Expectations, a curse and a blessing. There are bands that break under the weight of expectations, either by fans, labels or also themselves, while others seem to thrive and then there are fans that put their personal expectations on a new release and more often than not get more or less bitterly disappointed. Over one and a half years after it originally was announced, British Metal legend JUDAS PRIEST finally has managed to release its much talked-about double-disc album “Nostradamus”. A lot of rumours had spread around this release, that it was a concept album, that there would be influences from symphonic sources and even operatic parts, some people even started talking about “Ram It Down”, the 80s Rock excursion of the Brits, so overall there’s been a lot of hype, a lot of concern and even more rumours than anything.
Now I am sure that most of us still remember the last big traditional Metal band trying their luck on a more or less ambitious concept album about gods of Nordic mythology? Also with a lot of symphonics and orchestral embellishments, just somehow they managed to forget much of the Metal that said elements were supposed to enhance and elevate to a different kind of level, resulting in a lot of scorn and criticism. For those, who have no idea who I am talking about, have a listen to MANOWAR’s “Gods Of War”. But this is JUDAS PRIEST, a band that throughout its history had fared a lot less ridicule for pomp etc., so how would they fare taking on the mighty Nostradamus as foundation for this double-disc?
Well, “Nostradamus” is not what I expected it to be originally. Even though a reviewer should approach an album with open ears and an open mind (should being the operative word), you just can’t help it, if it says JUDAS PRIEST on the cover, you just HAVE to have some expectations, even if you already know that they’re highly probably unfounded. So the first listen still took me aback and by surprise, even though I knew that it would not sound like they did in the past, even though some purists still want another “Painkiller”, the band just doesn’t want to repeat itself, I would guess.
JUDAS PRIEST’s 16th album definitely needs time, just because it is so unusual for the band, but once it starts growing, it just doesn’t stop. One thing you should not expect, though, is all-out straight-up Metal all the way, out of the 23 songs, there are 9 which are intros or interludes, some with, some without vocals, while the remaining 14 tracks only rarely unleash the Metal fury and the rest operates in somewhat softer, more sophisticated, intense or plainly atmospheric spheres.
Alright, whoever has not yet stopped reading is not a groaning purist, for who change is the antichrist (or God, depending on your viewpoint), so let’s dive in a little deeper. That “Dawn Of Creation” is an intro is not a surprise, as the majority of bands these days opens with one of these, and it indeed does set a quite moody atmosphere, which is followed by “Prophecy”, which definitely sounds like PRIEST (not least thanks to Halford’s characteristic voice), not in the “Painkiller” way, though, more putting the emphasis on the mentioned atmosphere, a fitting opener for the concept, though, with the line “I Am Nostradamus”, so a clear message from the get-go. “Revelations” is very good as well, if it wasn’t for the rather odd verse, where Halford sings one word, then there’s a break, then the next word and so on, which kind of interrupts the flow, the dark mood and epic feel of the song and the chorus more than make up for this, though.
Now I must admit that most of the interludes actually serve the purpose of furthering the story, so they’re not just filler material, but one thing becomes clear pretty quickly and that is that almost all tracks utilize the slow to mid-paced tempos. Yes, the story is not exactly all happy flower-picking and whatnot, but this probably is one of the major gripes most people have with “Nostradamus”, some faster compositions to loosen things up are missing almost completely and that is more of a problem than the interludes, at least to me, which causes the album to drag a little, especially in tracks such as “Death”, which suffers from being too drawn out (despite a faster segment around the solos, which seem a little out of place in the overall context, especially as we go back to the gloomy instrumentation immediately after). At the end of the first disc, “Persecution” is the up to then most Metal and also most energetic composition, which I would have hoped for more of, because it adds some of the bite that the PRIEST is known and loved for, great track!
The second disc is, of course, the direct continuation of the first part, both lyrically and musically, giving us good songs, but a little too little in terms of dynamics, once more a sign that the concept is what is put into the foreground, together with adequately expressing the moods and the overall story, and while it had taken me aback at first, it continued to grow with each repeated listen, especially when I actually took the booklet and followed the story, so it became clear that this is an ambitious work, which sounds what it sounds like, because it is how it was conceived. And it takes until the next to last song, “Nostradamus”, for the double-bass and sharp guitars come out and Halford unleashing at least a little of his scream (yes, other than that he actually sings the whole time), another great track by the Brits!
So…”Nostradamus” is one of those albums, which will split the fans and it will very strongly depend on how you listen to this how much (or if) you will like it. Just strictly looking at the music, it might not be able to live up to the expectations (see above), but if you look at it as what it in my opinion should be looked at, as an overall piece of art, where story and music are so closely connected that you cannot really separate it, then with a little time you will find an album that is VERY ambitious, but that actually works, if applied the right way (and no, I do not mean directly to your forehead!). Give it a little time, follow the story with the booklet and this album will open itself up!
(Online October 21, 2008)