When Judas Priest released their second album, Sad Wings of Destiny, they had everything to prove and even more to gain. The year was 1976, and the young musicians from Birmingham, England, were living in the dark shadow of their musically mediocre and commercially irrelevant debut, Rocka Rolla. In addition to dwelling in relative anonymity, they were in danger of being dropped by their nearly bankrupt label. All of that was soon to change.
Sad Wings of Destiny, an epic and cutting-edge disc, featured the classic songs "Victim of Changes" and "The Ripper" and helped set the tone not only for the group's future offerings, but for the future of metal as well.
Nearly 30 years later, Judas Priest find themselves in a similar position to the one they were in just before Sad Wings hit shelves. The group's last two albums, 1997's Jugulator and 2001's Demolition — both of which featured singer Tim "Ripper" Owens — suffered from disappointing sales, and the band seemed in danger of being relegated to the where-are-they-now file. Then, longtime frontman Rob Halford returned after a 12-year absence (see "Back In Black Studded Leather: Halford Rejoins Priest"), and Priest headed into the studio to record their glorious comeback album (see "Judas Priest Have No Problem 'Letting The Metal Roar Out' On New LP").
It makes sense then that the artwork for Angel of Retribution depicts the angel from the cover of Sad Wings of Destiny transformed into a gleaming metallic beast rising up to convert the masses with the thunderous cry of metal. In addition to marking Priest's rebirth, the album revisits past glories with various sonic footnotes. The muscular "Deal With the Devil" is reminiscent of "The Sentinel" from 1984's Defenders of the Faith, "Demonizer" is a blazing riff and double-bass drum workout that brings to mind 1990's "Painkiller," and the power anthem "Worth Fighting For" could have fit on 1979's Hell Bent for Leather alongside "Take on the World."
"It's got a little bit of everything," Halford said. "It's like some of the greatest moments of our career have suddenly come together on these songs. But that wasn't out of any attempt, it's just that the essence of the speed and thrust of these tracks are part of the stamp and tradition and heritage of Priest."
Which is, perhaps, a long-winded way of saying, Angel of Retribution — out March 1 — is kind of like a greatest-hits package of entirely new songs. Halford performs with a sense of purpose and belonging that he lacked in his bands Fight and Two, and guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing play with a hunger and energy they've been missing for over a decade, as if the return of their leader has instilled in them confidence and conviction they couldn't summon in his absence.
"We've got a writing formula with Rob that works, and we're very lucky we've got that," Tipton said. "We get riffs and musical ideas and structures and we all meet up with Rob, who has lyrical ideas and we kick the ideas around until the room lights up. Then we start again with another idea."
In addition to being aurally redolent of classic Judas Priest, Angel of Retribution includes numerous lyrics that remind listeners again and again where the band has come from and just how important it is. "Revolution," which shamelessly cops a Jane's Addiction riff, is about being at the forefront of the mid-'80s metal scene, "Eulogy" name-drops the band's seminal album Stained Class, and in just a few hair-raising minutes, "Deal With the Devil" recounts the entire history of the group's meteoric rise from poverty to stardom.
"So, how did we do it?" Halford asked rhetorically. "We say we made a deal with the devil. See, I love that, and I think it's hilarious. We're serious musicians, but we can still be Spinal Tap. You have to be, otherwise you lose your mind like other people have in rock and roll, whether it's Kurt Cobain or whoever."
While "Revolution" is the official first single from Angel of Retribution, the more commercial "Worth Fighting For" seems likely to fare better at radio. As premeditated as it sounds, Halford insisted the track surfaced pretty much by accident.
"We were just sitting there, and Glenn started playing this rolling riff, kind of like [Derek and the Dominos'] 'Layla.' So, I came up with this title 'Worth Fighting For,' and I thought, 'Well, what's worth fighting for?' And then I thought, 'Well, let me talk about relationships again.' And one thing led to another. That's pretty much how everything comes together for us."