umerous critics have proclaimed heavy metal to be dead, yet the dozens of long-haired, leather-decked fans backstage at New York's Roseland on a wintry Friday night quickly negate that feeble theory. This motley crew are awaiting the arrival of legendary metal gods Judas Priest, the famous British rockers who brought metal to prominence on an international level and who just performed a blistering set for over 3,000 enraptured fans. Once guitarist K.K. Downing and new frontman Ripper Owens enter the fray, devout fans descend upon them, eager for a word or an autograph, a chance to connect with their heroes.
Judging from this display of adulation, one might think that it was still the 1980s when Priest were conquering arenas across America. But this is February 1998, and the band are in the midst of a comeback tour, supporting their first new album in seven years, the electrifying, over-the-top Jugulator. This might seem like yet another after-hours meet-n-greet session, but considering the situation a few years ago, it's taken a lot to get the band back here.
Following legendary frontman Rob Halford's departure from Priest in 1992, the remaining quartet were left with a most daunting task - to replace arguably the best singer in the history of rock music, a brilliant vocalist capable of unleashing ear-piercing screams on command. After four years - and a bizarre twist of fate - the Birmingham bashers discovered Tim Owens, a screamer/singer par excellence whom guitarist Glenn Tipton dubbed "Ripper" after his reportedly blood-curling rendition of the song of the same name. The man can scream like hell and sustain it. And with him, Priest have proved that they can still deliver the goods. Bedazzled audiences worldwide have displayed their renewed faith in the band and in Owens, something skeptics felt would be unlikely given Halford's legacy. But Owens can sing the Priest tunes just as well as his predecessor.
The members of Judas Priest don't talk much about Halford these days. In fact, when discussing their history, they avoid references to their former frontman if possible. They're very focused on their present situation. "The Japanese tour is already sold out," reports Tipton. "It's only been on sale for two weeks, and we're not going over there for another three months. In Europe, we've sold more albums than Painkiller. So when you consider there's no single on this album, it's total heavy metal, we've been away for 8 years, we've got new blood, it's just phenomenal, you know." As proof, Jugulator hit number 9 on the charts in both Japan and Germany, debuted at 82 in the States, and went gold in Greece in very little time.
Unlike many groups who would prefer to shirk the clubs and smaller venues after achieving arena status, Priest have gladly plunged into them on this initial cross-country trek, playing before audiences ranging from 1,000 to 5,500 people, solid numbers given the current state of metal in America. The band are also smart enough to know that being away for so long, they need to reacquaint people with Priest and vice versa. "Every gig's been the same," declares Tipton. "They're welcoming us with open arms, and it's great."