Nearly 50 years into its reign as metal's riff-heavy, speed-gloomy, leather-clad kings, Britain's Judas Priest and its screeching vocalist Rob Halford continue making crucial, vicious music. The Priest's new album, Firepower, ranks among their most ferocious. Halford, in particular, is a force to be reckoned with: an out gay man with a talent for smart, metaphoric lyrics, and a yen for American football, as you'll see. Perhaps that's why Priest chose to start its world tour so close to Philly, at Wilkes-Barre's Mohegan Sun Arena on Tuesday.
Writing for Firepower – or any of your stuff, really – it is from your head, your gut, or strictly instinct?
Definitely all of it for me. When you're making metal, there are places you go that you go internally, that you have to visit in terms of dynamics. You have to have certain tempos and riffs in place that allow for a certain vocal performance. You have the parts – now you must put them together. But you have to be careful. You have to make it all sync. That's when magic happens.
You’re a smart lyricist. In someone else’s hands, the notion of a new song such as “Evil Never Dies” could come across as a prototypical metal trope. You go at it metaphorically, and with a sense of history. Do you have some personal mark you must hit when you write?
The catalyst is always the music. I'll sit with the guys who wrote the song and throw in an initial set of phrases, feel out the song's temperament. That's all I need. Then I go off by myself, and that is where my fun starts. For that, I began thinking of the blues I grew up with – Robert Johnson – and any acquired wisdom. Once I set my anchor down in that song's temperament, I let it rip.
I mentioned history. Why did World War I and red poppies come to mind for “Sea of Red”?
Along with the 100-year anniversary of WWI being touted, there's nothing but wars raging around us. If you have a spiritual belief system as I, there's a way to take that horror and turn it into something full of love and life. So there are seas of blood, but there's more – all embellished by the supposed scent of poppies in Flanders Fields [a common English name for battlefields]. I thought of Alabama's Crimson Tide football team – the red – that movement. I do love my sports.
OK. The sports thing: Jim Schwartz, the defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles…
Oh, I know he's a massive Priest fan. I want to drag him out to the show and onto the stage. He doesn't know that yet.
He does now. Are you an Eagles fan?
I'm not going to put myself there, but I love watching the challenge and human complexity of it. To have all these players – who all have their own lives and things on their mind – come together in unison as the Eagles with that goal in sight – win that Super Bowl – that's mind-boggling. All those physical and psychological mechanisms at work …. I'm happy they won, especially after all those years. It's beautiful, man. That message goes beyond sports. That's about never giving in and never giving up.
Fifty years of Priest – why do you still embrace the physical and sartorial iconography of metal: the leather and the jewelry? It seems to be a second skin.
It's an objectification of what you are on stage. It embodies what you love about metal. It's the ultimate display, a feeling of change when I get into the leather and studs. When I get into that uniform, it must feel as the Eagles do when they change into their uniform. Something comes over you … you think and feel differently. The world moves around us like a million mirrors and puts you in a different environment. You march into a room where everyone feels exactly as you are. How great is that?
It has been 20 years since you came out. Metal does not get credit for its tolerance and acceptance. Have you been amazed by the support you have had? Are you confident the LGBTQ community is in a good place with this current administration in charge?
I could talk for hours about this. When I came out, it was during my solo career. I wasn't in Judas Priest at that time and often wonder if I was would I have done the same thing. Upon reflection, if my sexuality had not been accepted, it would have gone against everything that I know that the heavy metal community stands for – inclusion in particular. It was a beautiful feeling being embraced. As for this current administration? What I see when I read in the news – every day I have my tea and read the news before I turn up the metal (laughs) – is the injustice of how politicians play with humanity. Politicians will do anything to survive. This current administration is a display of all the darkest sides. To quote you-know-who, that is just sad. But life goes on and kids keep speaking out.