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Idol & Judas Priest, Saving Heavy Metal From the Slag Heap

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page C01

Middle age has done nothing to hamper snarly rocker Billy Idol's hunger for sex, satanic references and snug leather pants. Same goes for Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford, a randy demon whose lust for rawhide has caused more cow casualties than Burger King. Way back in ye olde '80s, the Harley-riding hell-raisers were kindred kings of mayhem, Billy rebel-yelling for more more more pop-punk fisticuffs, Rob fathering the new wave of British heavy metal.

Twenty-plus years later, not much has changed: On two deliciously retro new albums, the old blokes can still teach the kids a wicked trick or two.

British metal band Judas Priest, with Rob Halford back out front, has a new album that debuted in Billboard's top 15. (Ross Halfin)

Sinister, stoopid and endlessly fun, Idol's "Devil's Playground" (his first studio album in 12 years) and Judas Priest's "Angel of Retribution" (the band's first with Halford since 1990) have garnered significant ballyhoo lately. Idol hasn't received such good press since he cameoed in the 1998 flick "The Wedding Singer." "Angel of Retribution" debuted in the top 15 on the Billboard charts, an impressive achievement for a band celebrating its 35th anniversary. This continues a notable trend: the Darkness, Velvet Revolver, the Motley Crue reunion tour, and now Idol and Judas Priest. Yep, metal is back in a big bad way.

What the world apparently needs now is power chords and naughty innuendo. And heaven knows, there are more double entendres on Idol's latest than in an episode of "Three's Company." The 49-year-old native of Middlesex, England, who almost lost his life in a 1990 motorcycle accident, ponders "Does he still have the magic?" on the rambunctious opener "Super Overdrive," a remember-when nod to his teenage days fronting Generation X.

Soon enough, though, he forgets the deep thoughts and invites listeners to "Ride my rocket" and "Climb up my lemon tree." Pondering was never Billy's strong suit anyway. He's still all about showing the ladies a good time and showing Beelzebub who's the naughtiest guy around.

In between goofy Gothic trips to "the black country" with its "blood red skies," Birmingham, England's Halford, 53, also addresses his love life on his new disc, and that's where things really get interesting. The head Priest went public with his homosexuality some 12 years ago, forcing a handful of clueless metalheads -- come on, dudes, your codpieced hero made Liberace look preppy -- to rethink the classic "Turbo Lover." Halford left the band right after his announcement, forcing the crew to sign utility howler Tim "Ripper" Owens, who had fronted a Priest cover band.

Owens was a good story, but Halford is a metal messiah. On the tingly new power ballad "Angel," Halford tenderly calls out for a lover: "When I close my eyes I hear your velvet wings and cry / I'm waiting here with open arms." Yes, the angel is a dude.

Of course, Idol and Halford's lyrical prowess was never the point. When Billy's spaz-out special "Dancing With Myself" and the Priest's raised-fist anthem "You've Got Another Thing Comin' " are on the car radio, you don't scratch your chin and ponder the poetry; you roll down the freakin' car window, hit the gas and shout along like a moron. Give these guys credit for still understanding the job at hand: full-on rock-and-rage for the air guitarist in all of us.

Though Halford's operatic wail is remarkably intact, Idol's rowdy days of questionable ingestibles have left him with a ragged voice. (To be fair, at least Billy still has that cool spiky bleached-blond hair; Rob has since given up on his thinning peroxide job and shaved his dome.) When Idol tries to sing -- as on the regrettable "Plastic Jesus" -- he sounds like Meat Loaf with a mouthful of Utz. But when he growls, grunts and moans to his preferred fuel-injected beat, he gets the job done.

The sex romp "Scream," the first single from "Devil's Playground," is built to blow up arenas, a ferocious bit of fun fueled by loyal guitarist Steve Stevens, the dude who made his ax sound like an exploding laser on "Rebel Yell." Stevens also provides his boss with a frisky riff on "World Comin' Down," a joyously nihilistic kiss-off that would have been a monster hit back when MTV still thought Idol was vital. And remember to play "Yellin' at the Christmas Tree" when yuletide comes around. It's a darkly comic look at Idol's dysfunctional upbringing, and it cooks on a jackhammer beat and the sound of sleigh bells.

Whereas many of Idol's songs can be enjoyed on the dance floor, Judas Priest, the band that bridged the gap between the sludge of Black Sabbath and the glam of Motley Crue, is best appreciated from the neck up. Use of your legs is solely restricted to kicking something valuable during the defiant we're-back speedsters "Judas Rising" ("Ascending from Hell / Forever despising / Judas is rising") and "Deal With the Devil" ("Something in our blood won't let us die"). Both feature the prickly twin guitar assault of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, hairy, hyper gnomes whose dueling solos zip in and out like fighter jets.

On "Revolution," Halford wails so majestically it's as if he has Father Time locked up in the trunk. "Worth Fighting For" is the lighter side of the Priest, a midtempo love song with a catchy chorus and, lo and behold, a melody. It's metal bliss, I tell ya.

Both "Devil's Playground" and "Angel of Retribution" eventually run out of ideas at their filler ends, but too much fun has been had by then to kill the buzz. When Motley Crue introduced new songs on its recent sold-out tour, the fresh cuts were nothing more than a good time for a bathroom break. That's the rule: New stuff from old legends always stinks, right? But when Idol and Judas Priest come to town this summer, fans should be wise about when they run to the restroom. These guys still want to write killer stuff. After all, leather ain't cheap.

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