Judas Priest's Rob Halford on writing new music, finding his voice and rocking to the dawn

Rob Halford (center) with Judas Priest. - TRAVIS SHIN PHOTO
Travis Shin photo
Rob Halford (center) with Judas Priest.

One doesn't simply earn a nickname like "the Metal God" just by having an incredible voice for heavy metal music, but that's a good start. And for Judas Priest's Rob Halford, the Voice came early.

"I was a very little kid, maybe as young as 7 or 8 years old, and the school music teachers were putting together a school choir," Halford recalled in an interview with the Inlander. "There was maybe 10 or 12 of us in school classes in those days. I remember the teacher played a Scottish folk song on the piano, and we sang along with it. When it was my turn, I finished and she goes, 'Would you do that again?' And you do what the teacher tells you, so I did it again, and when I finished, a few of the kids started clapping.

"That was a bit like an electric shock to me. I guess in the deep Freudian psychoanalysis of Rob Halford, that's where it all began."

The annals of heavy metal music are littered with memorable lead singers. Sometimes they're memorable because of sheer vocal power like Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson or a unique howl like AC/DC's Brian Johnson. Sometimes it's their over-the-top stage antics like David Lee Roth back in the Van Halen glory days. Sometimes their reputation endures through a dedication to metal as a lifestyle, as you'll find with Ozzy Osbourne or the dearly departed Ronnie James Dio.

Halford, 67, is the only one who's gone through life as the Metal God, though, and he's memorable for a combination of all the traits that make a great frontman. He's got the kind of octave-jumping pipes that allow him to go from guttural growls to glass-shattering shrieks with ease. His studs-and-leather stage attire and motorcycle stage entrances helped introduce America to the so-called "new wave of British heavy metal" back in the '70s. And his songwriting the past 50 years helped lead Priest from industrial England to worldwide stardom thanks to songs like "Breaking the Law," "Living After Midnight," "Hell Bent for Leather" and "You've Got Another Thing Coming."

On Wednesday, Judas Priest headlines Northern Quest Resort and Casino's summer stage on a tour supporting Firepower, the band's 18th studio album. After five '80s stops at the Spokane Coliseum, it will be Judas Priest's first appearance here since 1990.

At this stage in their career, Judas Priest could be forgiven for just touring on the strength of their old songs, considering people just don't buy albums the way they once did. Or they could focus their efforts on sporadic singles the way so many artists do in 2019. But Halford says that doesn't fly for his band, a group still driven to create cohesive albums.

"It's important for Priest to send out a kind of message, a continuity in the way we express ourselves with our music, and we can't do that with one or two songs," Halford says. "We've always felt the best way to get a grasp of where Priest is at is in a collection of songs as an album.

"There's so much involved with the mental side of what we do. I think the heart of the matter is that Priest still has a relevant role to play in today's metal world, today's metal scene. We make sure we keep our relevance by making music every two or three years to support that belief that we are a band you must check out."

Of course, being the lyricist is particularly challenging when the band has created 14 new songs as it did on Firepower. There are days, Halford says, when he just sits and stares at a blank piece of paper, waiting on inspiration and trying to avoid repeating something he's written in the past. When it's not coming easily, he feels like he's in Bill Murray's Groundhog Day, just repeating a frustrating day over and over again.

"This is where you have to dig deep, and find out something about yourself," Halford says. "Repetition can be a deadly thing. The repetition kind of gets you bored, and then you get a little bit loose in the reins and before you know it you've lost track of something that you treasure very deeply ... So, it's looking for a different angle each time, that's what you're trying to drag out of yourself. It's terrifying, but it's fun."

On Firepower, Halford found inspiration in some extreme subject matter — no surprise to Priest fans. "Sea of Red" delves into the sacrifices of World War I soldiers, while "Traitors Gate" is the story of a man who is killed in the Tower of London for his beliefs and, Halford says, "hopes his memory lasts as a beacon of light and hope."

That's an interesting idea, a mix of darkness and light that defines much of Halford and his band's work. Of course, for non-metalheads, the images and sounds of metal music in general, and Judas Priest in particular, might be scary. But for the people who love it, metal inspires, offers hope, and at the very least, delivers a really good time at a concert. That's a big part of why Halford and Judas Priest are still on the road.

"We have a reputation for putting on a great metal show," Halford says. "That is part of the legacy and history of Priest. And when you see a Priest show now, it's a little bit like an event because we are one of the longest-surviving heavy metal bands that are out touring the world at present. A lot of our friends have retired or they're doing different things. You have a responsibility not to drop the ball.

"If you're at a Priest show in Spokane, you'll be standing next to lumberjacks, doctors, lawyers, people who work at Subway, people who drive a truck, moms, dads, teachers. We're all together for the night with this great metal community that's thriving, for the experience of having a great Priest show." ♦

Judas Priest with Uriah Heep • Wed, June 19 at 7:30 pm • $49-$99 • All ages • Northern Quest Resort & Casino • 100 N. Hayford Rd., Airway Heights • northernquest.com • 481-2800