The Fuel Of The Furnace pt. 15: Alone

“In years to come, you’ll hear my name …”

Origins

HISTORY of heavy metal concept records is varied and colourful one. In its path lie many great victories and epic failures. From 1970’s onwards and through the last couple of decades, there have been countless efforts especially in the symphonic and progressive metal genres to mould heavier music into grandiose scales of storytelling. Not many have successfully moved from a simple album format towards making complex storylines. Just ask Kiss, who bombed heavily with their “Music From The Elder” opus in 1981.

Judas Priest, albeit creating several records tied together with similar scope, sound and vision, never treated the similar path until 35 years into their career. Of course, records like “British Steel” were thematically told from the point of view of the same character, whereas “Turbo” was musically impressive step into the world of guitar synthesizers and sophisticated arrangements of mid-1980’s. However, none of these were concept albums specifically.

The tale of “Nostradamus” and its musical overtaking was explored at the “Nostradamus, The Man the Myth and The Music” article in Steel Mill around the time of the record’s release. To note, not many similar albums have seen the light of day after Priest unleashed this opus. Some might say the well of Nostradamus had ran dry, but with so many power and progressive metal bands heading down the path of epic concept albums, this theme was bound to suffer inflation.

Not only deciding to go for story telling route, Priest wrote and recorded enough material for a double album, for the second time in their career. However, for the first time they released the results as such. Recordings took place throughout 2007 and early 2008 and ran mostly smoothly as the group had eased in again with their definitive line-up. K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton dug out their synthesizer guitars for the first time since Twin Turbos -sessions over two decades prior. Keyboards also played prominent role, with Deep Purple’s Don Airey supplementing keys and orchestral arrangements. Pete Whitfield mixed real strings to the sound palette, which greatly added to dynamic essence of music. Downing and Tipton also produced the album themselves with “Painkiller”’s mixer Attie Bauw once again handling the final sonic tweaks in Amsterdam.

The album reached far back in Priest catalogue and not unlike 2005´s “Angel Of Retribution” pulled influences from all previous decades, mostly from 1970’s with strong echoes of “Sad Wings Of Destiny” and “Sin After Sin” spread throughout. This didn’t sit well with many late-coming Priest fans who thought the band started and ended with “Painkiller”. For that metal genre, Priest’s 1990 record defined an era and for band to try replicate it 18 years after the fact would have been pointless, not to mention certainly bound for failure. Instead they brought in subtle influences of 1986’s “Turbo”, epic grandiose of 1988’s “Ram It Down” and with “Death” and “War” there were shades of bands late 1990’s heavier output. Title track recalled “Painkiller” in its classic fury and with “Lost Love” and it’s obvious 1970’s influenced folk music Priest went almost to the other end of spectrum, sounding not too far from Ritchie Blackmore’s 21th century renaissance project Blackmore’s Night.

Rob Halford’s deeper vocals and core trio Tipton/Halford/Downing’s song writing however, lent itself well to amalgam of 1970’s and 2000’s influences. Rob even sang in Italian during the song “Pestilence And Plague” and also spoke French. This is not as unusual as one might first think, with vocalist having drawn inspiration from opera and Luciano Pavarotti in particular.

The epic tale of Nostradamus and orchestral overtones made the record a timeless venture, as always Priest set trends as opposed to following them. In 2008 even with progressive metal albums on the rise, there was virtually nothing out there resembling Nostradamus’ musical output. Tipton and Downing produced the album and as opposed to industrial tinged and over crammed metal that was dominating the air waves in 2008, sonically “Nostradamus” breathed more freely.

The track which we are dissecting here comes third on the second disc of the CD version. “Alone” originated from an earlier writing session by K.K. Downing and was possibly one of the contenders for “Angel Of Retribution” -album, In retrospect it is slightly easier to understand it having been discarded at the time, as the arrangement is more melodic than anything on the 2005 album. However, for “Nostradamus”, its classic aura was a perfect fit. Like many other tracks on the album “Alone” displays breath taking excellence in creating various mood shifts, dynamics in arrangement and individual performances. These become more obvious only after repeated listening. It seems clear the band spent considerable amount of time fine-tuning the material towards its final shape.

“Alone” stands very much in its own two feet with nothing else in vast Judas Priest back catalogue to compare it to. There are shades of 1970’s Priest output as well as on several other tracks on “Nostradamus” but the main arrangement is eerie in a way the band had never attempted before.

Unlike several other songs on the record, it is not preceded by a mood creating intro, beginning right after slower and darker “Exiled”. The song is introduced by string of guitar notes and quietly strengthening background effects. This sets the scene reaching for epic and desolate landscapes. Use of echo adds to atmosphere. At 0:36 K.K. joins in with quiet solo work, long-stretched notes reminding of seagulls crying out on a misty beach at the break of dawn.

Keyboards glide in gracefully straight from beginning, remaining in presence for most of the song. Most assumed Priest had brought in a string section or at least a full orchestra but in fact it was all done by Don Airey on keyboards plus K.K. and Glenn utilizing their trusted guitar synthesizers.

Rob begins singing using his by now very impressive low register. Keyboards take more prominent role while another acoustic guitar takes over as first chorus begins. Bass is also introduced at 1:10, overall sound is considerably louder than anything that has come across before, making listener tune in to what the singer is saying. This is another example of 35 years of recording mastery, fine-tuning a craft that is not conscious, yet moves listener in a very conscious way. It is attaching sentiments, thoughts and memories into notes. The song is not only telling a story, it is declaring emotion.

Drums kick in with restrained force at 1:36 and bass playing is more than revolutionary here with Ian Hill’s playing at forefront. More metal sounding guitar work is introduced after this, there’s a noticeable Zakk Wylde -inspired lick repeated for example at 1:39 and a minute later. There are even shades of Priest’s “Jugulator” -era here, although these come forward more prominently during the album closer “Future Of Mankind”.

Chorus contains some interesting shred-like guitar playing and here with drums, Scott Travis again demonstrates his ability for interesting fills. Otherwise song’s tempo and backbone are relatively straightforward. There is a great pulse-like quality in rhyming of words and vocals. Music supports the drive perfectly. Note the switch in tempo as Rob wails high-pitched “Left alone!”. At this point mood clearly changes with a threat of violence emerging.

Second chorus implements new background voices which lift the song into operatic spheres. There is a constant flow in arrangement, each part following another seamlessly. Bridge has Rob moving into angrier character. He sounds increasingly menacing on “darkness falls on judgement day”. Once again pay attention how music shifts beneath him affirming tighter grip on things. Halford’s vocals are also double tracked which further adds tension and draws listener in, speed is increasing but song has no trouble back pedalling when needed.

Ascension from bridge to lead break lasts merely three seconds but it is impressive, you can almost hear the musical gears switching again. Guitar solo by Glenn follows from 4:00 onwards and is divided into two parts, first one offering more traditional work for 15 seconds before backing down. Keyboards provide transition to second part which lasts roughly until 4:50, after this noticeably loud clear guitar strumming takes over.

During the second part of solo, lead guitar is kept unusually low in the mix but is given its own character once again. At 4:43 notes retort back crying out in some unfathomable pain. Ian’s bass on the other hand, is again very prominent here. Overall solo makes listener anxious and keeps him/her on the edge before more familiar sounds of verses and choruses pull faithful back from the brink. Although guitar feedback here lasts for only 20 seconds, it carries definite resonance. More than clear reference to 1977’s “Sin After Sin” and its most famous track “Sinner” in particular.

As we return to last verses there is a change in atmosphere again. Rob’s vocals during third verse differ from two previous ones with him now clearly straining with emotion. Choir of masses give impression of gigantic howls at 5:50. Towards the end Halford again unleashes several impressive shouts of “Alone!”, last one six seconds long. He rarely uses his legendary higher register on “Nostradamus” but when he does, listener instantly pays more attention. Vocal arrangement is nothing short of exceptional for this track.

For outro at 6:54 another solo passage follows featuring K.K. ripping away with his classic lead style, this adds to distressed atmosphere and outlook of the character who seems to be in agony and confusion throughout, with subtle and growing tension gradually building towards song’s conclusion. During solo we can hear K.K. utilize bends and whammy bar, this lead sits somewhere in between two previous ones. It’s not as loud or as disturbing but somehow strikingly violent in delivery.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

After this final lead break “Alone” ends in quiet keyboard passage repeating the chorus melody and quickly fading out. K.K.’s soloing also gradually fades out along with keyboards like stormy clouds before calm. This creates haunting effect. Echoes of main character repeating his sentiment keep on ringing out until softly morphing into keyboard-led intro piece “Shadows In The Flame”. Following track “Visions” is the most “Turbo”-sounding number on the record and also most commercially accessible backed with instantly hooking guitar riff. Released as single, it didn’t generate huge stir in the charts but along with title track got a Grammy nomination.

While the actual award went to Metallica’s “My Apocalypse”, nomination was a major signpost on general public acknowledging work and achievements of often neglected heavy metal pioneer. Priest of course had nagged a Grammy nomination before with ground-breaking “Painkiller”, but their status as living legends was only established firmly after Rob Halford’s return to the band. And in 2010 the band finally secured first prize with their live rendition of “Dissident Aggressor” from “A Touch Of Evil Live” -album.

K.K. Downing commented the “Alone’s” background and style in his recent Heavy Duty -biography:

The basis of “Alone” was an idea that I’d put forward for “Angel Of Retribution”, but for some reason it didn’t fly at the time. I never really knew why. When I reworked and reintroduced it under these entirely new circumstances, it fit in perfectly with what we were trying to do. The music spoke one word to me: “void”. And that tied perfectly with the song title, “Alone”.

Main character in the song certainly reflects the described void, it almost being the essence of his soul. Music backs this with funeral-like fatalism in its delivery. The song is one of the lengthiest in the record, almost stretching out to eight minutes. Yet it works with parts and emotions bouncing off each other creating a gripping arrangement which gradually builds to its natural conclusion.

Lyrics are told from we- and us-perspective. They originate from someone clearly being oppressed and under pressure to flog with the masses. Theme is familiar from every Judas Priest -album and no doubt stemmed from their hard-edged industrial background in Birmingham. Some of the records like “Turbo” and “Ram It Down” were more subdued in relaying the message but with “Angel Of Retribution” the autobiographical approach returned in more direct fashion with songs like “Deal With The Devil” and “Worth Fighting For”. “Nostradamus” while obviously telling the tale of a legendary prophet, carried similar resonances.

This setting is made obvious right from the first line “they say we are fools”. Rob sings his voice just slightly cracking, giving a palpable sense of sadness, bitterness and betrayal. As the song progresses, he moves more into character and the defiant attitude and frustration are taking more space, chorus has him backed by choir of supporters in “we just wanna be left alone!

Those in control are criticizing the ways of the oppressed in “we lost our way” and later see Nostradamus replying: “we chose our course”. The defiant stature of the seer is made obvious with “enduring in a rage we got strong”.

Yet there also is constant sense of tragedy and sadness erupting through, as if protagonist is giving almost martyr-hinged descriptions of his path. “Running from the blaze” refers to tragedies behind him while “You’ll hear my name, on judgement day” speaks of those ahead.

In the bridge Nostradamus speaks of future and his name outliving most of his opponents, which turned out to be true. Towards the end a warning for judgement day is issued. Rob sings these ending lines with increasing frustration, displaying a sense of fragile desperation at the same time. Here it’s not the hell-bent for anger- fighter in 1980’s “Breaking The Law” and “Grinder”, but somehow the even younger man from earlier “Here Come The Tears” and the desolation of innocence in “Dying To Meet You”.

Protagonist reacts as is expected with shame, but is he referring to shame of the oppressed or the identity being ashamed of itself? This question has been asked before on Priest songs and tales, once again we are left with listener drawing his or her own conclusions and parallels with vague answer at best: You’re to blame.

Legacy

Nostradamus and indeed the whole era surrounding him have been a fertile ground for heavy metal music to explore and draw inspiration. Bands like Iron Maiden have based their whole career on writing about historical characters, battles and events. Judas Priest on the other hand have in their almost 50 year career created several classic stories and figures of their own but occasionally delved into actual history on songs like “Loch Ness,” “The Ripper” and “Savage.”

Priest’s “Nostradamus” was a full double album featuring over 100 minutes of music chronicling the famous prophet’s life and adventures. A monumental project two years in the making, this promised to be group’s most effective record to date. The subject matter was relatively easy to adapt to a modern society and was close enough to previous themes explored by Priest on their earlier albums.

As Rob Halford stated in interview:

On a human level, he went through a lot of things that we can all relate to. He had acceptance and rejection. A lot of people didn’t like what he did much in the same way some people don’t like metal. He was banished into exile and he lost his wife and children to the plague. A lot of terrible things happened to him. We thought it was important to get that human part of the story and still have a great time with the prophecies like the Four Horsemen and Death.

There had been few attempts to picture Nostradamus’ life and prophecies sonically before. First in line – although not very well known in the heavy rock genre – is “Nostradamus – A Rock Opera” album by Bulgarian guitarist Nikolo Kotzev. This record mostly combines melodic hard rock with lush orchestrations. Musical highlights are “Desecration” and “Introduction” where soaring vocals and choirs create an interesting and powerful counterpoint.

The main problem with this CD is the mish mash of different vocalists each excellent on their own but in this writer’s opinion do not cohesively work as characters in an opera piece. Most obvious example is Glenn Hughes. His talent and achievements as soul/hard rock vocalist are unquestionable, but as King Henri II he simply isn’t very convincing. Technically faultless but you won’t have a picture of a sixteenth century ruler in your head. Of course, this view is entirely subjective.

The best performance purely from a story telling point is probably delivered by a Swedish singer Göran Edman. He sounds like a man from that era hundreds of years ago, which is exactly as it should be. A fine work also comes by courtesy of Jorn Lande who has sang on numerous albums and has the gift of adapting himself to any situation. Still Kotzev’s work on the ensemble – a 35-piece orchestra and writing the arrangements should be rightfully commended.

Kotzev mostly emphasises Nostradamus’ life although takes few stabs at his predictions for World War I & II, interestingly he places the end of the world at 3797 as originally written down. Nowadays most writers use 7000 A.D. but like said before there is just no way of knowing this for sure. Not much attention is given to forthcoming events, it is worth to note that Kotzev’s work was released in the spring of 2001, mere months before the WTC-attack took place.

There are other musical chapters in the story of Nostradamus worth mentioning. Thin Lizzy’s 1981 LP “Renegade” featured a mention of the prophet in impressive opening cut “Angel Of Death.” The American shock rockers W.A.S.P. delivered a line of abovementioned Nostradamus’ prophecy of Hitler in bleak “Unholy Terror.” The song in which it appears, “Charisma” is one of that album’s highlights.

Another shock artist Marilyn Manson himself told his 1996 album “Antichrist Superstar” was in fact based on Nostradamus’ prediction of the third Anti-Christ. Germany’s Helloween on the other hand released “Time Of The Oath” in the same year, the excellent title track draws inspiration from a great world war Nostradamus (according to some) predicted to take place between 1994-2000.

Finnish power metal group Stratovarius released arguably their most accomplished album “Visions” in 1997. The epic title track which concludes the record is solely based on Nostradamus’ predictions from Centuries with lines lifted straight from his original text – translated into English naturally. Track focuses on the end of the world, which Nostradamus in parts described very similarly to the Book of Revelations. You have to remember that during the 16th century organized religion held everyone firmly in their grasp, it was the ultimate state of rules. Most of the people viewed the end of days as fire and brimstone, seven angels, seven trumpets and a cross on the door for those who wished for afterlife. Had Nostradamus lived few hundred years later, his visions might have been somewhat bleaker still.

And there is even a band called Nostradameus (notice the clever add of one letter, no doubt to avoid possible copyright issues) hailing from Sweden, with plenty of power metal sounds incorporated.

Rob Halford explaining the enormous potential behind the life story and surroundings of Nostradamus upon records release:

We have this man who was an alchemist and who lived in a magical time with all the swords and shields. Depending on where your heart is at, you can say it is cliché, but it is just a perception. We feel metal fans embrace this time period of five hundred years ago, Medieval Europe. There were a lot of magical things that were happening at that time. It was a very metal time and he is a metal man. You couldn’t really do that with many people who have lived through history. There is a very small number of individuals who have maintained that kind of connection to the modern world. It is a brilliant opportunity to cover his life.

Around the time of “Nostradamus’s” release Priest spoke openly about the possibility of playing the whole record live from start to finish. Plans were made to stage the whole event in select theatres of the world, with the obvious option of a DVD release to follow. For reasons never fully revealed this didn’t take place and a regular world tour got underway although Priest talked about following it with full production later. This could have included an orchestra, multiple singers and an impressive stage set. Of course, this would even with only a handful of dates, be a massive undertaking. But no doubt, with Rob Halford having a theatre background and always adapting this into his performance, would have excelled in his role. Halford himself talked positively about the possibility and shortly after tour kicked off said Priest “were probably going to do it” next year.

Glenn Tipton was more reserved, stating the whole thing depended on how the album was received:

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. Some made snap judgements when the only way to listen to it is in its entirety.

K.K. stated later in his biography that the group “proscrinated” and hints at Priest simply lacking courage to challenge themselves, opting instead to go a safer route playing greatest hits -set with some rarities like “Eat Me Alive” and “Dissident Aggressor” added.

World tour kicked off in Helsinki, Finland early June 2008, at the time the album was yet to be released and thus understandably the first concert only featured couple of excerpts from the record. This first leg morphed into a full world tour with pretty much the same set list until concluding in March 2009. Nostradamus was only referred in Rob dressing as monk and singing “Death” from a throne, this hinted at possibilities of a previously mentioned full theatre production.

As it was, Priest never played “Alone” live. “Nostradamus” got presented by two key tracks, “The Prophecy” fittingly kicked off the shows and slower, menacing “Death” was also featured. By summer 2009 the band changed theme of the tour to celebrate “British Steel’s” 30th anniversary. “The Prophecy” remained through this trek as well as Epitaph 2011-2012 tour.

During and after tour, Priest issued two live packages – “A Touch Of Evil: Live” in 2009 and “British Steel Live” a year later. “A Touch Of Evil: Live” marked the first audio live recordings since Rob Halford’s return. It was essentially a selection of various cuts from 2005 and 2008 world tours. “British Steel Live” was recorded in Florida during August 2009, two months to a day before K.K. Downing’s final show with Judas Priest. The concert featured the whole “British Steel” album plus selected Priest classics. On DVD “The Prophecy” was featured from “Nostradamus” – although due to time constraints the one song left on the cutting room floor for audio disc. After 2012 no “Nostradamus” songs have been played live, to our knowledge by anyone. If you know any tribute bands presenting the songs or the album in its entirety, be in touch!

Despite some praising reviews, “Nostradamus” was largely misunderstood in the public. Over ten years after its release, the band rarely mention it and for rest the fans and critics, most that do, refer to it as another epic failure. It was also the last Priest studio album K.K. Downing would play on.

Even at the time of its release, many predicted the track “Alone” and the album “Nostradamus” would find their rightful place in the heavy metal history only after several years or even decades would come to pass. In 2019 “Alone’s” echoes seem to carry even more resonance, while Judas Priest continue to soldier on, this prophecy is still awaiting its conclusion.

With acknowledgements: Judas Priest Info Pages

“Alone” stats

  • Written by Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing & Rob Halford
  • Recorded at The Old Smithy Studio, England 2007-2008
  • Produced by Glenn Tipton & K.K. Downing
  • Released on “Nostradamus” album in June 2008

K.K. comments:

“This was an idea I had probably even before the “Angel of Retribution” album, but when the
opportunity came along to do “Nostradamus” I think that this idea along with others re-emerged
with positive potential. This being because this new concept album idea was a different and
exclusive opportunity for us to musically expand like never before, so some Ideas that had been lying
dormant because of their immediate unacceptance to fit in with traditional Priest now had their
opportunity to be explored more closely.

It is immediate that the main and opening chord sequence does have a solitary and demure feel
therefore the given title of “Alone” was an instant partnership.
Glenn takes up the initial solo parts and I take over from there.

The song layout may seem quite radical to some, but the concept of
Nostradamus in its entirety was always going to be eclectic and unpredictable due to the Nature of
the content of this man’s life. Rob of course delivers up his unique style and ability with a great performance, and again I have to say that the orchestration added by myself and Glenn on the arrangement really adds to the concept and atmosphere of the song.

The track meanders into a mind warp middle section with me doing
what I love to do until it is picked up by a strong almost Spanish style rhythmical acoustic sequence,
and it goes out with me doing again my Metal Hendrix style, great fun! But at the same time very
serious as I think we at all times had great respect that we were privileged to portray the life and
times of the great Nostradamus through our music.”

“Alone” lyrics:

They say we are fools
We say look at you
Long ago
We were just a few
Still say we don’t need you

We don’t wanna belong
We said all along
We just wanna be – left alone
We don’t wanna belong
We said all along
We just wanna be – left alone

Think that we must have lost our way
Running from the blaze
You were wrong
We chose our course
Counted up the days
Enduring in a rage
We got strong

We don’t wanna belong
We said all along
We just wanna be – left alone
We don’t wanna belong
We said all along
We just wanna be – left alone

You denied everything that’s good
Reacting as you would
With your shame
So we turned
And left you all behind
We don’t need your kind
You’re to blame

We don’t wanna belong
We said all along
We just wanna be – left alone
We don’t wanna belong
We said all along
We just wanna be – left alone

In years to come
You’ll hear my name
When darkness falls
On judgement day

They say we are fools
We say look at you
Long ago we were just a few
Still say – we don’t need you

Think that we must have lost our way
Running from the blaze
You were wrong
We chose our course
Counted up the days
Enduring in a rage
We got strong

We don’t wanna belong
We said all along
We just wanna be – left alone
We don’t wanna belong
We said all along
We just wanna be – left alone

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