Rob Halford is an artist who knows his audience.
When asked about beginning his massive tour of the U.S., Mexico and Europe in Northeastern Pennsylvania in support of his band’s latest album, the iconic metal vocalist and longtime Judas Priest frontman immediately mentions that he’s recently been talking about outspoken Priest fan and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz during a radio interview.
“We’d like to feel we’re a little attached to that great win the Eagles got for the first time ever,” Halford said in a phone interview. “It’s like metal, isn’t it? They’ve been working so hard to win, and they finally got there. That’s just perseverance. That’s what life’s all about.”
Plenty of Eagles fans and metal fans will have a chance to see Halford perform when Judas Priest headlines an evening of music that begins at 7 p.m. March 13 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre Township and also features special guests Saxon and Black Star Riders.
Priest will arrive in NEPA shortly after the release of “Firepower,” which is scheduled to premiere on Friday. The album was recorded under the combined auspices of veteran Priest producer Tom Allom and sought-after studio professional Andy Sneap.
The result, according to Halford, has been a seamless marriage of classic Priest sounds and modern metal production.
“Both of these guys are tremendously talented, and both are so in love with this band and what this band has been doing in metal so many years,” Halford said. “They knew how important this record was for us, and the work they put into it was extraordinary. Music is an emotionally-based substance, and you have to nurture it. From day one, what we could hear coming through was tremendously encouraging, and that feeds into performance. That is just colossal.”
“Firepower” is full of the type of ferociously-paced and hard-hitting metal that put Priest on the map, but it also showcases hints of heavy blues on “Children of the Sun” and “Flame Thrower,” and even offers balladry in the form of the classical-sounding piano and guitar instrumental “Guardians,” which gives way to the vocally softer and lyrically poignant “Rising From Ruins.”
“This is an accumulation of all the great things the band has done over the decades,” Halford said. “It seems to filter into this one space, and all of the attributes of what you know about Priest in terms of hundreds of songs we’ve made and the way we’ve taken metal from ‘Rocka Rolla’ to ‘Firepower’ have crystallized into on spot.”
And Halford has had the rare-in-rock ‘n’ roll privilege of reaching that point with musicians he’s worked alongside for decades. Bassist Ian Hill is the longest standing member of the group; guitarist Glenn Tipton has played on every Priest album since “Rocka Rolla” in 1974; and drummer Scott Travis has been behind the kit for nearly 30 years.
“It’s a little of everything,” Halford said in regard to the relative consistency in the Priest lineup after the mid-’70s. “It’s the musicianship you’re married to through each other. It’s the friendship you have. There’s a lot of chemistry, the bond of having the same sensibilities and believing in the balance you’re in, everyone pulling his weight and everyone being as important as everyone else. You know you’re surrounded by people who have the same intent as yourself, and you become part of this big thing called Judas Priest.”
During preparation for the tour, the band had to come to terms with change when Tipton announced on Feb. 12 that his progression through Parkinson’s disease, with which he was diagnosed 10 years ago, led him to the decision to step down from touring. Sneap has stepped in to play Tipton’s guitar parts, and Tipton has made it clear he’s not leaving the band and may join Priest onstage when he’s feeling able.
“We’re settling into this whole thing in an emotional sense,” Halford said. Andy (Sneap) is a deciding play in whether we’ve been able to stay on course and get to Wilkes-Barre. He’s a massive Priest fan, and he’s a phenomenal guitar player. This is an example of when life — there’s an expression about lemons and lemonade; it doesn’t sound very metal — whatever life throws at you, you have to take it on. Glenn (Tipton) is a perfect example of that. He worked hard to get his parts done on the record, and he has this tremendously selfless attitude of ‘the show must go on.’ It’s a real mixture of raw emotion and, at the same time, rising above it and finding a way to move ahead.”
With the tour kickoff days away, Halford reflected on the gravity of having Judas Priest, Saxon and Black Star Riders — the evolution of Thin Lizzy — on one bill.
“We couldn’t be happier, because this blend of music that you’re going to listen to … is going to be really spectacular,” he said. “When you think off the top of your head, “Denim and Leather,” “Jailbreak,” “The Boys Are Back In Town,” “Living After Midnight,” “Breaking the Law” … It’s going to be a great display of a very important period of heavy metal, rock ‘n’ roll, whatever you want to call it, under one roof.”