Tim “Ripper” Owens

REVIEW: Judas Priest – ’98 Live Meltdown (1998)

JUDAS PRIEST – ’98 Live Meltdown (1998 BMG)

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.

3.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Judas Priest – “Bullet Train” (1998 single)

Scan_20151003JUDAS PRIEST – “Bullet Train” (1998 Zero, from Japan)

I know not why it took Priest until 1998 to release a single from 1997’s Jugulator.  In hindsight, the choice of “Bullet Train” as a single seems a calculated move.  Nu-metal was all the rage with the disaffected youth of the late 90’s.  The new singer (Ripper Owens) was capable of doing any kind of vocal, so why the hell not, I guess?

Whatever kind of metal it is, it seems Priest can play it.  With Scott Travis nailing the double bass like a metronome, “Bullet Train” is an example of razor-sharp precision.  Travis is always a pleasure to listen to just blasting away.  It’s just a shame they didn’t choose a better song for a single.  “Bullet Train” is only about the fourth-best song on Jugulator, an album so atrocious that it’s more accurate to say that “Bullet Train” is only the seventh-worst.

Of course, nobody would order this all the way from Japan unless there were B-sides worth having, and there are.  Much like Iron Maiden did with Bruce Dickinson, Priest decided to re-record some old Priest classics with the new singer.  They picked two incredible songs; timeless metal favourites updated for the period.  From British Steel, it’s “Rapid Fire”!  Neither Owens nor Travis played on the original, so the song is naturally more fierce and aggressive.  Both of them kill it.  Some may object to Ripper’s insertion of addition lyrics:

“Rapid fire, between the eyes,
Rapid fire, terrifies,
Rapid fire, before you die
Rapid fire.”

Doesn’t bother me.

“Green Manalishi” is updated in an interesting way.  Unexpectedly it is slowed down.  Live, they always tended to play it just a hair faster than the mid-tempo original.  On this studio re-take, they’ve gone the opposite direction, closer to the original 1970 Fleetwood Mac tempo.  This is just a one-off, they did not perform it live in this slow guise.  Live, it was faster than ever.  Given that this is ultimately just an alternate slant on an obscure single, it lives on as an interesting side road.  The tempo naturally extends the song, giving you even more Priestly goodness!  The star of the show is the singer.  Ripper takes one final scream at the end there that seals the deal:  he was definitely good enough for Judas Priest.

Not a bad little single here.  The two B-sides were later re-released on a limited edition digipack version of their next album, Demolition.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Jugulator (1997)

Scan_20151003JUDAS PRIEST – Jugulator (1997 BMG)

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.
Mu-til-ate.
Sharpened razor, takes your head.
Jugulator.”

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.

2/5 stars

In tomorrow’s review, we’ll take a look at the B-sides on the Japanese CD single for “Bullet Train”.

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Demolition (2001 Japanese version)

PRIEST WEEK

Its PRIEST WEEK!  
Monday:  Rocka Rolla (1974)
Tuesday: Priest…Live! (1987)

Wednesday: Metal Works 73-93 (1993)


JUDAS PRIEST – Demolition (2001 Victor Japan)

1997:  Judas Priest thudded back into stores with Jugulator, their first without Halford.  It underwhelmed me, and I had to wait four more years for Judas Priest with Tim “Ripper” Owens to finally return again in 2001 with Demolition.  Jugulator was a mixed bag and I hoped for more on the lineup’s second album.  I was excited; according to my journal I played my copy three times in the first 24 hours.  It doesn’t indicate how many of those plays happened in the record store!

As a die hard fan, I had a lot riding on the first album with Ripper, Jugulator. It was a let down, probably even more so since the new singer was so damn good!  The live album that followed, ’98 Live Meltdown, won me over in a big way, the Jugulator songs being much better live.  Ripper had an amazing voice with power to spare, but the lyrics (which he did not write) were juvenile and the music was a tad monotonous. Demolition is marginally better lyrically, and much improved musically.

The winner of Worst Lyric Award 2001 was “Cyberface”.  As I have stated before, I generally do not like songs about the internet! “Don’t access the site/or beware his megabyte/no virus scan/detects the man”.  I’m guessing Glenn just got high-speed at his house or something.  This is a low point, but on some tracks we’re getting back to respectability!

The sound and production of the album was still too 1990’s in style. The guitars are good and chunky, the bass, usually lacking on Priest albums, is in your face, and Scott Travis is seriously kickin’ it on the drum kit. The guitars and vocals sound a tad too processed, though. A little too much tinkering with the effects racks. Ripper’s not screaming as much as he used to. I imagine his voice was already starting to wear, considering the great job he did on tour. Still, he rips it out for a couple tracks and it’s very welcome.

Songwriting-wise, the band are coming up with much more interesting riffs and songs than last time.  Perhaps Jugulator suffered from lack of variety.  On Demolition we run the gamut from fast thrash (“Machine Man”) to groove (“One on One”) to ballads (“Close to You”).  At 13 songs, I think Demolition could have stood for some editing.  Lose “Cyberface” and “Feed on Me”.  What you’d be left with would have been a strong collection of songs.  The truth is that a handful of tunes, like “Bloodsuckers” and “Metal Messiah” could have been on a Halford-era album.

PRIEST_0004Elsewhere there are still the modern nu-metal touches that I never liked too much.  The guitar part in “Devil Digger” is a good example, as is the rap-like delivery of Owens on certain parts of certain songs.  But Ripper didn’t write the songs.  Don’t blame him.

There’s only one tune that Ripper had a writing credit on, which is the Japanese bonus track “What’s My Name”.  This is the only song in Priest history with a Ripper Owens writing credit. Live, Mr. Owens often introduced the Priest classic “The Ripper” by inciting the crowd to yell his name.  “What’s my name?” Ripper would ask the crowd.  That’s where the title comes from, and it’s a pretty good song.  This is one I’d been hunting for, for years.  I’ve bought Demoltion three times now.   First was the regular CD, then a European digipack with two B-sides*, and finally this Japanese edition.

The worst thing about Demolition is the nondescript cover.  Mark Wilkinson must have been too busy drawing new Eddies for the reunited Iron Maiden or something, because this cover is by L-Space design instead.  And it sucks.  Not that Judas Priest have always had the greatest album covers (Stained Class, anyone?) but this sucks.  At least the Japanese version came with a sticker sheet of the new Priest logo.

Anyhow, I really do like this album.  The Ripper era of Priest was uneven, and although Demolition is overly long it does contain enough Priest metal to salve the soul.

3.5/5 stars

PRIEST_0001* The two B-sides were the ’98 re-recordings of “Rapid Fire”, and “Green Manalishi”.  “Rapid Fire” is thrashed up with additional lyrics, and “Green Manalishi” is slowed down to a grind.  These were both originally released on the 1998 Japanese CD single for “Bullet Train”, which I already have.  Therefore my digipack version of Demolition will be passed on to another rock fan.

Digipack version of Demolition

Digipack version of Demolition