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Culling the Herd

Culling the Herd: Judas Priest – Nostradamus

Like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest didn’t want to just rely on nostalgia when they reunited with vocal legend Rob Halford. 2005’s Angel of Retribution was a reassuring sampler of the band’s classic sounds, but even that kept the crunchy guitar tone from the Ripper years and a couple songs like the closing doom epic “Lochness” hinted at possible directions for the future. The band dove headlong into a new vision with 2008’s Nostradamus, boasting a symphonic metal sound packaged in a sprawling double album format. The album has ultimately become one of the band’s most hated efforts and judging by the six year gap between it and the uncomfortably safe Redeemer of Souls, it seems that Judas Priest has been discouraged from experimenting to such a degree ever again.

It’s fair if you hate Nostradamus because you think there are too many keyboards and the lyrics are too pretentious. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t deny that. The real shame is that listeners who would enjoy these elements still have to endure its excessive length. Even if you take out the numerous interludes that pad out nearly half of the album, there are still a bunch of fluff songs that Trans-Siberian Orchestra wouldn’t even want. Thus, I’d like to filter these directionless prophecies down to something that’s much more entertaining to sit through.

1. Dawn of Creation
As much as I just gave Nostradamus grief for its interludes, I do think a couple of them earn their keep. “Dawn of Creation” is slow and could have its first minute cut with no loss, but it has a nice keyboard melody with a mystical air and fitting buildup. Think of it as a slower, more atmospheric answer to “The Hellion/Electric Eye.”

2. Prophecy
“Prophecy” isn’t quite as explosive as its bombastic intro suggests but it starts things off strong. The track is largely driven by its crunchy mid-tempo riff and the verses don’t waste any time in showing off Halford’s almost operatic approach. The transitions to the more symphonic bridges makes things feel a little stilted but it’s a pretty good tune.

3. Revelations
The pace picks up for “Revelations” as the tempo becomes more upbeat while serving as another build-up. Its steady drum beat and guitar gallop is a pleasant reminder of 80s Priest’s more upbeat moments, while the more punctuated vocals portray a sense of urgency and purpose. It’s probably one of the more straightforward tracks on here.

4. War
“War” is definitely the most overtly symphonic track on Nostradamus. Its verses feature dramatic percussion alongside lower pitched vocals and supplementary orchestral effects while the chorus explodes into a multi-layered refrain. The sheer cheesiness of this over the top insistence will definitely turn off some listeners but I have to love the bombast of it all.

5. Sands of Time
“Sands of Time” is the other interlude that I think is worth including on this edited Nostradamus. In addition to not furthering the vague narrative in any way, most of the album’s interludes fail to connect to the songs they precede and don’t have any memorable melodies of their own. “Sands of Time” is one of the few exceptions as it features a neatly echoing vocal line and transitions to the next track quite nicely. It may still be a bit too long but I think it gets the job done.

6. Pestilence and Plague
“Pestilence and Plague” is similar to “Revelations” with its driving pace though it seems to raise the stakes a bit more. However, its guitar gallop is more prominent and the vocals have more conviction. The chorus lyrics suddenly being sung in Italian can be a jarring turnoff for some but it’s another cheesy segment that I can’t help but love. Lest we also forget the third verse of the underrated “Saints in Hell” where Halford randomly breaks out into French…

7. Death
The song where Judas Priest goes full on doom metal. Thankfully it comes out well as the guitar ranges from a thunderous plod to quietly fluid intrusions during the verses, a predictably sinister vocal, and some well-placed symphonic swells during the choruses. As some have pointed out, the pacing is a little too slow though that may have to do with the drums completely dropping out in spots rather than the way the song was written. I still hold a bit of hope that Priest will fine tune this approach and opt for an all-out doom album in the future.

8. Persecution
After all the buildup, “Persecution” reaches levels of near Painkiller speed. Even those who dislike the album as a whole seem to rally around this track for its more straightforward approach. Deservedly so, as the song is pretty catchy in the traditional Priest sense and the vocals showcase more of Halford’s signature wails and shrieks than the rest of the album. If not the more subdued segments that bookend the song, it probably wouldn’t be out of place on any of the band’s other post-Painkiller efforts.

9. Exiled
Like many double albums, Nostradamus’s second half seems to be gasping for air as much as the listener at this point. It is decidedly more somber in tone and is unfortunately wracked with filler, even if it has fewer tracks. Thankfully the first proper song is an exception to this rule as “Exiled” features an almost tribal beat and atmospheric synths alongside with a particularly melodramatic chorus. Much like the move from “Death” to “Persecution,” “Exiled” proves to be another solid contrast.

10. Visions
From there, “Visions” keeps the mysterious aura but introduces a more active tempo. It is admittedly one of the trickier tracks to get a feel for, but its gradual buildup and memorable chorus do make it worth keeping around.

11. Nostradamus
While I find the intro to be redundant considering the equally redundant interlude that precedes it, the title track in itself is a winner and deserves its status as one of the album’s rare universally enjoyed songs. The guitar work sets up another fiery speed run while Halford’s use of trade-offs, drawn out wails, and a few well-placed screams make its grandiose structure even more epic. While I enjoy the various styles and tempos that these songs aim for, Nostradamus probably would’ve been better received if it had more tracks like this.

12. Future of Mankind
If I’m being honest, “Future of Mankind” probably isn’t essential as the title track would make for an even more explosive finale. But the album aims for a grander, swelling closer in the vein of Operation: Mindcrime’s “Eyes of a Stranger” or Scenes from a Memory’s “Finally Free,” and this being a pretty good track means that I can get behind that idea. It has a few moments where it may be a bit too overdramatic, particularly the distorted spoken segment during the closing riff (also more Italian), but it is a nice way to close things out with some particularly sweet guitar harmonies.

Even looking at Judas Priest’s discography as a whole, this condensed version of Nostradamus would still barely just break the top half. This is a testament to the band’s many successes but also to the album’s less accessible style. But while there would still be some controversy surrounding this album, I think the consequences wouldn’t have been so severe. Who knows, maybe its alternate universe follow-up is more interesting than what we got with Redeemer of Souls and maybe K.K. Downing is still with them. I envy such a universe.

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