When I first heard that Judas Priest was basing their next album on the life of Nostradamus, I thought the idea was hilarious. When the laughter ended, it suddenly dawned on me that composing an album…a concept double album…at this stage of their career is an incredibly brave decision.
Strange, to be sure, but brave nonetheless.
After all, this is a band that has been in existence for thirty years and achieved an iconic stature where all they need to do is essentially play it safe, rest comfortably on their impressive history and trudge out the hits every few years.
And pragmatically, a concept album circa 2008 is either a band that’s completely out of touch with the marketplace (who makes “albums” anymore?) or just plain unconcerned with the public’s reaction. Thinking from that point, that ambivalence of perception, fueled entirely by creative need, Judas Priest may have unwittingly made the most important album of their career.
On the other hand, they may have also made their Saucy Jack.
The scope of Nostradamus is both insane and, ultimately, its Achilles Heel. With over an hour and a half running time, the album provides little opportunity for a truncated listening experience, and little in the way of a single or focus track. The album is meant to be listened to as a whole, and even the most patient of fans will be tested.
Additionally, the album is structured at an almost operatic pace, complete with vivid orchestrations, vast arrangements, and layers of keyboards. When the twin-guitar heroics of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton do creep into the mix, they are intensely thought-out and eloquently delivered. These two are some of metal’s most brilliant guitarist and the pallets of sound, tone, and execution they provide Nostradamus are examples of musicianship that go beyond Priest’s (and metal’s) traditional abilities.
Rob Halford seems to be this project’s primary instigator, curiously trading in his traditional four-octave wail for a method-acting style of vocalization. Yes, there are moments when you can actually envision Haltford becoming the character Nostradamus, believing that this project is his pinnacle accomplishment. It makes it all that much harder to actually tell him that it isn’t.
One of the biggest complaints is how under-utilized drummer Scott Travis is throughout the album. He is one of metal’s most dynamic drummers, yet his performance in Nostradamus is intentionally restrained, following the preordained script of the album’s theme. One moment he’s delivering rock hard, double bass drum rhythms and then as quickly, we’re under the spell of a light, transitional piece with pianos and strings.
While the sheer scope…lyrical, performance, and production…is utterly impressive, the reality of it’s impact circa 2008 is entirely different. The issue is not that people don’t actually buy albums anymore, it’s that our cynicism may actually be at a point where a project like this can’t succeed. Not only do the aforementioned Spinal Tap references immediately come to mind, but also the band itself does little to avoid the trappings that can, and will, place this project as comedic fodder.
There is enough good material here to whittle Nostradamus down to a workable and impressive single disc. At the same time, the band clearly had a bigger intent: to set Nostradamus’ entire life and legacy to music, and by scaling back on this would have shortchanged the idea.
This origin falls in the hands of Priest’s manager, Bill Curbishley, who reportedly suggested the idea of a concept album to the band after 2005’s Angel Of Retribution.
Curbishley, who worked with The Who on Tommy, has a history of pushing artists into new territories, but he also has a history of questionable recommendations: he’s responsible for the film adaptation of Tommy as well as the notion that Roger Daltrey had a legitimate shot at an acting career after playing the deaf, dumb, and blind kid.
To suggest an enormous project like Nostradamus, particularly to a veteran metal band with no real experience in conceptual pieces, is extremely presumptuous. It’s not necessarily a dangerous idea as the band has been working without a blues-based formula since Sin After Sin, and Nostradamus is a clear extension of the band’s European lineage. However, it is an unnecessary risk that appeals neither to long time fans or brings in new ones. Had the band actually succeeded in creating metal’s first opera, then of course all of this would have been a brilliant, late career comeback that helped elevate metal to a higher standard. Instead, it merely follows the same path as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical clad in leather.
In its current, overly long state, Nostradamus will be hard to convince loyal metal fans that it’s worth their attention and, if they do happen to listen, it will be even harder to convince them that it rocks.