"Directionless" is an apt description of Judas Priest's sound since the late '80s. As the band dealt with the departure of vocalist Rob Halford and flirted with stylistic experiments in various attempts to keep up with the times, they all but abandoned the steamroller attack that made them legends. To be fair, Halford's post-Priest projects have been no less schizophrenic, but they've also occasionally been more rewarding, as he seems to have an innate grasp of how to harness metal's most explosive bombast in a perfectly reductionist way. (Halford's Resurrection album was as close as either camp got to nailing the classic Priest sound, but even that album was more "good enough" than good.)
Thus, expectations were muted for Angel of Retribution, the first album with Halford since Painkiller, the 1990 attempt at speed-metal modernism. After all, it was possible that the band might have thought their fans wanted a Priest album that updated the group's sound. Wisely, they realized that the last thing anyone wanted was a challenging, trailblazing adventure in contemporary metal. (Perhaps they also realized that such an adventure was something they were simply incapable of embarking upon.) What we fans wanted, after 15 years of waiting, was another goddamned Judas Priest record that rocked as mightily as the others. And that's exactly what we got.
Fully aware that Halford's return to the Priest fold is a momentous metal event, guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing put down their copies of Nu-Metal for Dummies long enough to write a batch of classic-sounding Priest songs. Judas Priest, during the halcyon days, was about four things: 1) metaphorically limited lyrics sung in inhumanly high registers, 2) simplistically pounding riffage that permitted the two guitarists to sway in tandem, 3) a thudding 4/4 rhythm section that allowed for maximum headbanging, and 4) for those of us who pored endlessly over the liner notes, guitar "breaks" that switched from speaker to speaker, depending on who was playing at the moment.
Though Halford apparently took this recipe with him when he split, it seems the magical fifth ingredient is the lineup. As hard as it is to reconcile the band's rebellious, Hellion/ Metallian imagery with the actual ages of the members (Priest's first album came out in 1974, which means these guys are old), it's clear that the music on Angel of Retribution could have only been made by this particular group. It's equally clear that Angel luxuriates in an in-the-pocket comfort that comes from musicians who are completely at ease with the strictures of their own style.
For the generation of metal fans who have only felt Judas Priest's impact secondhand via bands like Pantera and Iced Earth, Angel of Retribution may sound retro, if not positively restrained. But if other bands with a 30-year history made recordings this invigorated and in line with their legacy, the current musical landscape might be a lot less depressing.
From the very concept of Angel the sequel to the first Halford-helmed album, Sad Wings of Destiny (1975) everything about it ties it into Judas Priest's past. Nothing reaches the manic, speed-metal-inspired frenzy of Painkiller (although the double kick-drum tempo of "Demonizer" tries); its makers are sticking with the anthemic metal that they codified. The album opens with the rumbling attack of "Judas Rising," a tune that's undeniably heavy, but also undeniably midtempo, then smoothly segues into the somewhat faster "Deal With the Devil" (a rhythmic rocker with verses that would have been at home on British Steel and fist-pumping choruses that wouldn't have been out of place on Defenders of the Faith). Despite the turgid, melodramatic ballad "Angel" (given its title and lyrical references to "sad wings," it seems to want to be the album's thematic centerpiece) and the utter failure of closer "Lochness" (in which we learn that even Judas Priest can't make a 13-minute song about a fake monster seem cool), this is the by-the-numbers crowd-pleaser the metal world wanted when it got served the synthetic Turbo instead.
Fifteen years is a long time to hold a grudge, and, with Angel of Retribution, it looks like Priest is asking our forgiveness for their sins.