Rob Halford Pushes His Comfort Zone With Firepower

Rob Halford has earned a spot on several lists of top metal vocalists.
Rob Halford has earned a spot on several lists of top metal vocalists. Jim Louvau

Rob Halford has earned a spot on several lists of top metal vocalists. - JIM LOUVAU
Rob Halford has earned a spot on several lists of top metal vocalists.
Jim Louvau

It took Rob Halford almost half a century and 18 studio albums to admit that he can finally hear himself sing without being critical. So despite his prominence in the heavy metal community — and influence on just about every part of the genre — fans might be surprised by the artist's self-proclaimed milestone.

Then again, Halford is known for his endless graciousness and ability to challenge himself. And this time it's with — what else? — Firepower, released in March 2018.

The album made Halford comfortable with his vocal chops, a surprising accomplishment considering he’s been placed on several “top metal vocalists of all time” lists, is one of the most famous Arizona frontmen/part-time residents, and has been hailed by legends like Slayer’s Kerry King as a “vocal ninja.”

“My overall vocal performance is finally something I can listen to now without self-criticism,” admits the god of metal. “It doesn’t matter how many records you’ve made, there’s always a new experience you can get with a new producer. We’ve always made that perfectly clear; we know the value of recording with an outside producer. On Firepower, I was encouraged, coached, and captured.”

This hails to Halford’s commitment to push outside of his comfort zone — a characteristic that has kept Judas Priest consistently in the upper echelon of heavy-metal legends since their Billboard debut with Stained Class 40 years ago.

But Judas Priest (and British metal) have come a long way since then. Firepower debuted in the top five of 17 countries, and at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, the group’s highest U.S. chart placement to date. A 2018 tour-bender has already brought them around the world once, and to Phoenix in late April, where Halford cherished a short 12-hour visit home: “I had just enough time to do a bit of gardening, open the mail, ran to Fry’s to get some food — and the next minute I’m on stage,” he laughs.

Firepower (co-produced by Tom Allom, back from 1988’s Ram It Down) and the supporting tour showcases the fiery hunger, dramatic ballads, and guitar workouts we’ve come to know of Halford, bassist Ian Hill, drummer Scott Travis, along with fresh writing chops from guitarist Richie Faulkner. Guitarist Glenn Tipton took on a new role after announcing his battle with Parkinson’s disease earlier this year.

He hand-picked guitarist (and Firepower co-producer) Andy Sneap to step in for him on tour — but Tipton is likely to be spotted on stage as well during select shows. Sneap is a founding member of Sabbat, and the producer/engineer behind albums by bands like Napalm Death, Megadeth, and Testament. He shares Judas Priest’s attitude about quality over quantity — one of the main ingredients Halford attributes to the success of the band’s music over 18 albums.

‘It’s the attention to detail. The great love we have in crafting these songs; ‘craft’ because that’s really what it is, you know,” he says. “Every piece of music we make with tremendous amounts of focus. It’s quality over quantity and a combination of the chemistry of the writers and performers. If you meet each other in life like how I met Glen and Ian close to 50 years ago … I think of the great thrill we get with Firepower was like the pleasure of Stained Class.”

Stained Class marked a reinvention in heavy metal. With it, Judas Priest departed from the progressive British rock that marked its first three albums and planted one steel-toed boot into the future with the fourth. It was Judas Priest’s response to U.K.’s burgeoning punk scene: the band channeled punk’s aggression, a certain precision, a paradigm of thrash. For even more sonic diversity, they brought in producer Dennis MacKay, best known for working with jazz-fusion acts. He captured some of the cleanest tracks and tightest Judas Priest drum sound to date. But, like many disruptors, it was a miss with many fans and charts upon its release.

Halford has always been known as a pioneer, whether inspiring countless musicians, or coming out as one of the first openly gay heavy-metal frontmen in the '80s, and continuing the fight for LGBTQ rights today. Many in the Phoenix (not to mention the world) metal LGBTQ community view Halford as a beacon — in particular, a young teen who contacted this journalist about wanting to represent the gay metal community, and said that it’s amazing knowing Rob Halford is somewhere in his city.

Known for managing his own social media accounts and connecting directly with fans, Halford asked for the Phoenix teen’s information so he could reach out, mentioning how much still needs to change in society.

“I was given a very powerful letter the other day from a fan. His parents found out he was listening to heavy metal and sent him to a very extreme right-wing Christian school where they don’t even let the kids listen to music. Apart from that, he’s also a gay guy. Horrible, isn’t it? That these things happen this day and age, in America of all places.”

The singer pauses when asked if there’s a motto he lives by that helps him through hard times.

“Live your life on your own terms really, because that’s what it’s about. We all have the opportunity to share our lives with family, friends, colleagues. But you’ve got to find a place to balance and harmony to live your life as you seek it for yourself.”

Halford also believes in the strength of music to get through difficult times, and advises others to do the same.

“I love heavy-metal music more than anything in the world, but I’m equally drawn to Michael Buble or Michael Feinstein. I love that big-band experience. And then going in completely the opposite direction, you know I like Behemoth.”

He adds that fans can see more collaborations in the future, a nod to his recent involvement on In This Moment’s “Black Wedding,” where he contributed vocals and was a priest in the music video.

“Nergal [from Behemoth] and I are possibly doing a collaboration. I was in the dressing room with Tobias from Ghost, and we talked about collaborative opportunities too. It’s fun for musicians to step into each other's world. It’s like different football teams — it’s the same game but a different play. I’m just very curious to see where my voice can fit in.”

Later this summer, Judas Priest will be back out for a new tour this summer, co-headlining with Deep Purple. Halford explains that they almost always have two to three legs of a tour, to “keep our maniacs happy.” And with Deep Purple being an originator of the British metal sound from the inside, the tour is attracting fans that span genres. Now more than ever, the recent musical generation has been channeling that ’70s and ’80s rock sound.

Does Halford think this is due to the cyclical nature of music, or the fans' fear of losing that generational musical synergy, a result of social change, chaos, and bygone production techniques?

“I think it’s a little bit of both. Music being what it is to a certain extent; it’s out there living its own life,” Halford says, deliberately. “When your music is released, it’s in the hands of the fans and listeners. An important thing about bands like Purple and Priest is that we are the originators of these certain styles and sounds. Look at Greta Van Fleet, inspired by Led Zeppelin and the rock of the '70s. What’s great for us of course, is that it keeps the focus on our relevance. When you come and see us on tour, we still have that voice in rock 'n' roll in 2018.”

And when it’s all said and done, he’ll be back home in Arizona sometime later this year, gardening, cherishing sleep on his own pillow, and grocery shopping at Fry’s. Make no mistake, though: you’re bound to recognize the God of Metal out and about in the Valley.

“I love to go to Cave Creek. I know places like Frontier Town are tourist traps, but I just love it up there. I always go up to South Mountain two or three times a year and look out across the Valley, or visit Lake Pleasant. And I love my casinos.” Laughter. “You’ll see me at Wild Horse Pass. I just love the state so much.”
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lauren Wise has worked as a rock/heavy metal journalist for 15 years. She contributes to Noisey and LA Weekly, edits books, and drinks whiskey.
Contact: Lauren Wise