"Breathing The Fumes Of Fires That They Ignite..."
In late 1997 Judas Priest prepared to bounce back after several years of absence from the forefront of heavy metal. Vocalist Rob Halford had left the band after a year of uncertainty in 1993. By that point the band had released a double compilation "Metal Works" and promoted it with a video and several interviews. In 1993 the writing process between guitarists K.K.Downing and Glenn Tipton had already begun and pair was optimistic that results – with or without Rob Halford – would be retaining the classic Priest standard and again developing it further. As usual with record companies, the release of a compilation album often marked the end of band's tenure with that particular label. So was the case with Judas Priest as Columbia/CBS had morphed into larger conglomerate under Sony. Soon after Columbia released Priest from its contract and band members pondered their future without their charismatic lead vocalist of 20 years.
After spending close to a year-and-a-half without a suitable singer to replace Halford, things were looking dim for the remaining members of Priest. The state of heavy metal was changing and many of the bands representing classic heavy metal were forced to downscale their tours and get used to diminishing record sales. In the meantime grunge had taken over the world and while its impact was lessening year after year, the echoes of it in mid-1990's were still felt strong. In the heavy metal field groups like Pantera, Machine Head and Fear Factory were the new leaders of the pack. With no new releases and internet to keep the momentum going, Priest were all but gone from the public eye through the years 1994 to 1996.
Despite the absence from live stages and worldwide media, Priest were keeping themselves busy writing and preparing new material, working on new record deal and establishing their own label Priest Music Ltd. Glenn Tipton also recorded two albums worth of solo material, first of them released few months before Judas Priest's return to action.
The band had already formed their own label but needed international deals to get the new music out around the world. With the state of traditional heavy metal being somewhat troubling Priest instead of major label went for three independent labels: Zero Corporation in Japan, Steamhammer/SPV in Europe and CMC International in the US.
With their new record, Priest had a lot to follow up as their previous album "Painkiller" was a tour de force of heavy and speed metal. It was perfectly on the edge, a record that delivered right thing at exactly the right time. However, during the following seven years, the world of heavy metal had changed drastically. In 1997 the new wave of power metal was just starting to gear up strength and classic heavy metal would return to spot light soon after that. Metal of course never went away, excellent classic sounding records were released just like before, and it was just the exposure that seemed to vanish during the grunge-years.
In October 1997, Judas Priest released "Jugulator" – their first album to feature new vocalist, 30-year old Tim "Ripper" Owens from Akron, Ohio. It was also the first Priest studio album in whole of seven years. Ripper had been recruited to the band in early 1996, and the new record deal and the album's title had been announced at the same time. All the music for "Jugulator" had been written by the time Ripper joined the band. However, an extensive work still needed to be done on the song arrangements in order to adapt them to Owens' voice. His vocals were more aggressive and dry compared to his predecessor's so the approach from songwriters needed to be somewhat different as well.
While observing the changes and what was going around in heavy metal music during the late 1990's, Priest were also able to channel their negative feelings caused by Halford's departure into brutal nature of the music. All of which was brilliantly supported by Owens' powerful delivery. Glenn Tipton summed up the difference that took place between "Painkiller" and "Jugulator": "You must remember two albums went missing between 1990 and "Jugulator." To us, it's not the huge leap that some people see it as."
The album was produced by Tipton, Downing and Sean Lynch, who had previously worked as an engineer and mixer for Black Sabbath, Brian May and Graham Bonnet among others. It was also the first Priest studio album since "British Steel" to be recorded in their home country, England. While sonically the record was a reflection of its time, the core of the record still sounded British in traditional heavy metal form. A good touch as the band was now having two Americans in their line-up.
When fans slid "Jugulator" (the first Priest album fully immersed as a CD version, although it was also released as an LP which at that time was a dying format) into the player, the mixed emotions were fully understandable. After "Painkiller" the band had taken several steps towards brutality. Admittedly "Brain Dead" and "Dead Meat" were songs tough to swallow for hardcore Priest fans, but in changing musical climate it most likely brought the band some new fans as well. And it is always good to remind that despite the versatile approach, Priest were never anything else than heavy metal. It's just that their brand of heavy metal carried a wide scope.
With "Jugulator," a listening experience is a relentless ride through the dark and heavy roads towards records final tenth song "Cathedral Spires" that is a Judas Priest epic in its purest, graceful form. A beautiful and yet crushing closure to the album.
"Cathedral Spires" starts off slowly with guitars carrying a semi-beautiful melody that sounds also menacing and sinister as the inevitable resolution draws near. Two guitars play a different combination of chords and riffs, enhanced by down tuned arrangement. On the intro part, Ripper uses his impressive lower register for the first and only time on this album. His voice carries a more than passing resemblance to Alice In Chains' late Layne Staley. Right from the beginning his voice is doubled with Ripper also singing backgrounds, back-ups are then let go during key moments and phrases such as the end of first theme. The emotion throughout the first lingering seconds is cold, melancholic, painting a picture of frozen wasteland after nuclear holocaust. Guitar and bass playing during this introduction are top notch, creating a landscape that listener can fully form in his mind.
At 0:25 first guitar lick is introduced weeping underneath the chords and later on during Ripper's vocals on intro part. At 1:20 Ripper shows off with extremely loud "breathing the fumes of fires that they ignite." For the first time one awakens to really notice the sinister threat moving towards the surface. Owens really pushes his register on the word "breathing" with very impressive change of scales. Quiet part rapidly descends into hard hitting riff with Ripper's blood curdling final line "the end has come!"
The verse begins with down tuned riff and guitar licks. After 2:30 Scott Travis plays brilliantly through the pounding rhythm part. Verse kicks in with menace, Ripper spitting out the lyrics in threatening fashion quickly running towards the awaiting chorus, which is master class in the highest level.
The chorus evokes a feeling of a choir outside a black cathedral when the world is literally ending. The chills are real. At the beginning of the chorus the music also gets noticeably louder for a second or two, phasing the swift change in pace. Two quick chords just before chorus introduce this, proof for anyone that the classic Priest trademarks are fully present and audible on the record. The chorus which follows is undoubtedly the best on the album. Vocal melodies are excellent and guitars also switch sound here, almost coming through like keyboards before heavy verse riff kicks off again.
During chorus, the changes in vocal dimensions on the last shout for "cathedral spires!" must have been difficult to pull even in studio and not many live singers are simply able to do this kind of thing live on stage these days. In an era of amazing heavy metal vocalists we take these things for granted, but nailing down this track must have required careful planning and hard work. The backing vocal grunts and falsetto ending on word "spires!" are great examples of Owens' mastery.
Arguably the best guitar riff on the whole record begins at 2:29. It sounds both of its time and Black Sabbath-like at the same take. The down tuning here is a bit of a two-edged sword, no doubt it works but one wonders what could be done with more traditional Priest guitar sound. Regardless in 1997 this was a genuine proof of Priest's ability to stay at top of the times. Certainly they were not stuck in a rut.
Guitars get back to older style during chorus. The music herein now switches onto something completely different. The versatility and variety of Judas Priest comes through the best here, where a sharp as steel verse is collided with a gentler, almost hymn-like chorus. And remember, it is not just the vocals and melody that act as counterparts, as the whole musical arrangement switches gears smoothly.
Note the doubled vocal part as Ripper sings "genocide all is lost." The high vocal is mixed lower than main mid-range vocal track; it seems the character is already screaming out for salvation despite remaining calm and collected on the surface.
Rhythm gets noticeably tighter from this moment onwards and listener picks up the excellent drum fills by Scott Travis at 3:58 and again after "doomsday upon us now"- part.
At 4:48 first guitar solo by Glenn lasts barely 15 seconds, unusually short for a song with such an epic nature. However, guitar solos on "Jugulator" clearly took on a different route throughout – instead of carrying a distinct melody or being another verse by a story teller (as is the case on many Priest classics), lead work tends to enhance the heavy, thrusting landscape with similar effect as drums. They are in essence only supporting the general arrangement. At the time of "Jugulator's" release, guitar solos and guitar heroes in general were suffering inflation so maybe this was the perfect answer for that. Regardless, one doesn't miss any 2-minute leads here as solos support the on-going thread very nicely as they are.
After Glenn's solo ends in series of distorted sounds Ripper belts out "we are no more, ascend!" with brutally awesome power. A second solo follows this immediately at 5:16, K.K. playing first part underneath Ripper's devastating scream. This lead is also very brief, another 15 seconds of chaotic notes strengthening the view of a world coming to a full stop. The riffage beginning at 5:34 is pure Black Sabbath, with Pantera-influences thrown in. This fusion of styles works well here. The slow part returns before the 6-minute mark but is brief with an effect signalling the return of main guitar riff. Note the very audible bass lick at 6:19; these instances showing off Ian's playing are rare but always effective when used within right context.
From 6:50 onwards K.K. seriously punishes the whammy bar for a short while before guitar prelude to final chorus parts. Pantera-styled rhythm guitar slices through with incredible heaviness. At 7-minute mark the ultra-heavy riff is quickly contrasted by a choir singing a variation of earlier chorus theme. This contrast between heavy riffs and melodies on top of them is striking. Guitars cry or more accurately scream giving out the feeling of trapped souls asking for help that never comes.
The final lines have Ripper again singing in full high falsetto. This provides an interesting counterpoint for choirs and lasts roughly 20 seconds. The song abruptly climaxes at 8:30 with a huge chime and guitars coming crashing down. The last chord is left ringing for 40 seconds before the album ends in fade-out of darkness and a feeling of isolation, after being first assaulted by fusion of exploding riffs and ballad- like coldness. For a long time Priest fan, regardless of what went on before, it was a dark but very positive ending to the long awaited new album.
All in all there's a lot happening in this complex, yet somehow gripping number.
At the centre of "Cathedral Spires" Ripper Owens gives one of his greatest vocal performances, not just within the realms of Judas Priest but throughout his whole career. And that is no mean feat considering his equally rip roaring performance on Iced Earth's "Ten Thousand Strong" and his astounding take on Priest's classic "Diamonds And Rust" found on "Live Meltdown '98" disc. It further goes to prove he was really given free reins to show off his versatility which he had in spades. The way he moves between low and high registers on "Cathedral Spires" is nothing short of astounding. The rest of the musicianship is also top-notch on this recording, guitars shredding mercilessly and rhythm work is once again very impressive.
The song's lyrics due to popular definition, deal with the end of the world. Haunting, cold war feeling of the song is both a part of its era and what came before. Generally on this album Glenn Tipton's lyrics lacked Rob Halford's dynamics, and often veered towards fantasy realm of monsters and absurdity. There are plenty of examples throughout "Jugulator" starting with the title track. However, "Cathedral Spires" takes on a different route. This song is one of those that could very well have also been a success with Rob, although Ripper does make the song his own. And let's not forget characters such as "Night Crawler" and "Leather Rebel" appeared already on "Painkiller," albeit in somewhat more sophisticated form.
Later on, there have been interpretations describing the thread of "Jugulator" as a story of mankind's sins leading up to the judgement day. Starting with the emergence of "Jugulator" in the title track, it then goes through man's various sins via the eight other tracks. The circle finally completes and brings about the end in "Cathedral Spires." In light of this, the concept of the album becomes more vivid and opens up new dimensions in regards of its song writing.
Most of the material on "Jugulator" travelled on similar brutal paths such as the title track and "Dead Meat." They even revisited the original themes of "Invader" on "Abductors" about alien kidnappings. This of course is representing another sign of world's inevitable demise. "Cathedral Spires" follows the album's first radio track, "Bullet Train" and its appropriate lyric: "near at death's door".
At the beginning we are already suffering the conclusion of the final event. With first verses the canvas of a large, cold cathedral become clearer every second. One can picture the storyteller literally climbing the stairs slowly in the darkness. The opening lines "They have blown away the daylight hours we had" make the case quite clear. The world has now sunk into darkness by either nuclear devastation or simply a judgement day. Question is – like with many other Priest songs in their catalogue – who exactly are "they?" Politicians, armies, terrorists or maybe aliens? The answer is left to speculation. Whoever they are, it is the classic story of tyranny reaching its zenith here.
Possibly current generation has burned the planet and left a "deadly aftermath" for mankind to survive from. This point of view is further enhanced via fumes of fires that are ignited and observation that "we shall never see another setting sun." A storyteller warns the end is coming and there's nothing left to do but to rise up. Not only figuratively but very realistically up the stairs of the cathedral.
As the song progresses it becomes clear this particular cathedral is not only a heaven (or more accurately, hell) but an actual haven, an ark for those few saved can retreat and watch their world burn to ashes below. Whether this ark is something mankind has built in preparation for judgement day (similar action is taken on recent "2012" movie) is never made clear. Regardless, the emotions felt through music and lyrics are chilling.
The heavier parts describe the inferno quite accordingly but also refer to hell that is waiting in "darkness above." Later mankind's debauchery is fuelled by corruption and corrosion, and no god is left to save the world from destruction. "Time to rise up and retire" is a rather blunt look at death and the afterlife but the message at this point is certainly put across. The final chorus lines give that feeling of impending doom. In its bleak atmosphere, "Cathedral Spires" brings to mind some of Priest 1970's masterpieces such as "Sinner" and "Dreamer Deceiver" that covered similar issues – not something very obvious but check out those themes again and a parallel can certainly be drawn.
After examining the lyrics more, it seems the character (mankind) is making a journey through the spires both physically and spiritually. First we are up amongst the clouds and later at the end already above them. Chorus has protagonist declaring "we're so tired." This particular line sums up the emotion left after the song is completed; even listener is worn out by the sheer weight of what's gone before. Not just the last song, but the whole album. On "Cathedral Spires" music and lyrics are perfectly forming a picture together and taking a listener through a visual journey. A Judas Priest trademark if there ever was one.
"Jugulator" was originally announced in 1996, but among other things the record distribution deals delayed it until the end of 1997. The band also wanted to make sure their first effort after lengthy absence and a change of vocalist would be spot-on.
A major label would not support a straight head heavy metal band like Judas Priest, or at least not support them like they should be supported. So the band opted for three smaller labels for distribution.
After its release "Jugulator" got positive reviews around the world. Some accused Priest of following the current metal trend and the album being essentially Machine Head with higher pitched vocals. But most surprisingly the general reaction from the press was positive. This was surprising since most of the 1980's bands (and twice more for the bands originating from the 1970's) got a slamming regardless of what they were releasing. "Jugulator" however, got some good reviews from bigger metal publications such as Metal Hammer, who awarded the album eight stars out of ten:
"In Tim Ripper Owens the Midlands metal veterans have unearthed a diamond. Owens fits like a glove, equally at home with low, death metal growls or piercing Halford-esque screams, he delivers the likes of "Blood Stained" and "Bullet Train" with consummate ease. K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton's dense, detuned riffing and solos takes them further down the road iniated by 1990's "Painkiller." "Jugulator" is a damn fine comeback."
In spite of mixed reactions from the fans, the album did fairly well, even collecting a Grammy nomination for the single "Bullet Train." "Jugulator" sold nicely in Japan, Germany and the U.K. More work was required to re-establish Priest in the States. With an official Judas Priest website online, the internet played a big role in helping get things promoted, but it would be touring again that would really get the fans back in the fold. Priest toured smaller theatres throughout 1998; somewhat unusually the album had been out for over four months before the first show took place in the States.
"Cathderal Spires" strangely enough, went unnoticed by a lot reviews. More space was given on the songs played on radio such as "Bullet Train" and "Burn In Hell." "Blood Stained" was another song used to describe the whole sound of the record. With "Jugulator" most fans and critics concentrated on the first nine songs that more or less thrived on heaviness and brutality. So it might not be surprising a song with epic portions Priest had not attempted on "Painkiller," would get overlooked.
Clocking at 9:12 it is the longest song on the album and was the longest recorded track by the band until 2005 when the previously dissected "Loch Ness" was released on the album "Angel of Retribution." That one of course would be running for more than 13 minutes. The epic song writing in the vein of "Cathedral Spires" referenced back towards 1970's, songs that were the essence of Judas Priest's music. The light and shade of such tracks as "Victim Of Changes" and "Run Of The Mill." As incredible as it may seem, those traces are right there on "Cathedral Spires" and of course would resurface even stronger on 2008's grandiose "Nostradamus."
Many have also drawn comparisons to previously mentioned 2005's "Loch Ness" that carries a similar haunting, isolated mark. Both songs have epic nature and also sound wise are close in places; as noted when listening to both back to back. Although not duly noted by the critics in late 1990's, this song has remained an underground classic amongst the Priest fans. It is the undeniable highlight of "Jugulator" and one of the essential Priest epics.
"Jugulator" and "Cathedral Spires" may not be the first names new metal bands mention as their main inspiration but their melting of mid-1990's metal and traditional Judas Priest trademarks has still greatly influenced younger generation. For example, Savage Messiah's recent "Insurrection Rising" album has similar threads, and a song like "In Absence Of Liberty" soars in same majestic fashion as "Cathedral Spires." Plus one can detect a clear Priest influence from guitar riffs and pounding rhythm work.
The song perfectly captures what was best in Priest's epic song writing at this time, the light and shade, the incredible beauty combined with ear splitting heaviness and brutality. Then again, that has always remained the core of Metal Gods' music. It was apparently held in high regard amongst the band themselves. At the time of its release "Cathedral Spires" was Ripper's favourite track and he also held on to hope it would get its chance before a live audience: "I'd like to do "Cathedral Spires." A lot of harmonies there – that's another thing. That would be a fun to do night after night."
Unfortunately while Priest did include up to five tracks from the current album, "Cathedral Spires" was left off the set. A lot of it was naturally down to its length. With Priest having been gone from live stages for several years, it was obvious fans both old and new were also eager to hear the old classics.
After the release of 2001's "Demolition" Ripper was again asked to comment on whether "Cathedral Spires" would ever make it to band's set list: "Right now we can't (play the track). The song is tuned down to maybe "C". And, obviously, there are some notes at the end of the song that I couldn't hit all of the time. There are some notes. . . I always call it my black lady wail, 'cause you can just hear that big, fat, black lady wailing away on that high note. I always tell my wife that that is a hard one to hit. We play tuned down to "D" in concert. People wonder why we tune the old songs down, well here's the reason: We try to play everything in the same tune. It helps out with some of the old songs, 'cause they sound heavier. But, unfortunately, some of the new songs are tuned up. "Cathedral Spires" would have to come up to "D," and there's just no way I can do that. We'd have to use different guitars or something. We do "Hell is Home" in concert, and it is in "C." I have to tune it up. I first told them I didn't think I could sing it, but you can get away with it. I could probably do "Cathedral Spires" live, but it is tough."
Ripper hasn't performed this song during his solo shows either, opting to go for more straight forward route with "Burn In Hell" and "One On One." Not too many of the "Jugulator" songs and its 2001 follow-up "Demolition" have been performed live since the original tours in any form. But as mentioned before, the faithful reprocessing of "Cathedral Spires" live might be an impossible task and some songs may be best left that way.
Not much of course has been discussed on these albums since Halford's triumphant return to the band, but they do have a solid fan base and over 10 years later it is worth returning to these discs for re-evaluation. "Jugulator" may be the one Priest album that time forgot, but it is suggested everyone re-checks its closing strains; the spine chilling "Cathedral Spires."
With acknowledgements: Judas Priest Info Pages