First in a long line of non-essential Priest live albums, here’s ’98 Live Meltdown. Why did bands at certain points feel the need to add the year to the title? Warrant – ’96 Belly to Belly – Volume One. Kind of silly, right? For fans who know their metal history, 1998 falls in Judas Priest’s Ripper Owens years. Priest had just released their first album without Rob Halford, Jugulator. Live Meltdown (let’s leave out that ’98 part for simplicity’s sake) captures the tour that followed, from various uncredited dates.
Fortunately the album is better than its title and awful cover art. (Shame on you Mark Wilkinson!) Ripper Owens provided fresh young lungs and with him at the mic, Priest were uber-powerful live. All the new tunes from Jugulator were better in the live setting too. “Blood Stained” is devastatingly powerful, and an enthusiastic crowd eats it up. There are a few extraneous Jugulator tunes. The world could have lived without “Death Row” and “Abductors”, and maybe the title track could have been thrown in instead. Fortunately the track list is an otherwise excellent mix of new tracks and old cuts.
Priest deserve points for re-imaging their Joan Baez cover “Diamonds and Rust”. The acoustic version was completely new for Judas Priest and Ripper could easily handle the heavy and the light. Even though it’s acoustic, “Diamonds and Rust” represents Sin After Sin on a CD that gives face time to nearly every Priest album. Rocka Rolla and Ram It Down are shunned as usual, but otherwise the only albums without tracks on this are Turbo and Point of Entry. There is an emphasis on the classic material from the 70s, solid songs from the early 80s, and four tracks from Painkiller. It’s a well-rounded album, and by the next live release (2003’s Live in London) they changed it up and added “Turbo” and “Heading Out to the Highway”.
Ripper was a great lead singer for this band during Rob’s absence. He took one of the hardest jobs in rock and roll and did it with class. Ripper had the goods. He could scream the notes. He added his own slant with guttural growls. He struggled with “Painkiller” proving he’s a mere mortal but still he got the job done.
Live Meltdown was self-produced by Priest and Sean Lynch, but the guitars are too low in the mix. The emphasis is on Ripper, but it seems to come at the expense of the volume of the rhythm guitars. And the packaging is atrocious. While it is true that most metal bands like Priest found themselves on smaller record labels, this is worse than a 90s indy band. Fortunately the music and performance justify its existence.
Curious fans are advised to pick up Live Meltdown for the best representation of the Ripper Owens years. It’s better than Jugulator and Live in London. Fans are unanimously happy that Rob Halford is back in Judas Priest today, but that shouldn’t be taken as a slight against Ripper.