NEW YORK -- The Voice of America is listening to the voice of Judas Priest talking about the heavy metal band's new album "Painkiller," and what the VOA hears is a soundscape where violence, aggression and pain are leavened with hopelessness.
But that's "just an interpretation," says lead singer Rob Halford, who finds "hopefulness and optimism" in the sci-hi-fi adventures of the character he has called Painkiller, a metallic "antidote to annihilation" who drops out of the sky to save the post-Armageddon human race through a violent and destructive fantasy.
"The album takes on tough topics, but it ends up with a guy riding off into the sunset and everything's wonderful with the world," says Halford, sitting in the VOA studio and chatting with a host for a program that will go out to 130 million listeners around the globe.
"You take a hopeless situation and turn it around, and if you work hard and do the right things, then some good will inevitably come out of a disastrous situation. And that's life in general, let's face it," he says. "When you're 15 or 16 and you're confused, your body's changing, your head's changing because of what's going on in the world, your best friend at that time is generally music," Halford says. "Nothing makes sense until you go home and turn on your Walkman or your radio, and there's the music. There's your friend, there is somebody that you can relate to, somebody who understands your problems and conditions, who has the same dreams and aspirations in life.
"It comes back to the remarkable unifying power metal has with its audience -- they never forget you."
And sometimes their parents don't either.
If Halford seems calculatedly defensive, he perhaps can be forgiven. Heavy metal has been on trial ever since it blasted onto the scene in the early '70s, but last year it actually went to trial in Reno, Nev. There, Halford, three fellow Priests and CBS Records were defendants in a $6.2 million product liability suit in which the parents of Ray Belknap and James "Jay" Vance claimed that malicious subliminal messages contained in the 1978 album "Stained Class" had impelled the two youths to suicide.
After years of accusations and innuendo, here was a group forced to publicly defend, in a court of law, the charge that its music was not merely bad, or seditious, or annoying, but evil. That it killed. Specifically, the suit singled out seven times when the words "do it" were sung nearly inaudibly in "Better by You, Better Than Me," a song on "Stained Class."
Belknap and Vance were avowed metalheads particularly devoted to the music of Judas Priest. Belknap, 18, died immediately in 1985 from a shotgun blast to the head; Vance, 20, lost the bottom half of his face from a similar blast and died of a methadone overdose three years later, after undergoing hundreds of hours of reconstructive surgery.
After a 14-day trial featuring a parade of witnesses offering conflicting technical and psychological testimony, the British heavy metal vets were exonerated when District Court Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead ruled in August that they "had not intentionally placed subliminal messages or backward masked messages" on the album, and that the "do its" were the result of a coincidental convergence of Halford's exhaled breath, a drum beat and a guitar sound.
While the trial exposed an ever-widening gulf between generations over music and threw a harsh light on the role of music in the American psyche, Whitehead suggested that a number of other factors might explain Belknap and Vance's behavior. After a while, the trial became as much an indictment of their familial and cultural environment -- both boys came from broken homes with abusive, alcoholic parents and a succession of stepparents; both had dropped out of high school and pursued part-time, dead-end jobs; both had long histories of substance abuse, depression and general alienation.
"These two young men lost their lives because of their tragic involvement in drugs and alcohol and dysfunctional family units in which they weren't given proper care, attention or guidance," Halford says quietly. "I'm not making light of a tragic situation, but this trial was just an attempt to shift the burden of guilt to someone else's shoulders.
"We gave them a great deal of pleasure with our music.
"Now I'd be more than pleased if we were just allowed to get on with our creativity and continue to bring pleasure and entertainment to the countless millions of people who have been listening to this music completely harm-free for many years."
Since 1976, Rob Halford has been the lead screamer for Judas Priest, one of the cornerstone bands in the much-maligned heavy metal marketplace that continues to attract millions of fans. Until it was joined by rap, heavy metal was the undisputed villain of pop culture, its doom-laden imagery and high-decibel drill-bit energy a favorite scapegoat for authority figures who blamed it for everything from poor grades and bad attitudes to murder and suicide.
When singer Halford in black leather and silver studs rode his Harley-Davidson Lowrider through a cloud of smoke to center stage at Capital Centre last month, he certainly looked like someone parents would warn their children against. Halford, 39, also looked decidedly more comfortable than he ever did in the sober suit worn during the Reno trial.
Halford is an unlikely Satan: Onstage, he's all high-octane vocals and metal posturing, but offstage he's surprisingly soft-spoken, the working-class Birmingham, England, accent serving up thoughtful observations. His short, thinning blond hair, combed forward at the Reno trial, is even shorter now, shaved at the sides to allow for thunderbolts to be shaped into his hair.
In the late '70s, Halford cultivated the leather-and-studs biker look and the band began to harvest the rewards of constant touring (as an opening act for Kiss and AC/DC before moving to headline status) and frequent recording (their catalogue is now 14 albums deep). Album titles suggested less-than-grand guignol -- "Sin After Sin," "Killing Machine," "Hell Bent for Leather," "Screaming for Vengeance," "Defenders of the Faith" (metal, not Satan) and, most recently, "Painkiller" -- but the twin-guitar-driven Priest sound, like heavy metal itself, managed to take hold in platinum obscurity, scorned not only by parents and other elders, but by critics and radio programmers.
"The music's been around for 20 years," Halford says. "Ironically, the first time it's gaining some major public recognition is due to the current social and political climate, not just with this band, but further afield in all aspects of the arts -- 2 Live Crew, Madonna, everybody."
Madonna and the Crew obviously have their fans, but their sexually focused brand of entertainment is a world apart from heavy metal, which provides as much empowerment as it does entertainment.
Critics often read endangerment for empowerment, suggesting that metal's fascination with death, destruction and generally apocalyptic themes promotes hopelessness and violent, self-destructive behavior, that like slasher and horror movies, it desensitizes young people.
"The world is not a pretty place," Halford replies. "There's a lot of bad things going on right now, and since day one. Freud says we're all basically aggressive creatures, that it's all about aggression and sex. I think we've got a much better grasp on some of this than the people who attack us."
Halford notes that Judas Priest has never written obscene lyrics or advocated Satanism, violence or substance abuse. "We are conscious people, a responsible band, and we do have our limits on where we want to go," he says.
"But once you worry about 'responsibility,' you should get out of the business. Once you say, 'Well I can do this but I can't do that,' where have you gone? You've lost your freedom of artistic expression.
"Metal's always been a little bit of an underdog," Halford adds, "like certain types of folk music have that kind of needling approach to people, or Lenny Bruce. Certain groups feel uncomfortable about being stimulated and being forced to focus on issues they want to push under the carpet and that's what this kind of music has never been afraid to do... . "
Attacks on pop figures escalated in 1990, with heavy metal and rap still favorite whipping boys. Halford's pal, Ozzy Osbourne, is facing suits in Georgia and several other states charging that his "Suicide Solution" song led to a number of suicides. A 1986 California suit against Osbourne was dismissed on the grounds that his music is protected by the First Amendment; that one too took aim at "Suicide Solution." Lost in the furor was the plain fact that the song portrays alcohol (the "solution") as a pathetic weapon of self-destruction -- hardly an endorsement of suicide.
Like Halford, Osbourne also grew up in Birmingham, where in 1969 he put together Black Sabbath, a prototype heavy metal band because of both its sound and its occult image. Birmingham is a factory town, and Halford remembers his school being surrounded by steel mills always noisy in their metal forging -- talk about subliminal influences.
Backward masking is not uncommon in the history of rock -- remember spinning "Abbey Road" and "White Album" to get odd Beatle messages? -- but no one has yet proved that the conscious mind can make any sense of such messages, and some folks have trouble figuring out what metal bands are saying on forward. Often, playing something backward unintentionally produces weird artifacts -- as in Sen. Claiborne Pell's discovery of the word "Simone" when playing George Bush tapes backward.
At the trial, Halford played a line forward and then backward: The first time, it came out clearly, "Stand by for Exciter/Salvation is his task," the second time it sounded like "I asked her for a peppermint/I asked for her to get one."
If the midsummer trial was emotionally fueled, it was also quite dulling in its exploration of sonics and psychology, what Halford calls "a battle of the minds with scientific attempts to establish unconfirmed theories in a particular area that in this judge's opinion has not been covered thoroughly: How can you say whether something on a subconscious level that you can't hear in normal human conscious perception can be covered fully or protected by the First Amendment?"
By trial's end, Judas Priest was playing to a half-filled courtroom (and a small one at that). Unlike the emotional trials of 2 Live Crew, the Judas Priest proceedings had a very reserved, very British air about them. The four band members (new American drummer Scott Travis was not a defendant) showed up every day, having traded in their leather outfits for somber suits.
"That was to show our respect for the system," Halford explains. "The prosecution was probably rubbing their hands with glee hoping we'd come trouncing in with smoke bombs, drinking gallons of blood with lasers going off. They were completely baffled to see four adult Englishmen come and conduct themselves in that way.
"It wasn't a big act on our part: We took this extremely seriously," Halford adds. "These people were trying to destroy our livelihood, to paint this kind of music in the worst possible way. It was important that we were there to stand up for ourselves and for our music and, to some extent, for the values of the American Constitution, which is rather ironic considering it was four Englishmen."
The trial cost the group and CBS more than a million dollars (besides the $40,000 CBS had to pay the plaintiffs for delays in providing master tapes). The attorneys, Halford suggests, "thought that maybe with the condition of society towards metal now, they stood a slightly stronger change of making headway in their case and their cause. Had this been 10 years ago, I don't think we'd have seen this."
The funny thing is that, despite its bad reputation, Judas Priest's brand of heavy metal is charmingly old-fashioned in an era of speed/death metal bands like Slayer, Sadus and Obituary, all of whom have pushed the envelope of sound and fury ever further. By contrast, the "Painkiller" plot seems torn from a comic book or a fantasy video game.
Halford says his fearsome, banshee-like stage demeanor is something of an act. "That's just me being the 'artist,' expressing," he says with a smile. "At the time I'm doing it, it's very genuine, very realistic and very naturalistic, but it's me being a performer. You are not necessarily what you project, though you give everything that you need to give to the role. It is a remarkable and marked contrast, sort of a Jekyll and Hyde situation."
In a sense, Halford is an actor, with a realistic view of who he is and of how absurd his theater is.
"It's a performance, a case of psyching. It's like Howie Long putting on his Raiders outfit -- the man is different at home with his wife and kids than he is from the creature who goes on the football field determined to win and do whatever he needs to do to win and come out on top."
"We have managed," Halford says, "to keep a complete separation between what we do on a performance level and what we do when we're not at work. And it is work. Like most people, when we go home we take our shoes off and do things generally not associated with that particular profession."
Having rested in England over the holidays, Halford and his fellow Priests will continue a world tour delayed until the finish of the Reno trial. After that, he will go back home, where he publishes a magazine called Where It's Hot.
No, it's not about Hell.
It's about music in Phoenix, Ariz., where Halford has lived, quietly, for the past 10 years.
Halford pleads guilty to "a relatively sane, comfortable and objective life outside of work. ... I live out the wildness, the anger and excitement on stage. When I get back home, I visit friends. I'm not a club hopper, I don't drink or do drugs. I'm a consummate reader of books and a movie buff, so I'm more of a cerebral home person than a physically energetic person when I'm off the road."
He loves opera and classical music and collects modern art.
Not your average Satan.
"Dare I say some people might find me a boring character."