When you’re intimately familiar with a band – particularly a legendary one, like Judas Priest – we tend to think that we can no longer be surprised. We’ve heard their sound, and we know what they have to offer. While this attitude is perfectly warranted, it can blind us to masterpieces hidden right under our noses.
So I wasn’t particularly keen on picking up Halford’s 2001 live album, Live Insurrection; I only grabbed it because it was available for a single dollar. I thought I’d heard the best Rob Halford had to offer. Wasn’t this post-Priest, post-prime Halford? Surely this was a product churned out for diehard fans and completionists?
The emphatic answer: hell fucking no. If you have never heard this album before, stop what you’re doing right now and listen to the first track, “Resurrection”.
On Live Insurrection, Halford is possessed. He’s always been famous for his manic screams and ridiculous vocal range, but he’s never quite sounded like this. The 2001 version of Halford wields a biting ferocity to his tone that he’s never had before. His words burst with contemptuous authenticity; even the high, sustained notes sound as if they’ve been spat forth rather than sung. The resulting image is of some terrific metal god bursting forth, declaring; “Holy angel lift me from this burning hell / Resurrection bring me home / Son of Judas bring the saints to my revenge / Resurrection bring me home!”
Halford’s vocal evolution really should not come as a surprise, though; compare the high-pitched crooning of Stained Class to the deranged shrieks of Painkiller. Instead of gradually and gracefully losing the luster to his golden pipes, Halford’s voice just transformed with the times. And it’s not as if he’s lost the ability to sing clear, sweet, and high like he did in Judas Priest’s early career — he’s simply added to his vocal repertoire. Maybe he made a deal with the devil, or maybe his vocal chords age like fine wine — but in any case, Halford’s continuing vocal development has solidified his status as a metal god.
It seems inhuman to keep up the expectation-demolishing vocal style of “Resurrection”, but Halford continues to snarl-shriek his way through the next few songs, most of which are Halford originals. “Light out of Black”, in particular, features Halford repeatedly sustaining ridiculous high notes while forcing air through his vocal chords at what must be 100 miles per hour.
Although the Halford originals are good fun (and “Resurrection could have been a Painkiller-style Judas Priest classic), the real draw of Live Insurrection is the ample selection of Judas Priest favorites. If you’re a Judas Priest fan (and I hope you are if you’ve gotten this far), you absolutely must hear 2001 Halford’s reimagining of classics like “Stained Class”. He stays true to the original melodies of the track, but he makes the song downright mean. There isn’t a boring note; without being excessive, Halford inflects almost every phrase with a staccato shout, or a downturning snarl, or an unexpected octave change, or long, held scream. This is the work of a master manipulating his art, art he’s been constantly reproducing and reshaping since 1978, to utter perfection. This is Rob Halford at peak vocal ability, with a quarter-century of experience spent playing with the quirks and irregularities of “Stained Class”, poured out in one stunning performance for regular folks like you and me to appreciate. It’s really something to behold, and Halford is kind enough to do it on every Judas Priest track offered on the double live album — and there are more than a few.
Although this album ultimately revolves around Rob Halford (it is his solo band, after all), his bandmates deserve a shoutout as well. Their playing is tight and clean, and they perform Judas Priest songs faithfully and adroitly, with all the bells and whistles that K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton encoded onto the studio albums back in the day. The audience deserves mention, as well; they uplift songs like “Electric Eye” with their impassioned singing, and they’re vocal enough to preserve the “live album” feel, but the crowd noise never detracts from the performance.
Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that because you’ve heard Unleashed in the East, you’ve heard the best Rob Halford has to offer live. You haven’t heard his best until you’ve heard him sustain one of his highest notes for 10 full seconds in the final chorus of “Jawbreaker”; until you’ve his voice at its most mobile and dynamic shriek through “Electric Eye” while the crowd screams along; until you’ve heard “Beyond the Realms of Death” in its most perfect version. If you’ve ever enjoyed any era of Judas Priest, you owe it to yourself to listen to a live album showcasing a legendary vocalist in metal history at the highest point in his career.