“When you’ve cheated death, it changes your outlook on life”: Rob Halford takes us inside Judas Priest’s powerful, emotionally real new album

Judas Priest have always taught us to look adversity in the eye. When serious illness hit three of them, they had to do just that. As Rob Halford reveals, it’s fed into new record Invincible Shield. “The survival instinct is there more than on any other album…”

“When you’ve cheated death, it changes your outlook on life”: Rob Halford takes us inside Judas Priest’s powerful, emotionally real new album
Nick Ruskell
Stu Garneys

“It’s absolutely pissing it down. If I go out, I’m gonna get fucking soaked.”

In Rob Halford’s hometown of Walsall, it is, indeed, pissing it down. It’s grey, it’s cold, it’s wet, the trains are up the creek, and he’s just spent the thick end of an hour wrestling with phone technology that refuses to work properly. Settling onto a leather sofa, the Judas Priest frontman gives an exaggerated ‘what can you do?’ shrug and raises a finger with the confidence of someone about to make a very good point.

“But that’s heavy metal, isn’t it?”

There’s a laugh, but this is how Rob Halford talks, constantly. Everything is heavy metal. Everything that's right and good and proper and filled with the vitality of life, anyway. And rain. And why not? Being The Metal God is, he says, as much a responsibility as it is a cool title – you can’t just dip in and out of it. You live it.

Today, as ever, he looks the embodiment of heavy metal: black shirt, shades indoors, bald head, big white Santa beard, septum piercing. But (again, as ever) it’s in his attitude and demeanour that you understand what he means by heavy metal, why he actually is The Metal God.

At 72, and half a century since Judas Priest’s Rock-A-Rolla debut album, Rob remains a man enlivened by life itself, talking enthusiastically and at pace about everything, from noting that his relationship with K! goes all the way back to our beginnings in 1981 (as both an artist and a reader), to discussing his health, to whatever new music he’s devouring, listing Svalbard, Malevolence and Sleep Token as just three current faves.

“I’m obsessed with Sleep Token,” he enthuses. “I think they’re really interesting. I’ve done my research online and found out who they all are and stuff – I’m a fiend for that. I need to get a selfie, The Metal God with Vessel.”

And when it comes to the reason we’re with him today, Priest’s 19th album, the irrepressibly metal Invincible Shield, on top of this enthusiasm, you can add a great deal of pride to the mix as well.

“I don’t want to put myself on a pedestal, but I normally come up with the titles,” he grins. “In the world of heavy metal, the band, the fans, the metal community, it's all about the Invincible Shield. It's defending the faith. We're still defending the faith, all these years later.”

Again, this is the sort of thing Rob says all the time, and it’s great, and he really means it. But Invincible Shield is also a work that truly reflects Judas Priest’s commitment to those values of never backing down, never being defeated, in a very real way.

On the day that Kerrang! sat with Rob to talk about Priest’s last album, 2018’s Firepower, the band announced that guitarist Glenn Tipton was living with Parkinson’s. Proudly, they hailed their friend for his work on the album, adding that he’d be sitting out full-time touring, but would be joining them onstage as and when, a promise that has been kept and has seen him (deservedly) receive a hero’s welcome when he does.

That Glenn remains a core part of the Priest machine in the studio is to overcome challenge enough. But there’s more. Between then and now, Rob has undergone surgery and treatment for prostate cancer. Guitarist Richie Faulkner, meanwhile, having felt weird while performing at 2021’s Louder Than Life festival in Kentucky, was rushed to hospital immediately afterwards. Doctors told him he was lucky to be alive. The weird feeling had been an aortic aneurysm. “His heart basically exploded,” says Rob.

What all this has done to Priest, a band whose whole bit has always been to roll up your sleeves, run headfirst at whatever’s causing you grief, and have the balls to actually be alive, can be heard on Invincible Shield. Far from repetition of classic Priest stuff, it’s actually buffed them up and reinforced the whole exercise.

“When you've cheated death, it does change your outlook on life,” says Rob. “I haven't really had a long chat to Richie about what happened. But from my own personal experiences – the brilliant people that saved my life through the cancer stuff – it does make you readjust some thinking in your mind that ordinarily you wouldn't have to confront. Writing this album, that survival instinct is probably there more than any other that we've ever done. Just because, on the surface, look what is going on.”

“You know, when you're in a band you don't really talk much about your feelings, you just don’t,” he continues. “Maybe it’s just a bloke thing or whatever. But you can certainly feel those emotions in the performance. Everybody’s full on – everybody’s always full on – but there's just an emotional reference that's coming over.”

This is undoubtedly, and heroically, what gives Invincible Shield a good deal of its heft and power. But it’s also true that Judas Priest continue to be Judas Priest because they like being Judas Priest.

An example: Rob says that to write the album, he, Glenn and Richie would convene at Glenn’s place, 15 minutes by car from Rob’s UK base in Walsall. In traffic, other drivers were twice daily treated to the site of Rob singing ideas into a handheld tape recorder, trying to get them out as quickly as they came into his head, just firing off one after another.

“I dunno what people must think when they see me screaming my head off in the bloody car,” he laughs. “But all of that excitement, and all of that creativity, and all of that energy is building and building and building. By the time I get to Glenn's, there's just this unbelievable atmosphere of possibilities.

“I don't think we've ever sat in the room there and there's been a struggle,” he adds. “It's not easy – it absolutely isn't easy. There's always been a load of ideas, and I’m always grabbing my recorder and catching something they’re noodling around with. But to actually grab on to something that's going to have value, and really going to do the business, it’s like digging for gold.”

What is it that you’re looking for? Priest could pump out a few riffs and a chorus without even trying – where’s the bit that gets to be heavy metal?

“You're testing yourself more than anything else,” he ponders. “Can we still do it? You don't really know anything about that side of who you are until you get into writing mode. Sometimes, you just know when you’ve got something really special and of substance, and that’s when you go and record. We’re not making records because the label are asking for one more album on the contract. Nothing to do with that – it’s because of this real, genuine love and desire for making more metal.”

Ask Rob if he feels this keeps his band relevant, and he nods.

“I was waiting for you to say that word, ‘relevant,’” he responds. “If this band wasn't relevant, I'd be in a totally different place in terms of this conversation. What's the point if you're not relevant? And I mean that partly in the sense of, I used to hate nostalgia, being called a heritage band, classic metal – I used to hate all that. Now I embrace it, because it's part of who we are.Those words should be attached to this band. But I would say at the top of that list of words is relevance.”

“This [new album] is metal for 2024,” he continues. “People are still here for the genuine, real purpose and validity of what this band is all about, has always been about. It’s hard to put all these words into the speakers. When you manage it, they manifest themselves. That's relevance right there.”

For a man who now lists his permanent address as being in Arizona, who makes his bread by being one of metal’s most recognisable and iconic figures, in some sense Rob Halford remains just a bloke from The Midlands. Not just because “I’ve still got my Yam-Yam accent”, or his very British sense of humour, but in that he is self-evidently a grafter, who takes what he’s doing seriously and doesn’t expect anyone to do the work for him.

Even the schedule for writing Invincible Shield speaks to an ingrained, old-fashioned, sleeves-up ethic. Five days a week, Rob would “make my schoolboy lunchbox, with my sandwich and my crisps and my Kit-Kat” and spend a working week beavering away at Glenn’s. For two months they did this, until the job was done.

“The reality of who I am and where I'm from, is absolutely vital to me in my life,” he says. “The West Midlands, the Black Country, the home of heavy metal, it's just a wonderful place. To just be here and sit in the kitchen, there's no other place like it. The music that’s come from here – Black Sabbath, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Duran Duran – it's beautiful.

“I do spend a lot of time in America, but [sometimes] I can't wait to get home. I’ll get off the plane, there's a car that picks me up from Heathrow, I’ll get in, drop my bags, and walk down to the chip shop and get a pickled egg.”

If this all sounds a bit mundane and ordinary for The Metal God, you’d be right. But it’s still also part of who he is. And anyway, it never lasts long. The pull of heavy metal, that feeling of excitement and adventure and being alive and not wasting the time you have by not doing the thing you love remains far too strong.

“There are some days where I can't be arsed, and I just think, ‘I'm gonna watch Homes Under The Hammer today,’” he says. “All of that shit that old people do. And then 20 minutes later I’ll go, ‘I can't wait to pack the suitcase again and get back on the road.’

“It's not lost on me how blessed we are and how grateful we are to be able to take the suitcase out, lock the door, and not come back for 12 months. If that isn't love and passion for what you do, I don't know what is.”

You ask Rob Halford what he’d do without doing this, without a life of metal, and for once he’s scoobied. Good. As he says himself, even with the changes half a century and shrapnel on the job can bring, Priest continue to charge ahead for the same reasons they started. Rain - real or the metaphorical kind - isn't a problem.

“We’re still getting in the van,” beams The Metal God. “Heavy metal: it’s just what we fucking do.”

Judas Priest’s album Invincible Shield is released on March 8 via Sony. The band tour the UK from March 2.

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