Halford Rings in The Holidays With New Album CELESTIAL
This isn’t the first time the Judas Priest frontman waded into the holiday music realm, but it’s definitely his best foray into the genre.
Can we skip the obligatory part of any review of a Rob Halford work that rehashes his being one of the most revered and legendary metal vocalists of all time? Everyone knows what Halford and Judas Priest mean, not just to the early days of 80s British heavy metal, but to the overall genre in general. While his solo albums have revealed somewhat of a more expansive side to his vocal approach, it really hasn’t changed all that much. His first holiday album, Halford III Winter Songs, demonstrated that he could take his unique vocal approach, tweak it slightly, and use it to deliver a collection of holiday covers (mixed with a smattering of originals) that was worthy of more than just a cursory (or curious) listen. With Celestial, Halford delivers more of the same, along with some well-conceived humor and a few metal twists. This time out though, Halford’s approach feels slightly more sincere AND fun at the same time.
Halford’s reimagining of songs like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (with a little help from his brother Nigel, nephew Alex, Robert Jones, and Jon Blakely-the “friends and family” joining Halford on the album) draw their inspiration from early Judas Priest tracks like “Dreamer Deceiver,” where atmosphere tempered with a heavy approach sets the pace. Where “Dreamer Deceiver” took the listener into a hellish musical pit, Halford’s interpretation of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” uses a similar tempo and spartan acoustic guitar riffs to take the listener in another direction entirely. It’s a bit of sonic (Christmas?) magic conjured by Halford and company and really captures that celestial expansiveness and spirit that the album’s title suggests. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” falls just over halfway through Celestial, yet it comprises its spiritual and musical center, bringing serious weight to the album’s more serious moments.
Other more traditional, as well as more reverential, covers include an also spartan version of “The First Noel,” that puts Halford’s voice front and center, accompanied by only an organ and synths. One of the most interesting things about these types of collections, outside what the artist uniquely brings to them, is that in order to record a song of anywhere near the standard three and a half minute single length, the band or singer has to sing multiple verses of the traditional carols. They are verses that most of us have never heard, especially when as children in Christmas pageants we only really sang the first verses of the carols. Halford’s seven-minute and twenty-eight-second version of “Good King Wenceslas” is another highlight of the more serious side of the album (and its best example of the need for multiple verses). It’s atmospheric opening, which makes powerful use of Halford’s higher vocal ranges, as he sings an almost Middle Eastern sounding chant, gives way to Pink Floydian synths and blossoms into a, once again, celestial sounding riff that’s only grounded by some earthy sounding acoustic guitar. It’s the album’s most powerful instrumental offering. Celestial becomes more than just a “metal Christmas” outing with this wonderfully arranged track. Halford’s taking his Christmas inspired art seriously here, and it shows. This is territory that Trans Siberian Orchestra only dabbles in when at their most sublime.
What good is any genre’s take on Christmas music without a little fun though? Halford and his cohorts have fun with the lesser tradition-steeped or religious-themed songs like “Deck The Halls.” Straightforward heavy metal riffs and a refrain of “Fa La La La La La LA LA LA” sung by what sounds like a Viking Quartet of Rob Halford clones is great for a laugh if not a slight cringe. I can’t imagine that one of the silliest, yet raucously joyous, Christmas songs doesn’t purposely get the over the top treatment here. Original track “Donner and Blitzen” (Thunder and Lightning in German) rains down holiday joy like the fury of a Thor hosted Yule party overflowing with beer, pretzels, and Lebkuchen. Perhaps the most funny, and witty, joke here though is another original track, “Morning Star.” It immediately brings to mind GHOST’s “He Is.” As Halford sang about how he “releases his soul” to the Morning Star and feels a “peace,” I wonder if he realized that the Morning Star’s original name was Lucifer? Somehow I think he did and “Morning Star” makes sly use of the double entendre. At its heart, Celestial IS a METAL Christmas album. No harm in giving the genre’s scapegoat a little of his devil’s due, eh?
Celestial might not take its place alongside Nat King Cole, Andy Williams, and Elvis Presley’s Christmas albums and end up in heavy rotation on the speakers of your local CVS or Walgreens each year. It will remain one of the better popular rock and metal takes on the holiday genre though, and be worthy of heavy rotation each year on your own rockin’ Xmas playlist alongside TSO and other Merry Rockin’ Christmas lovin’ artists’ songs.