice on it, but I really want you to push the boat out, have some fun, use as many kinds of expressions as you want within the arrangements and don’t hold anything back. Don’t feel like you’ve got to keep asking me, “Is this okay? Is this okay?” We will get to the places we need to be if there’s any difficulties; we’ll get there when we get there.’ And we never went there. Everything that was sent to me was just really solid. So ‘Morning Star,’ again, more of a lighter experience. It isn’t as intense as the others by any means. But it was a chance for the guys to demonstrate their great musical skill, which makes it a real stand-up track for me.
“And ‘Joy to the World’ is a bit of a nod to Queen,” continues Rob, “with the way they used multiple guitar tracks. The guys were saying, ‘Do you mind if we reference some of the people we enjoy?’ And I said, ‘Do whatever you want to do. There really isn’t any restriction here. This is your record as much as anything else. Have fun and just be happy and do what feels instinctively right.’”
In closing, Rob offers a few clues as to the future of Judas Priest.
“I think we had one of the strongest experiences ever with the Firepower record. Just when you think you’ve not exactly done it all, seen it all and had it all, you go into the studio with this great producer combination that we’ve never known (Tom Allom and Andy Sneap), and the great music that Richie (Faulkner, guitarist) brought into the mix after he first kind of embedded himself and grown during Redeemer of Souls.
“By the time we were at Firepower, it really gelled and he knew what he needed to do. Redeemer was still a process of discovery for him. With Firepower, he was more attuned and acclimatized to it. The general attitude and atmosphere was a bit like how we went in to making Painkiller, which was an important record to make for lots of reasons. The way that Painkiller was able to really refine and define this band, I think we came to the same kind of place again with the music from Firepower. And this far on, that was just a great, great time for the band—it’s really lifted us in many ways. As a result, the prospect of making the follow-up to Firepower is really intriguing. I haven’t a clue where we’re going to go with it, but as far as the opportunity in the sense of really wanting to make another strong, important record goes, you know, watch out—the Priest will definitely be back.” (laughs).
And with that we say our goodbyes, hopefully not for the last time. “It was a pleasure, and now I’m off to have some dinner and a nice cup of English tea. I wish you all the best for the rest of the year and hope to see you when Priest come around on their 50th next year.”
Which instantly raised more questions—along with the dozen or so I didn’t have time to ask! But the Metal God needs fuel, Firepower as it were. Until whatever this “50th” thrown out like a hand grenade brings, take a moment and enjoy Celestial with family and friends and perhaps a libation suitable to the season. All told, it’s a comforting record of songs known and new, sure to warm the cockles on the chilliest of snow-swept evenings.