Inevitably, and understandably, Rob Halford will always be revered for his astonishing work with Judas Priest: 14 albums between 1974 and 1990, and the recent, ongoing reunion. But he’s also had a distinguished, albeit varied, career away from that band. In 12 years apart from Priest, he’s taken a love of extreme metal to its limits, varied the pace by dabbling on the fringes of electronica... oh, and he also fronted Black Sabbath, and was part of the one-off supergroup Bullring Brummies. No one could ever claim that Halford had an extended holiday during those years.
Rob Halford: The Metal God
More than anyone, Judas Priest frontman ROB HALFORD defined the way a metal singer should sound. We ask him about solo work, life outside Priest, and a career approaching (in 2007) 35 years.
“I’d like people to look back at those years as a time when I still made good metal,” Halford says. “It was always straightforward, honest music. I hope fans got as much out of it as I put in. That’s the way I hope that era in my life will be recalled.”
For Halford, the first stirrings of a desire to strike out on his own came with the release of arguably Priest’s most contentious album, 1986’s Turbo. With its electronic overtones, and slicker imagery, the band seemed to be trying to adapt to a younger generation; fitting in, rather than pushing on. And the frontman wanted to try something a little more extreme: “I recall that, at this stage, I did talk to [guitarists] Glenn Tipton and KK Downing about how I was getting an urge to move on, to perhaps work with different players, just to see what would come out.”
Of course, it was to be a further five years (and two albums) before Halford finally decided the time was right for him to leave the band and take off on his own. After Priest’s Painkiller tour, he dropped the bombshell on the rest of the band, leaving them to deal with the afterglow while he retired to his home in Phoenix, Arizona, and started to formulate plans for the future.
“I had it in my mind to do something different, to really go for a major metal push,” the singer recalls. “So I began writing songs for what would become the first Fight album, War Of Words.”
However, before he could pursue this dream, Halford got the chance to work with Pantera's guitarist, the late Dimebag Darrell.
“The producers of the movie Buffy The Vampire Slayer called me up and asked if I’d like to do a song for the soundtrack. Time was really tight, so I got hold of Dimebag, who’d become a friend by that point, and asked if he were interested in collaborating on a track.”
Inevitably, the influential guitarist jumped at the chance to record with Halford. The result was a song called Light Comes Out Of Black (completed in just one day) – and also a temptation.
“Yeah, I suppose I could have asked Dimebag if he fancied taking this further. But that would have been so wrong. I was, and still am, a big fan of Pantera, and they were just ready to explode. For me to have tried to get Dimebag on board for my solo project would have been really underhand. I’d have been responsible for breaking up a band who were to go on and mean so much. Therefore I went back to Phoenix, carried on writing and began the search for musicians.”
Halford’s first port of call was his tattooist. And that’s where his first two recruits for Fight were discovered.
“I got talking to this guy called Jay Jay, when he was doing a tattoo for me one day, and it turned out he was in a band. So I went down to check them out, and was impressed enough to ask him and also the guitarist/keyboard player, Brian Tilse, to join me. The other guitarist, Russ Parrish, we found through auditions. And the drummer... well, it’s so hard to find the right guy. I always had it in mind to ask Scott Travis from Judas Priest if he were up for it. And that’s how Fight was born.”
Fight’s debut album, War Of Words, was released in 1994, and Halford made his mark immediately, with a record that straddled old-school metal values and contemporary expectations.
“It was a turbulent time for metal,” he says. “I recall hearing Alice In Chains’ Man In The Box and thinking things would never be the same again. But, listening back to what we did, I believe Fight did really well. We certainly weren’t embarrassed by what was happening around us.”
The band went on to release Mutations (a combination of studio remixes and live material) in 1994 and A Small Deadly Space the following year, before the legendary frontman decided to move on.
“I can’t honestly say that anything was planned, but sometimes events happen and take you in certain directions.”
After Fight split, Halford teamed up with songwriter Bob Marlette, who had already worked with Journey guitarist Neal Schon and cult melodic hard-rock figure Jeff Paris, among others.
“I can’t recall exactly how we met,” says Halford, “but I ended up at his house writing songs, and then we brought in this amazing guitarist named John Lowery, who’s better known these days as John5 through his work with Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson. I still didn’t know what direction we were gonna take, though.”
It was at this point that an incredible twist occurred. Halford was out in New Orleans with friends, when one night...
“We were on the town, and drove past this building. Somebody said to me: ‘That’s where [Nine Inch Nails mainman] Trent Reznor has his studio. Why not go and knock on the door?’ With typical English reserve, I didn’t want to do something like that. So we carried on. A few hours – and a lot of drinks – later, we again drove past the building. But this time I said: ‘Stop the car. I’m gonna do it!’ I went up to the door, hammered on it, and it was answered by Dave ‘Rave’ Ogilvie of Skinny Puppy. He invited me in, and about 10 minutes later Trent himself turned up. Now, he’s a Judas Priest fan, and was really keen to hear what I was working on.”
The result was that Reznor took Halford’s songs under his wing, and 2wo was born. Arguably, the strangest project of Halford’s distinguished career, the band’s only album, 1997’s Voyeurs, drew a confused response from his fans. Here was the great god of metal, going... industrial?! Reznor’s sonic footprints were all over the record – he even gave it a home on his own Nothing label. Inevitably, the record was a commercial flop. However, years later it actually sounds a lot better than it did at the time.
“I would defend what I did then, if only because I was trying out experimental ideas. To me, it was important not to get stuck in a rut.” The 2wo project flickered briefly, before Halford pulled the plug.
“I’ll tell you when I realised it was all over. We were on tour in 1998, playing a show somewhere in Switzerland. And our support act was a TV set at the front of the stage showing a World Cup match. To 30 people! Right then, I knew I had to move on and get back to what I do best, and that’s metal.”
In collaboration with producer Roy Z, Halford set about recording what became the 2000 album Resurrection, with a band bearing his name and including guitarists Patrick Lachman (who went on to front Damageplan) and Mick Chlasciak, bassist Riendeau and drummer Bobby Jarzombek. Many saw this return to Halford’s roots as possibly the singer’s way of telling his one-time Judas Priest bandmates that he was ready and able to return to the fold. Not so, says Halford.
“That was never on my mind. I just wanted to make the best possible metal record, that was my focus. Besides, I thought Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, who’s a friend of mine, was doing a brilliant job with Priest. And they were having success in their own right.”
Whatever Halford’s protestations, he was seen to be sending out signals that he’d love to be able to sit down again with the Priest guys and bury the hatchet. And, inevitably, eventually it happened.
After two more albums under the Halford banner – Live Insurrection in 2001 and Crucible the next year – in 2003 the singer met up with Tipton, Downing, Travis and Priest bassist Ian Hill. The meeting was ostensibly to discuss a Judas Priest box set. But it was always going to lead to Rob Halford ‘coming home’ to the band where he belongs.
That leaves two topics to look at: his brief flirtation with Black Sabbath, and the Three Tremors concept with singers Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden and Queensrÿche’s Geoff Tate.
Halford’s first stint with Sabbath occurred when he stepped in as their vocalist for two shows at Costa Mesa Amphitheater in California, on November 14 and 15, 1992.
“Sabbath were supposed to open for Ozzy on those dates, and Ronnie James Dio [Sabbath’s vocalist at the time] didn’t want to do them. I got a call from either Sharon Osbourne or Tony Iommi, asking if I’d step in. That was such an honour, getting the chance to sing all those amazing classics. But there was never any chance that it would lead to anything more permanent. To me, Sabbath is Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward. I belong with Priest, not with them.”
Halford again stepped in with Sabbath on August 25, 2004 (his 53rd birthday), when Ozzy was unable to play an Ozzfest show in New Jersey because he was suffering from bronchitis. He also recorded with Butler and Ward (together with The Obsessed guitarist/vocalist Scott ‘Wino’ Weinrich and Fight’s Brian Tilse) on a version of Sabbath’s The Wizard, for the 1994 tribute album Nativity In Black. “We were known as the Bullring Brummies,” he says. “A name I came up with, actually.”
As for the Three Tremors, that idea was rather more than just a passing fancy.
“Bruce, Geoff and I did have a very serious meeting, about recording together, with [Iron Maiden manager] Rod Smallwood, who ran Sanctuary Records at the time [the label to whom Halford the band were signed]. He gave the project the green light. The only thing that held us back was trying to tie in all of our schedules. In the end it proved impossible. But the three of us did get to sing on stage at a show in London [at the Mean Fiddler] during the Resurrection tour in 2001. We did The One You Love To Hate, and if you were there you’ll know just how special that was. It proved we could really pull it off.
“I’ve actually trademarked and registered the name Three Tremors – a name inspired by the Three Tenors tour, which featured opera greats Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras. And one day it will happen.”
So what did the future hold for Rob Halford? With a new Priest album on the way (a concept work inspired by the life and times of Nostradamus), was there any room for his solo career as well?
“I have to be honest, and tell everyone that Priest will always be the priority in my life. Nothing can ever replace that, now that I’m back. So anything else I do has to fit in with the band’s schedule. However, I do fully intend to carry on doing other projects when I get the time. I’ve set up my own company, Metal God Entertainment, to achieve just that. We’ve just put out a compilation, Metal God Essentials Vol 1, that’s gathered together some of the best stuff I’ve done so far with Halford and Fight. And there will be a new Halford album, possibly as early as next year. I’ve got so much metal in me, I just have to do it!”
I LOVE ROB HALFORD Angela Gossow (Arch Enemy).
“I came into Judas Priest late. But with their album Painkiller Rob Halford crushed my safe little underground death-metal world into extreme, yet melodic pieces. Up to then I’d considered Judas Priest as being too ‘soft’ for my regular diet of low-tuned guitar-grinding, noisy grunts and mangled screams. I liked my metal dripping with blood. And Painkiller was the first traditional metal record that brought all the blood I wanted – but with a more sophisticated, gritty, gripping vocal approach than I ever could imagine from a classic metal singer. Powerful screams, dynamic, emotional vocal lines and lyrics that did more for the song than just the sum of their words. Rob Halford carefully crafts his lyrics. They fit the songs as well as those trademark black leather gloves fit his hands. Every word, every phrase placed in its rightful position. Maximum impact, enhancing his powerful voice. Writing the right lyrics for a song is an art – and one he’s mastered. He is one of a kind; many have tried to copy him, but none has managed to take the sceptre of the METAL GOD away from him. He will live forever. And his screeeeeeeeeeam echoes in eternity forevermore.”
OUT ON HIS OWN
A guide to the best of Rob Halford’s non-Priest material.
War Of Words (Epic, 1993)
The first post-Priest album to feature Halford, and it lived up to his determination to pursue increasingly extreme metal. More Pantera than Judas Priest, it fitted right into the demands of the new decade.
A Small Deadly Space (Epic, 1995)
The last release from this band, which is a pity because this is where they really found their feet. The intensity and riffing are brutal, but there are also a number of more subtle, almost progressive moments.
Voyeurs (Nothing, 1997)
Shocking some of his diehard fans by going for a more industrial approach, Halford collaborated with Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor on a record that was dismissed at the time as nothing more than NIN shadow-play. But the passage of time has shown that the record has strong songwriting, and underlying menace. Voyeurs is Halford’s most underrated solo record.
Resurrection (Sanctuary, 2000)
Halford returns to his roots with an album that’s so reminiscent of Priest’s glory days. The record lives up to the title as the band mix old-school Judas Priest with the frontman’s love for underground metal. Some saw this as an open letter to Priest, suggesting a reunion.
Live Insurrection (Sanctuary, 2001)
Just to hammer home the point, Halford boosted his revived reputation as a master of metal with this double live album, spanning the best of Judas Priest, Fight and Halford. He even duetted with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson on The One You Love To Hate.
Metal God Essentials Vol 1 (Metal God Entertainment, 2007)
A compilation of some of the vocalist’s finest performances with Fight and Halford. As well as two previously unreleased tracks from the latter – Forgotten Generation and Drop Out – it also includes a bonus DVD. Neatly starts to wrap up his past.