"It's becoming something of a blur." Rob Halford, über-frontman for metal legend Judas Priest, is speaking from a hotel room where he's preparing for dinner in Philadelphia on what he describes as "a luxurious night off." The band has recently jumped from a several-week stint at European metal fests to a trek from one Canadian coast to the other. It's now in the midst of touring the U.S., joining supporting acts Testament, Motörhead and Heaven And Hell to forge a Metal Masters line-up no self-respecting goat-thrower would ever miss.
"It's still a thrill and a pleasure," says Halford of touring, and despite the fact that he's talking to a fangirl journalista for one of a series of interviews he's conducting on his day off, his enthusiasm is heartfelt and contagious. This from a man who could easily draw sellout crowds on the continent of his choice based on the continuing strength of songs written a quarter-century ago. But rather than rest on its laurels, Priest has just released a ground-breaking classic-to-be: a two-disc concept album exploring the prophecies and life of Nostradamus.
OK. Clearly Nostradamus is a venture that could teeter dangerously close to the "it goes to 11" precipice. And in the gauntlet-encased hands of lesser men, it might result in something a little uncomfortable. Here it's brilliant: close to two hours of the dynamic, driving sound we expect from Priest, supplemented by snippets of pure orchestration, choral passages and operatic arias, plus organ, strings, acoustic guitar, Spanish guitar and the occasional lyric bellowed in Italian as a shout-out to Luciano Pavarotti. "We knew we wanted to start at the beginning [of Nostradamus' life] and go to the end," Halford says. "One day we looked at the clock and realized we had an album's worth of material but weren't even halfway through. We didn't really tell anybody we intended to keep going."
The prophecies that 500 years ago earned Nostradamus his place in history are touched upon in this epic work, but it's the life of the man himself that inspired the band. "In metal we've always had a bit of a struggle in the rock world, always been a bit of an underdog," Halford muses. Nostradamus, he says, had his own travails: The French physician and astrologer was hounded by religious authorities for his predictions and eventually exiled, but not before his wife and children succumbed to the plague.
Historical truth, in addition to being stranger than fiction or supposition, also turned out to be more engaging. The record is "more in tune with his personal life, which made it more endearing," says Halford. "Putting it in first-person singular makes it something you can relate to."
While fans can surely relate to Nostradamus' trials by listening to the album in its entirety, it's crucial to Halford that the live show give the audience what it's screaming for. "We want to make sure that whatever we do is easily transported to the stage," he says. At present, this means including on the set list just three or four tracks from the album. In the future, it may mean performing the album from beginning to end. What theatrics this may involve, Halford is hesitant to divine. And as far as the famous prophesies themselves are concerned, he's evasive about how much cred he gives them.
"I think all of us in the band are really open-minded about people who have prophesies, see the future, see ghosts, see UFOs. You have to ask: Was it real? Was he genuine?" He laughs. "Or was he just tripping?"
Judas Priest and The Metal Masters Tour 5:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 16. Post-Gazette Pavilion, Burgettstown. $20-125. 412-323-1919 or www.ticketmaster.com