By JOHN PATRICK GATTA
IVE MUSICIANS ARE SITTINGaround a table ...
Waiting for a punch line? That depends on whether you're a dyed-in-the-wool heavy metalhead who's excitedly pumping your fist in the air over the news that Judas Priest reunited with original frontman Rob Halford.
Encouraged by their record company, the five members met to discuss track selection for what would become a career-spanning box set, "Metalogy."
"The 30th anniversary [of the band] was looming, so Sony Records contacted us. They wanted to do something really nice for that," said guitarist K.K. Downing during a recent phone interview.
"We had a meeting where we were altogether in one room. And it seemed obvious from all parties that everybody was ready to do something different again, the same but different."
Halford left the group right after its 1991 tour to pursue new musical directions (the industrial rock of Two) and work with new collaborators (the underrated Fight). Shell-shocked from his sudden departure, the remaining members -- Downing and fellow guitarist Glenn Tipton, bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis -- hooked up with Akron's Tim "Ripper" Owens, who previously sang in a local Priest tribute act.
Owens appeared on three albums and took part in several world tours. But, increasingly frustrated by his lack of involvement in the band's songwriting, he moved on to another metal outfit, Iced Earth.
"I think he wanted to be able to do his own thing, set his own character and profile. I'm sure he will be a superstar vocalist in his own right, if he's not already," Downing said.
Bringing it back to Priest, he continued, "Everything was very amicable and everything just tied together, probably a lot easier than it did when we first met all those years ago in the late '60's. It's just been like a good idea while we still can, you know?"
Style and image
From its 1974 debut, "Rocka Rolla," and on through the last release to feature Halford with Downing, Tipton, Hill and Travis, 1990's "Painkiller," Judas Priest produced a style -- twin guitars sounding like an oncoming freight train -- and image -- leather, studs and chains -- that laid the groundwork for scores of heavy metal's followers.
The band's pinnacle of success came about during the '80s when MTV played singles such as "Breaking the Law," "Heading Out to the Highway" and "You've Got Another Thing Comin'."
As with many of the genre's artists, the onslaught of grunge and modern rock's brief dominance caused Priest's popularity to be limited to its most ardent fans. With the passing of years, and a renewed interest in hard rock acts, Priest regained its position with fans, but nothing could compare to its classic lineup.
News of the much-rumored reunion spread like a southern California wildfire. A prime spot on the Main Stage during Ozzfest 2004, heavy metal's annual high-profile summer festival, and the writing and recording of a brand new studio effort lent legitimacy to one of the genre's most commercially successful acts (20 million albums sold worldwide).
The buzz surrounding Priest's appearance this year grows louder since it plays on the same bill as the festival's headliner, Black Sabbath featuring its original line up of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward. Maybe there's something in the water because both Sabbath and Priest hail from Birmingham, England.
Downing describes the pairing as a historic event of two of the genre's legendary artists. As for his band, the focus will be on its best known numbers in order to make a powerful statement of the band's return.
"It's really a re-introduction of the trademark line up of Judas Priest and that's what it's really all about. We want people to know that we're here, ready, willing and more than able to deliver the goods."
With the band's brand new effort coming out on Dec. 27, the more than five hours of hits, rarities and lives tracks on "Metalogy" remind listeners of Priest's enduring appeal. Unlike the pure aggression from the majority of metal's current crop of artists, that appeal rests in short, hook-laden bursts.
When asked whether any of the new breed of heavy metal bands on Ozzfest have impressed him, Downing admitted that his schedule of interviews, meet-and-greets, travel and show preparation has left him little time to check out any of the bands playing on the Second Stage.
Still, he's familiar with the changes that have transpired to the metal genre over the past decade. While he's appreciative that a number of the musicians on Ozzfest rate his band as an influence, he doesn't hear it in their songs.
"A lot of the new bands seem to miss out the importance of the melody. We like to create songs that people will remember, whether it's the overall theme or vibe or the lyrics or the beat or just the hooks in the songs. I don't think that's extremely important [in newer bands].
"We've always prided ourselves on our heaviness and our rawness, but we've always felt that the great need to keep those important moments in the song that people can latch onto."
It's the attention to melody and song structure that has kept millions of followers devoted to Judas Priest despite its changes. Now, with the core players together again, they could be headed toward renewed success.