“What we’ve done is to move beyond metal. There are so many ideas here that expand our horizons”: how Judas Priest reached for the sky with divisive double album Nostradamus

Judas Priest backstage in 2009
(Image credit: AP Photo/Robert E. Klein/Alamy)

When Judas Priest reunited with errant singer Rob Halford and released 2005’s album Angel Of Retribution, it opened up a new chapter for the metal icons. But nobody could have predicted their next move would be to make a sprawling, ambitious double album about 16th century prophet Nostradamus. But when Rob Halford, Glenn Tipton and then-guitarist KK Downing sat down with Metal Hammer in 2008, they couldn’t have predicted that the album would divide critics and fans alike.

Overblown. Ludicrous. Camp. No metal band in history has ever had such qualities in such vast abundance as Judas Priest – and that’s meant as a huge compliment. Nearly 40 years into their illustrious career, the Birmingham Barons of Bombast are still among the genre’s elite – at once both inspirational and challenging.

Never afraid to take risks, both musical and personal, Priest have embraced changing times, yet always remained a steadfast reminder of great traditions. But their new album, Nostradamus… a metal opera? Surely, they’ve stepped off the precipice, and are about to try walking on air? A plummet is inevitable… Or is it?

“We never think that we’re gonna fail,” insists guitarist KK Downing. “After finishing the Angel Of Retribution tour, there were those who said to us, ‘So what are you gonna do now?’ As if they thought we had nothing left to offer. So, what have we done? A concept album. It’s over 100 minutes long, on two CDs and three vinyl records… A ‘fuck you’ to all those who thought Priest were past it!”

Nostradamus is an exhaustive metal adventure, based on the life and works of the legendary 16th-century astrologer and alleged seer (Nostradamus never referred to himself as a prophet), a man whose fame rings down through the centuries, because of supposed predictions such as the rise of Adolf Hitler, the 9/11 attack and even the death of Diana, Princess Of Wales. In terms of subject matter and the musical approach, Priest’s 16th studio album is so grandiose and portentous it makes Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime seem restrained.

“Anyone who knows us is aware that we’ve wanted to do a concept album for years, but could never get it nailed,” reveals vocalist Rob Halford. “You could say that Painkiller had sonically connected songs. So did Sad Wings Of Destiny and Screaming For Vengeance. But in no way could you call any of these concept pieces. What we needed was a subject that triggered the band to do something very different. This is it!”

Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Glenn Tipton onstage in 2009

Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Glenn Tipton onstage in 2009 (Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

The idea was suggested by manager Bill Curbishley, a man not unused to conceptual pieces as he also represents The Who of Tommy and Quadrophenia fame. And Nostradamus appealed mightily to KK, Rob, guitarist Glenn Tipton, bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis.

“I don’t pretend it’s an original concept,” admits Glenn. “There have been records done before around him. But these have been about his prophecies. What we’ve done here is to concentrate on this man’s life. That of itself is very interesting, and not as well known as his predictions. But he had tragedy, losing his wife and daughter to the plague. And the more we found out, the more we thought this was the way we should go.

“Nostradamus is an amazing figure in history. The man’s been dead for 500 years, and yet everyone knows his name. It doesn’t matter if you believe in his prophecies, the fact is that he’s a major figure.

“When you actually look into his personal history – and we did this through books and the internet – you come to the realisation that he had so much in common with metal bands of today. He was rejected by society, was hounded by the religious authorities and had problems with his family – does all that sound familiar? How many times have you heard that sort of thing from musicians in metal? But he always stuck to his guns, and kicked back at everyone. That’s the way we’ve always felt, and so we could easily relate to him.”

Priest didn’t set out to make this a massive project, but rather to capture the essence of the man and his works. However, the serendipity of the moment, and the breadth of the project, created its own time warp. 

“The first day that Glenn, KK and myself got together to write at Glenn’s house, everything just flowed. It was incredible,” recalls Rob. “The ideas and music literally poured out. We got locked into our own little world.”

“What we’ve done is to move beyond metal,” surprises Glenn. “There are so many musical ideas here that expand our horizons. That’s not to say we’ve abandoned metal, because Judas Priest would never do that. However, as we get older, so we embrace new, different ideas. There are actually a lot of tracks here which are musical interludes, holding the songs together. They give this an ebb and flow which is an important part of the whole journey.”

Listening closely to the album, one assumes that the band brought in an orchestra, or at least a string section, such are the intricacies of the arrangements. Not so, insists KK – it’s all the band’s own work.

“Everything you hear and believe to be an orchestra is actually Glenn and/or me on guitar and keyboards. But you think about it: take a metal guitar riff and play it on cello, it sounds classical, right? So that’s the mood we tried to invest in the album, to get as close as possible to the sort of sounds which Nostradamus himself would have heard when he was alive.

“People have always put us down, called us a one-trick pony, claimed that if we took off the studs, all you’d be left with is a very ordinary band with a few bad riffs. Ha! I think on Nostradamus we’ve shown there’s so much more to Priest and what we do.”

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It has to be admitted that, while Judas Priest are among the cornerstones of the metal world as we know it today – the band who virtually invented the genre, in fact – they have never received the same attention as others. People often ignore the fact that this is a five-piece who never stood still, but always stared down the norm of any era. The reality is that, while Nostradamus is perhaps their most extreme album to date, nonetheless it fits into their unique vision and approach, one they’ve employed since their second album, the aforementioned Sad Wings Of Destiny in 1976.

“You think about the Turbo album from 1986 [when the band brought synthesizers into their world], that got panned at the time,” says Glenn. “Everyone thought it was a huge mistake. But now, when we play songs from that record live, they go down so well. Everyone just needed time to realise what we were doing. It would be so easy to go out and make Painkiller again and again, but is there any point? We have to keep moving on.”

Of course, Priest have been constantly cited by young bands as crucially influential. Yet anyone who feels that this is a band who look at the current scene and adapt accordingly is likely to get a good verbal kicking. They never follow…

“Everything comes from within,” remarks Glenn. “We’ve never taken notice of others and thought, ‘This is the direction we should be taking.’ I’m delighted there are a lot of metal bands now playing long songs, more power to Machine Head and their like. But we’d be doing this sort of thing whatever the prevailing trend.”

“I’ll admit there are now bands who sell more records and tickets than us,” sighs KK. “But you know what? We are the originals. We’ve stuck to Priest principles throughout our career, and never wavered. We are the true pioneers of metal. That’s not me saying it, I get told this all the time. And look at our audiences – there are so many kids out there who sing along to even the guitar parts of songs like Dissident Aggressor. But they weren’t even born when we recorded these! It gives us a kick to know that each generation getting into metal discovers Judas Priest. We might now be in our 50s, but put us on a stage and we still have the energy to run around like teenagers.”

Judas Priest’s Rob Halford in 2009

(Image credit: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Right now, Priest are on a lengthy world tour, one that takes them through to the end of the year, with ideas in place for a major British trek in 2009 when they’ll be doing eight to 10 shows. However, there’s a greater dream currently fuelling the fires, namely to perform the whole of the new album onstage.

“It’s a plan, not a certainty,” claims Glenn. “And it will depend on how well the record goes down. In this day and age, when attention spans are so low, we’ve dared to make a genuine album, one that you have to listen to from start to finish – you can’t just dip in and out, otherwise you miss the subtlety and depth present throughout. That of itself is a brave move – or even a stupid one. You can imagine the shock our label had when they realised this was such a big project. Do we want to do it live? Yes.”

“I’d say it’s almost definite that we will take this further,” believes Rob. “You have to appreciate this is more than a record. We want the chance to create something special onstage, to turn Nostradamus into an event, the like of which nobody in the metal world has ever seen. If things fit in as they should, then we will do this next year at some stage.”

For Priest, a band who always strive to be different, the opportunity of doing an authentically artistic presentation is one that drives them forward. Nostradamus has seemingly taken over their lives, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Listen to Rob’s lyrics – they should win a Grammy,” bellows a clearly emotional KK. “Listen to the music – isn’t it stunning? How could you expect us to just slot it into a two-year touring cycle, and then move on? So, we want the chance to put this onstage, with a massive theatrical production, to do the sort of thing that the metal world will talk about for years. The idea would be to do it in the sort of prestigious venues where you wouldn’t expect to see a band like us: the Royal Albert Hall, Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall in New York. We might use an orchestra for some dates, and anyone who’s seen our massive stage sets will appreciate how much we put into the visuals. And to do Nostradamus might be our ultimate challenge. It could be anything we want: a musical, a movie – or,” laughs KK, “this is all a dream, and the record just falls on its arse. The beauty of it is, anything could happen.”

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So determined were the band to give the groundbreaking album a genuine chance of making an impact that they shrouded the recording process in total secrecy, protecting their ‘newborn’ to a degree that bordered on paranoia. Glenn, though, sees this as a logical step to take in an era when internet leaks are almost unavoidable.

“We didn’t want bits to come out before we were ready. Sure, we posted the title track up for fans to get a taste. But we tried to avoid the whole album getting out before everyone could see how lavish everything connected with the project actually is – even the packaging on the record is important to us. Some might say it’s paranoia, I’d say it’s artists being proud of their art. People who leak records and allow others to get their music for free are doing no service to the bands or fans. We’re all losers in the long run. You may disagree, but they’re sounding the death of new music. In the end, bands will just give up on recording and creating.”

All of which leaves one final question: did Nostradamus predict that the Priest would make an album about him?

“Ha! Not sure about that,” concludes KK. “But if he did, perhaps he also predicted how well it would sell. If so, someone let us know what he said. Ultimately though, we’re proud of this achievement; I believe it will bring people who’ve grown disillusioned with metal back to the cause.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 181


Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021