One of the most anticipated, but frustratingly bad albums that I have ever looked forward to was Judas Priest’s big return on Jugulator. Seven whole years had passed. Rob Halford split, taking drummer Scott Travis with him, and had an entire career with the modern metal band Fight, before they split in ’96. Travis returned to Priest, who had found their new singer in Tim “Ripper” Owens, a young man with incredible pipes. Owens came from a Priest tribute band, and this was considered an interesting enough story to warrant an entire movie loosely based on him (Rock Star).
The resultant album, the heavy-as-fuck Jugulator, was a disappointment from the first note. Opening with over a minute of looped samples (of clanking metal) and drony guitars, the album takes way too long to really start. Only at 1:45 into the title track does Ripper finally let out a scream (a blood-curdling one at that). The riffs finally take over, turning the song into “Painkiller, Part II” for all intents and purposes. That’s fine — “Painkiller” is a high water mark of intensity and speed. But when I put “Jugulator” on a mix CD, I edit out the first 1:45 because it’s just a waste of space.
The fact that “Jugulator” sounds uncomfortable like “Painkiller” shouldn’t come a surprise. Just look at the cover art. Mark Wilkinson created a Painkiller Jr. for the album cover, including a modernized Priest “tuning fork” logo in his forehead. Musically (and intro aside), “Jugulator” is one fine metal assault, even if it is just a second cousin to “Painkiller”. Lyrically, “Jugulator” is among the worst crimes Priest have foisted upon us. With Rob Halford gone, Glenn Tipton was left to write the lyrics. The words he eventually produced are such a pale imitation of past Priest that I cringe to hear them.
“Exterminator, you are dead.
Sharpened razor, takes your head.
I do like the word Glenn invented in one line, “Predit-hater”. I like one word in the whole song!
“Blood Stained” is fierce, and was even better live (such on ’98 Live Meltdown). It’s obvious from the cranked bass, detuned instruments, noisy guitar anti-solos, and driving groove that Priest were trying to emulate nu-metal. Quite a few fans were turned off by the modern twists in songs like “Blood Stained”, including grunted vocals. There is enough of the core Priest sound, including screams, riffs and standard solos that “Blood Stained” is really more of an amalgam of old and nu-metal. Ripper is certainly a capable singer, and should shoulder none of the blame if you don’t like it. Blame Glenn and K.K., not the vocalist.
It’s not until the third song, the creatively titled “Dead Meat”, that I lose interest. Until now, the songs had been good enough. “Dead Meat” is not. The violent, bloody lyrics are starting to wear thin. There are always individual moments of brilliance, such as the solos, drum patterns, and high-pitched wails. This is not enough to carry a song. One of the more nu-metal tracks is “Death Row”, which is even worse, especially when it comes to the prose. “Oh no, I won’t go! You’ll never get me down to death row.” Priest have shed no light whatsoever on the issue of capital punishment, only written a boring cartoon song about the subject. Even worse, there is dialogue in the intro to the song that is so poor that I’m embarrassed for them. Sticking to a theme that already wore out its welcome, “Decapitate” is about the guillotine! “Your head, you will lose it. Severed, when executed”. That’s the opening line! The atonal nu-metal guitars have also worn thin.
If this were an LP, that would be the side closer. The second half of the CD is heralded in by “Burn in Hell”; a little bit better song than the previous three in a row. It seems a little more effort went into the melody this time, although “Burn in Hell” is just as heavy as everything else. It builds and has some dynamics to it, which you cannot say for most of Jugulator. It’s too long at 6:41. Unfortunately much of this album is just too long.
“Brain Dead” is yet another stunningly creative song title. This slow chug has no character, it’s just a senseless march into oblivion. I feel “Brain Dead”, listening to it drone on and on. Thematically it’s just Judas Priest stealing “One” by Metallica and calling it something else. For my money, Jugulator can end right here (only seven songs in), because I’ve checked out. My brain is turning to mush; that’s how it feels. Then “Abductors” should have been a winner for me, a UFO buff. The opportunity for a cool song is blown on yet another nu-metal sludge-fest with shite for lyrics: “They come at night and they infiltrate you, they paralyse and they mentally rape you.” The only redeeming quality is the likeable Ripper Owens. He rolls his R’s like Halford used to, and you have to give the guy credit for doing the best he could with the material he was given to sing.
The single was “Bullet Train”, which I have on Japanese import (of course). This isn’t a bad tune. It drives like a perpetual motion dynamo. It’s more nu than old metal, which may be why it was chosen as a single, compared to a better song like “Blood Stained”. Finally, the lyrics are about something other than death or maiming. It’s still not sunshine and puppy dogs, as the words seem to about someone suffering from Siderodromophobia, or fear of trains, while riding on a train! Fun! Let’s be clear: this is an improvement.
The final song offers a little redemption. “Cathedral Spires” (over nine minutes!) is in the mold of old Priest classics such as “Beyond the Realm of Death”. A slow, mellow opening with dramatic lead vocals invites you in, and it’s a due respite from all the nu-metal bombardment. Ripper really sinks his teeth into the singing, and I think it was quite clear that he loved his job. The classy intro eventually degenerates into another sound-alike chug, but once again redemption is ahead. The chorus is great: pure traditional Priest drama with the nu-metal grunts in moderation.
I’ve listened to Jugulator many, many times over the years. I desperately want the next listen to be the one where I finally “get it”. That has yet to happen, and it almost certainly never will. Thankfully Judas Priest realized they needed to diversify their sound next time around. 2001’s Demolition was a marked improvement.
In tomorrow’s review, we’ll take a look at the B-sides on the Japanese CD single for “Bullet Train”.