Last week on Voices of The Void, we discussed the idea of fachs in the metal world. If you haven’t read up on the Dio fach, do yourself a favor and get caught up. After Dio established his voice as uniquely metal, new personalities quickly hit the scene with new vocal ideas. The next big metal voice was Rob Halford, frontman of legendary metal gods, Judas Priest. For this segment about him, you can follow along with our nifty Spotify playlist at the end.
Like Dio and Rainbow, Judas Priest was born out of the bluesy hard rock scene in the UK of the 1970s. There comes with this particular type of music, a sort of rock paradox. On one hand, dudes like Robert Plant and Ian Gillan were totally macho sex icons. On the other hand, they were skinny, long-haired, high-voiced young men with frilly shirts and tight pants. This wasn’t really a hurdle for proto-metal frontmen like Ozzy Osbourne and Dio as they sidestepped the less “manly” clichés of rock by adding gothic remoteness and heroic fervor respectively. Rob Halford, on the other hand, took the flamboyant showmanship of hard rock (something eventually revealed to be interconnected with his sexuality) and ramped it up to 11.
Rocka Rolla was a modest debut for Priest. It wasn’t until their sophomore album, Sad Wings of Destiny, that they established themselves at the forefront of the budding metal scene. The success of this album lies somewhat in its compositional quality. Its lengthier songs like “Epitaph” and the classic “Victim of Changes” are brilliant early metal roller coaster rides. However, the band can only do so much. Plenty of hard rock/proto-metal albums dropped in 1976 but who else had a Rob Halford? The dude makes every song a masterpiece from his quirky character singing on “The Ripper” to his vocal layering on “Tyrant” to the balanced and well-paced story arc he creates with “Victim of Changes.” Halford had the emotional range and tender care for every small phrase in a song like no other singer. He bought drama and real storytelling to metal. This is a big deal. Most NWOBHM bands rely heavily on storytelling and metal to this day has a huge sense of showmanship and drama. Listen to literally any song on Sad Wings and you can hear this. They’re all stories. My personal favorite is the “Dreamer Deciever” two-part saga.
In addition to the drama, Halford brought a completely new instrument to metal. While Ian Gillan had pioneered the extreme falsetto style a few years earlier, Halford brought new clarity to it. Gillian’s vibrato was wide and almost too intense at times. Halford could float a note for days with crystal clear finesse, almost like he had no break in his voice at all. Again, any song on Sad Wings demonstrates this. You might also listen to “Sinner” off of Sin After Sin.
As Priest embraced their hard rock/progressive rock roots, Halford got to experiment with his voice as well. Given his extremely wide range, vocal layering opened up many possibilities for him. By 1978’s Stained Glass, Halford was making fully realized choral parts with his own voice. Maybe Freddie Mercury had done this before Halford did it, but Halford’s forward and nasally voice makes his take all the more thrilling and metal as fuck. Listen to “Exciter” for one of the best choral chord progressions ever recorded. This is also a huge deal for metal. Dense vocal layering is so important in power metal and progressive metal and it all starts with Halford.
1978 was the year of Priest’s best forward-thinking album and the year of their first pop metal album, Killing Machine, or Hell Bent For Leather in America. Again, this pop metal thing is still being done today and it takes a great frontman like Halford to pull it off. Priest turned into a singles machine after this and metal wouldn’t have the place in modern culture that it does if it wasn’t for their run from 1978 to about 1990. During this singles era, Halford’s grittier lower range became his default. Compare tracks like “Metal Gods” and “Hell Bent For Leather” to older classics mentioned before and the change is evident. Perhaps this was easier for Halford to keep up with on a diet of cocaine and whiskey every night or maybe it was simply age taking away his higher notes. Whatever the reason, his steely voice fit the music perfectly. Halford also continued to make his layered vocals more and more interesting. “Electric Eye” is like a futuristic version of “The Ripper” with every single line containing the perfect diction and in-studio vocal effects necessary to achieve a seamless heavy metal movie.
With the rise of thrash and extreme metal, the second half of the 80s had Priest declining in popularity. However, they still wrote some fantastic pop-metal records. I would go as far to say that this is their best era. Defenders of the Faith, Turbo and Ram it Down saw the band go from entry-level heavy metal to speed metal masters. Halford’s voice got completely insane and while his screams happened fewer times on these albums, they were more powerful than ever. Take the catchy, “Jawbreaker”, while it’s slowly building climax. The opening verses have Halford’s typical raspy bark and the first choruses just hint at his higher range. Then, after the solo, he lets it loose and shows us what he can really do. Other tracks like “Freewheel Burning” and “Johnny B. Goode” demonstrate a similar restraint and beautiful pay off.
Painkiller was the band’s ultimate culmination of this speed metal era. It isn’t often that a band maintains relevancy as long as Priest did and it is even more rare that a band puts out an album as important and forward-thinking as Painkiller. The only other time in music history I can think of an artist doing this is Dr. Dre’s 2001 or Johnny Cash’s final cover albums. Judas Priest, a proto-metal band that should have been long forgotten by 1990, created a metal masterpiece and it is in no small part because of Rob Halford’s incredible vocal presence on it. Whereas on other pop-metal Priest, Halford held back, Painkiller was all about giving every last drop of insanity. The title track alone presents one of the greatest vocal metal performances of all time (later topped, surprisingly, by Chuck Schuldiner). Halford spent some time in his falsetto on other albums but it seems he never leaves it on “Painkiller.” The song is absolutely wicked. Halford’s gritty and soaring voice lets the band compete with the ferocity of 90’s extreme metal and not sound at all dated or old fashioned. Painkiller was the ultimate Halford. It has the drama, the British pomp, the power, the range, and the vicious bark. Every peak, though, has its decent.
After Painkiller, Rob Halford came out of the closet and went solo. This was a huge step forward for metal culturally but his creative output began to lose some of its touch. While much of his solo material is still worth listening to, his creative genius never reached the same height as it did with Priest. He was born to be in Priest and without them, he just didn’t click. On the other hand, while the later Halford-Priest material usually gets a bad critical write-up, a lot of this is just due to seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses. Angel of Retribution is a great fan service album with more than enough great songs. Nostradamus is a really interesting concept album, something that Halford’s drama and theatrics fulfill pretty nicely. Finally, Redeemer of Souls is perhaps the closest the band has ever gotten to recreating Painkiller, with plenty of aggression and speed to spare.
The reason Halford is the second metal fach is because he created a paradigm for metal vocalists to easily slip into. Young singers in the 80s and 90s found so much inspiration in his signature sound and many have made full careers off of sounding exactly like him. Primal Fear, for example, has spent 11 albums successfully recreating Painkiller, and frontman Ralf Scheepers was actually nearly Halford’s replacement. He was pushed out of that opportunity by Tim Owens, another Halford sound alike and metal’s favorite vocalist to fire. These two vocalists alone have a lifetime’s worth of solid material in the vein of Priest, from Primal Fear to Iced Earth to their respective solo albums. Further, vocalists like Sean Peck (Cage), Henry Conklin (Jag Panzer), and James Rivera (Helstar) have all found some aspect of Halford in their music whether it be his endless upper range, storytelling skills, or crazy leather outfits. Halford became a character type everyone needed in their metal story.
And with that, the Halford fach has been explained. I am so glad to see the interest in this series grow. Singing is such an interesting medium that I love writing about. I will return after a short break from the blog to continue talking about metal fachs. Soon, we’ll be getting into extreme metal as well as a certain frontman-pilot. Thank you all and see you next time!