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NEW SOUNDS: Priest rock opera exciting territory

By Thom Copher

For the Gazette

For Judas Priest fans who have found sanctity in the three- to five-minute burst of brilliance that has been the band’s forte for about 35 years, be warned — this ain’t yer daddy’s Priest. 

“Nostradamus” is a two-disc adventure that begs for a grandiose stage and takes the moniker of “rock opera” to a new level. And that’s a good thing.

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When I first got wind of this project about two years ago, it was referred to as a “concept album.” In the metal world, this has been achieved most notably by Queensryche (“Operation Mindcrime”) and Iced Earth (“The Glorious Burden”). The majority of hard-rock efforts of this ilk, though, fall short in capturing the concept essence over the course of an entire album.

But Judas Priest is not most bands and, amazingly, the boys from Birmingham (England, that is) have pulled off the concept album with flair and fashion.

The album exposes the life and works of the famous French doctor/seer Nostradamus. Depending on how his words are read, Nostradamus’ predictions have included the great London fire of 1666, the two World Wars and the Kennedy assassinations as well as a third world war and the end of times. 

Now, I have chosen the term “rock opera” over “concept album” because, as “Nostradamus” plays out over nearly two hours, the songs are interwoven with symphonic introductions, which give the impression of one presentation rather than a collection of individual songs. 

That, along with the fact that the storyline is progressive, seems to demand that listeners follow the album in its entirety — not an easy task, metalhead or not. So, rather than belabor the monument itself, I suggest that listeners take it in bit by bit as if studying a body of history, which, in essence, it is.

Musically, “Nostradamus” is a gem that keeps the traditional Priest elements intact. 

Numbers like “Prophesy” and “Pestilence and Plague” could easily refer back to 1984’s “Defenders of the Faith” period. In fact, the majority of the double-disc set owes to post-“Screaming for Vengeance” stylings where Priest was leaning in a bit more structured and heavier direction.

Also, the band’s free employment of full-string arrangements throughout embellishes an already meaty sound. It invites listeners to suppose what this might look like if played out onstage by an acting troupe.

Guitarist Glenn Tipton, the true architect behind Priest’s musical force, has compiled what by many definitions is a career statement. The path woven for himself and fellow axman K.K. Downing gives new breadth for the already iconic twin-guitar Priest sound.

As for the inimitable vocals of one Rob Halford, this seems to be the perfect stage for a voice that could easily be successful on an opera platform.

The bottom line: Is this a great album? You betcha.

Most veteran bands tend to simply kick back on the heels of past success, put out a predictable album and tour on the strength of the glory days. Priest has dared to go against the grain, boldly forging a new chapter that has a deserving place alongside milestone efforts like “Stained Class,” “Screaming for Vengeance” and “British Steel.”

Uncle Bobby and the boys once sang, “You Don’t Have to be Old to be Wise,” but they were young bucks back then. Age seems to have brought a sense of vigor and wisdom, which has brought Judas Priest outside the box and into new and exciting territory 35 years on.

Thom Copher first saw Judas Priest live in 1978 when they opened for KISS at the Huntington Civic Center. He vowed to one day own a Harley, which, according to Nostradamus himself, was foretold.