Last week, I picked up the new Judas Priest album, Redeemer Of Souls, and I have to say, I’m stunned at how great it is. At 13 tracks, and a running time over an hour, I never got bored while listening to it. It reminded me of everything that made me love Priest to begin with, and you could slot it in comfortably next to classics like Screaming For Vengeance and British Steel. After each listen, I found myself wondering how a band exactly 40 years removed from their first studio album could sound so fresh and vital. Shouldn’t they be getting stale and disinterested by now?
The Rolling Stones are the first band we think when we think of bands who hang around forever, mainly because they’re the oldest band that hasn’t broken up (although it’ been nine years since their last album…). These days, bands being in their third fourth and fifth decades of existence and still churning out new material is a common occurrence, but the Stones were the first band to reach all those thresholds.
But time has revealed an unfortunate truth: they weren’t the best suited band to last forever. The last few Stones albums, while hardly bad, seem like attempts to either re-create the greatness of their old stuff, or try in vain to sound contemporary (remember “Anybody Seen My Baby?”), with mixed results. It”s not bad, but it’s hard to listen to A Bigger Bang without realizing that you’d be happier if you just listened to Exile On Main Street Again.
Of course, at the time, the limits of the new Stones material wasn’t something we really held against them. They were old. It’s what happens. But time has revealed plenty of bands and artists that are capable of doing fantastic work well into their late periods. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen continue to release solid records every few years, while Tom Petty’s new Hypnotic Eye has received rave reviews, and has sold extremely well, earning Petty his first number one album.
What we’ve learned from watching countless bands hang around forever is that some bands are better equipped for lifespans that last…well, a lifespan than others. The Stones have struggled with this over the past 25 years for various reasons. For one thing, they clearly don’t like each other. Mick and Keith might be able to keep the peace for awhile, but Keith’s repeated stabs at Mick in his memoir, Life, reveal that he hasn’t been particularly fond of the guy for quite some time now, if he ever was at all.
Secondly, while the Stones are great old-school rock n roll band, there’s only so many ways you can package them. In their prime, they were an exceedingly original, creative band, spinning off the basic rock n roll ideas into brilliant records like Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. but on the later albums, it feels like they just keep regurgitating the same formula with diminishing returns.
Going back to Judas Priest now, what struck me about Redeemer Of Souls was that it actually managed to sound like a classic Judas Priest album, instead of just sounding like it really, really wants to sound like a classic Judas Priest. It takes a lot of skill to aim for your classic sound and it actually reaches it, rather than getting an almost-as-good-but-not-quite imitation. Somehow, Judas Priest pulled it off.
It’l be interesting to see how the bigger bands of today will hold up if they decide to around. Will anyone want to hear a Vampire Weekend record in 2040? How will we feel about Kanye when he’s pushing 70? It takes a lot to make interesting music over a three-or-four decade span. Even a mighty band like the Stones has really struggled with this, which makes what Judas Priest has accomplished with Redeemer Of Souls all the more amazing.