It’s a great time to be a heavy metal fan. A new Golden Age. Or a Silver Age, maybe.
This might not be a new development — it might be a decade old. But it didn’t hit me until last night, when I joined maybe 4,000 others in watching the 2014 incarnation of Judas Priest at Allentown’s new PPL Center.
Forty-one years after its first album, and 20 or so past its greatest mainstream success, the veteran British metal band is once again on the road to support a new record.
I’ve never been a huge fan, but a free ticket beckoned, so I decided to go just for yucks and see what happened.
Having grown up in the ’80s, I remembered Priest’s original glory days — and all the nonsense that surrounded heavy metal as it elbowed its way to mainstream prominence in those years:
– AC/DC (who are more hard rock than metal, but would have been lumped in with metal by casual ’80s observers) were tenuously and rather unfairly linked to the crimes of rapist and murderer Richard “the Night Stalker” Ramirez.
– Ozzy Osbourne was staggering around under a cloud of alleged Satanism (with songs like “Mr. Crowley” in his recent past), as well as a pair of well-publicized incidents in which he bit the heads off a dove (at a meeting of record industry executives) and a bat (at a concert). He was also sued for allegedly encouraging the suicide of a young fan through his music.
– Tipper Gore cherry-picked some of metal’s lewdest moments as part of her Parents Music Resource Center campaign against violent and overly sexualized music. (In the long run, the PMRC’s greatest contribution to the world would be to turn the otherwise forgettable W.A.S.P. into short-term superstars.)
– Priest was also sued for allegedly using hidden messages to encourage the suicide attempts of two young men in 1985. The suit, like Ozzy’s, was dismissed.
That was metal in the ’80s — marginalized, demonized, and not heard all that often on the radio, except when the likes of Priest stumbled into a Big Chorus (viz. “Livin’ After Midnight”) or the likes of Quiet Riot made conscious attempts to court an audience with borrowed shout-alongs.
That Public Enemy Number One status was still better than what awaited the music in the Nineties, when the Great Grunge Revolution rendered everything reeking of arena-rock passe and undesirable. Headbanging, horn-throwing and drum-riser jumping were suddenly actions to be undertaken with tongue firmly in cheek.
Watching Priest in 2014 — from the comfort of a corporate suite — it felt easy and right to believe that the froth had boiled off.
Priest and their cohorts have survived both demonization and mockery. What’s left is craft and a solid core of identity. They know who they are and what they do. And, given a level playing field at last, they can still serve it up.
Their fans appear to have matured with them. There were no visible fights, nor any smoke to speak of, legal or otherwise. The old image of a hard-rock concert as a cesspool of drugs, beer and male aggression was nowhere to be seen. (Perhaps twentysomething metal bands, with correspondingly younger fans, still have this problem.)
Given heavy metal’s longstanding image for ultra-hetero “retarded sexuality and bad poetry” (thank you, Marty DiBergi), it’s also worth noting that Priest frontman Rob Halford came out as gay many years ago, and it appears to affect his relationship with his fans not in the slightest. Most of them stood for the entire show, eagerly engaging in call-and-response; and when he nodded, bestowing his approval on the faithful, the solidarity hung thick in the air.
Kinda like dry ice. Speaking of which: Yes, Judas Priest still engages in the stage schtick we’ve come to expect from metal bands.
They climb up on the drum riser, and headbang in unison, and wave their instruments around like axes. Halford still rides a Harley-Davidson onstage before “Hell Bent For Leather,” while lead guitarist Richie Faulkner gets time for a long, indulgent solo.
But, really, what band doesn’t do some equivalent of that?
Picture a performer in your mind — a power-pop band in skinny ties, or a blues guitarist pulling every-lick-is-a-gut-stab Guitar Faces, or a hip-hop MC, or a college-rock/indie singer — and they’ll all have certain performance tics you expect from them. Except for the dopey oversexed mike-stand grind (not part of Halford’s repertoire, for what it’s worth), metal bands don’t have much more to apologize for than any other acts.
All of which is not to say I became a raving Priest fan overnight. Halford’s voice, while still strong, can be grating on its high end.
And some of their songs seem constructed, not for lyrics or melody, but simply as lengthy temples to the crunch of a Flying V run through a glowing set of tubes. (It’s a nice place to worship — I’ve been on my knees there myself — but unless you’re a rabid loyalist, it doesn’t hold up as well as songcraft does over time.)
The old guard of hard rock and heavy metal may not have much time to enjoy the current equilibrium. Some of the veteran campaigners are disappearing. Ronnie James Dio is gone, for instance, and AC/DC recently lost guitarist Malcolm Young to dementia. Others, like Priest’s retired guitarist K.K. Downing, have simply tired of the business (or their bandmates) and stepped away.
But those who are up to the grind can still find a satisfying reward in the state of metal in 2014.
There’s nothing to prove and no charges to dodge … just a few thousand people in any given town with the music in their blood.
And on a good night, that’s enough to win over even a deadheading skeptic in a corporate box.