By Jim Ryan
Daily Herald Correspondent
Heavy metal and hard rock have forged a deep relationship over the course of the past 35 years with the village of Rosemont.
The then-named Rosemont Horizon opened in 1980, just as metal as a genre was coming of age in large part because of the growing popularity of music videos following MTV's 1981 launch.
Before becoming the remodeled Allstate Arena we know today, the Rosemont Horizon hosted countless concerts and was the backdrop to a number of music videos (most notably the 1985 Scorpions hit "Big City Nights").
One of the most frequent '80s visitors was the pioneering English metal act Judas Priest. After 1984's massively successful "Metal Conqueror" tour, the motorcycle of frontman Rob Halford made its way across the Rosemont stage in front of sold-out crowds again in 1986, '88 and '90, a tradition that's not lost on founding Judas Priest member Ian Hill.
"Not just the venue. I mean, Chicago in general. It's been a great town for us over the years," Hill said. "One of the first major cities in the States that we broke, you know?"
Headed back to Rosemont alongside English metal stalwarts Saxon, the bassist expects more of the same when Judas Priest performs on Thursday, May 21, in the relatively intimate setting of the Rosemont Theatre.
"We have great memories from 40 years ... The crowd is at least as crazy as we are. It makes for an interesting show," Hill said.
In an era dominated by the progressive rock of artists like Emerson Lake and Palmer, Judas Priest formed in 1969 and predated punk rock, following instead the path of fellow U.K. hard rock acts like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Removing the blues element that set those bands apart, Priest created a dual guitar attack unlike anything else in rock and ultimately laid the blueprint for the explosion of heavy metal.
"We just went a bit harder, maybe, a bit heavier and a bit faster than others were doing at the time … I think everything gelled into place probably around (the) 'British Steel' (album in 1980), which was, I think, an era-defining moment," Hill said.
The music landscape has changed immensely since the advent of the Internet and the slow demise of the compact disc as Americans continue to consume music in an ever-evolving fashion, much to the dismay of artists and record labels.
But metal fans are among music's most loyal, and something funny happened following the release last July of the latest Judas Priest record "Redeemer of Souls," the band's 17th studio album.
It debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. After 45 years and millions of concert tickets sold, it was the band's first album to crack the American top 10.
It's a feat that reflects the unique relationship between metal bands and fans.
"I think we have a great connection with the fans. We generally have an empathy with them," Hill said. "None of us have got any delusions of grandeur. Whenever we can, we make it quite clear: Without the fans, there wouldn't be any Judas Priest or anybody else.
"They're just as important as the music in the band's entity," Hill said. "I think maybe that's it: We have a higher regard for our fans than some of the other genres of music do over the years."
Opening for Judas Priest on this tour is fellow English metal act Saxon. Vocalist and founding Saxon member Biff Byford seems to concur with Hill's assessment of metal's strong bond with its audience.
"I think heavy rock (and) heavy metal is passed down through generations -- father to son, mother to daughter … A whole generation of fans took the music to their hearts."
Formed in 1976, Saxon followed in the heavy metal footsteps of Judas Priest, incorporating elements of punk rock as they went on to become one of the most successful acts to emerge from what eventually became dubbed the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal."
"We had the musicianship of Deep Purple and the aggression of The Sex Pistols … I think (while) it's easier to sit back and just rely on your '80s hits, it's a lot harder to continue writing albums. But I think this is what keeps bands like Saxon, (Iron) Maiden and (Judas) Priest at the forefront," Byford says.
Saxon is riding high on the critically acclaimed success of their latest release, "Sacrifice" (the band's 20th album). Paired alongside the success of Priest's "Redeemer of Souls," it would appear heavy metal is in a healthy place. And yet the question lingers: Is rock dead?
"It's one of these things -- metal in particular but maybe even rock to a certain extent -- it has never really been at the height of fashion … so it never really goes out. It's still basically music-led more than image-led … " Hill says. "I think that's why it's still here, and I think that's why it will always be in some way, shape or form."
Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A with Ian Hill:
Q. Over the course of the past 40 years, you've played in Rosemont a lot. It's a great venue for heavy metal music, and it would certainly seem there might be some fond memories for you in that building.
A. Oh yeah. Not just the venue. I mean, Chicago in general. ... We've always been popular for some reason with the people of Chicago. We have great memories from 40 years. It's been a long, long time and we always love coming back to Chicago.
Q. Following the departure of co-founding Judas Priest guitarist K.K. Downing in 2011, you're the only member of Judas Priest to have been present for, literally, every band moment of the past 45 years. How does that feel?
A. It doesn't feel that long. It's something you never think about unless somebody points it out. We get all these little anniversaries that come up -- 30 years for this and 20 years for that. It never registers until some third party tells us about it because it doesn't seem that long! I think it's because we've enjoyed it after all the years. And we're still enjoying it today.
But it doesn't seem like 40 years at all. I think that the enjoyment part of it and the dedication and all the rest of it is all part of that.
Q. You've used the words "key instigators of heavy metal" to describe Judas Priest. Were you aware, at that time, of the fact that you were creating a form of music that was completely different?
A. I don't think we were, no. It's something that evolved over the years. It wasn't sort of something that happened overnight. Judas Priest evolved the same as everybody else. We started playing, in the 1960s, early '70s, what people called "heavy rock" or "progressive rock." I can remember us making a conscious effort to try and steer clear of the 12-bar element (although there are one or two songs in there over the years that have had that sort of three-chord battishness). But we stayed clear of that. We just went a bit harder, maybe, a bit heavier and a bit faster than others were doing at the time.
I think everything gelled into place probably around (the) "British Steel" album (in 1980), which was, I think, an era-defining moment. From there on in we had that direction. We went album for album from "British Steel" right up to "Defenders of the Faith." And that was really the end of that sort of line. After that, we sort of did the experimental "Turbo" album using guitar synthesizers and what have you. Then we took on the harder edge with "Ram It Down" and "Painkiller" after that.
Q. You were instrumental in bringing Rob Halford into the Judas Priest fold as vocalist.
A. Sort of, yeah. I can't really claim all credit for it, to be honest. But I was dating his sister at the time. And the original vocalist, Al Atkins, we were only playing clubs and bars, and what have you, at that time. We're talking 1971, maybe, or something like that. (Al's) wife became pregnant and he just couldn't afford to carry on with the band. So he had to leave.
I was dating Sue (Halford) at the time, Rob's sister, and she said, "Oh, you should give (Rob) a listen." So we did. (K.K. Downing) and I went over there and listened to him. I think he came into the room while he was humming harmonies to an Ella Fitzgerald song that was on the radio at the time. And it was like, "Oooh, harmonies! Clever!" And we went from there.
The drummer that was with us at the time, Chris Campbell, decided to leave as well. So Rob brought his drummer with him from a band called Hiroshima, John Hinch, and we carried on with Judas Priest. And not long after that -- maybe about a year after that, '73 or something like that -- (guitarist) Glenn (Tipton) joined the band. And we did the first album "Rocka Rolla."
Q. The trademark sound of Judas Priest is obviously as a five-piece group and, more specifically, in the dual guitar work. In 2011, when longtime guitar player K.K. Downing left the band, you guys brought in Richie Faulkner. Was that a scary moment, so far along, to be shaking up the band's core sound like that again? Did that departure ever become a moment where you thought maybe that would be it for Judas Priest?
A. Oh yeah, it was a major wobble. I mean, Ken decided to retire for his own reasons, and we thought, "Well, you know …" (But) we actually had to do it. We had already booked a tour. So we had no choice, really, other than to find somebody and get on with the tour. And Richie came along.
And how we found him was a roundabout way. We got in touch with a fellow who we had sort of earmarked as maybe being a possible member of the band. And he couldn't do it. He had already signed up for something else. And he suggested Richie. And Glenn and Rob went to meet him -- I don't know what I was doing at the time -- and he seemed perfect.
The thing was, doing a tour with him before the record was beneficial. Because at the start of the tour he was sort of Richie Faulkner, guitarist. At the end of the tour he was Richie Faulkner, guitarist and great friend. Because he has been a great character. He's got a great personality. Which is something that's extremely important in any organization -- if you're not getting along with your workmates, it ain't going to last very long. It's one of the reasons Judas Priest has been around for as long as it has, because at the end of the day we're all big buddies, you know? He fit straight in. In fact, he was listening to the same sort of things we were listening to. He was a Hendrix fan, Cream fan. Things like that. Which, for somebody who's as old as my son, is something unusual! But he slotted straight in. Absolutely seamless.
Q. Well, Richie has toured with Judas Priest now for four years and took part in the recording of your latest studio album, "Redeemer of Souls." He's only 35 years old. I look at the younger backing band of someone like Paul McCartney and the work he's doing right now on stage. Does having a younger member like Richie in the band kind of force you guys to kick it up a notch?
A. He certainly brought boundless energy and endless enthusiasm to the band, some of which has rubbed off on the rest of us. So he's probably had a positive aspect in that way.
But the age thing doesn't even come into it. We don't look upon him as "young Richie." And I'm sure he doesn't look upon us as father figures (although we might be from time to time, I don't know). But it doesn't come into it. He's a great musician, he'll be getting along and that's the be all and end all of it. The age thing is not a conscious thing at all.
Q. I know a few of the songs were written before Richie officially joined the band, but what kind of impact did he have on the finished "Redeemer of Souls" album?
A. He brought a hell of a lot. He came up with some great riffs and chord sequences.
Of course, Richie, Glenn and Rob are the three songwriters in the band. They get together and they bring their chord sequences, riffs, lyrics and what have you. They'll kick them around and get basics of songs, if you know what I mean, in a rough fashion -- a copy of which I'll get and (Judas Priest drummer) Scott (Travis) will get. We'll put our bass and drum patterns down, respectively, and then we'll get together in the studio and kick it around.
But he brought a hell of a lot to the new album. He actually took over from where (K.K. Downing) left off. He really did.
Q. You've spoke quite highly of "Redeemer of Souls." In your opinion, what makes it stand up against the greatest Judas Priest albums?
A. I think "Redeemer" is a little bit of everything we've been known for over the past years. We had just done the "Epitaph" tour where we were doing a song from each album. And, of course, when you try to pick the songs you're going to do, you delve into all the old material, some of which sticks up between your ears there. Then the writing process comes along and I think it rubbed off into some of the songs. You can see little bits and pieces that go back to the early days -- done in a modern way of course -- among all the modern material of the songwriters as well. But there is a whole spectrum of material, the different aspects of heavy metal. It's all on there.
Q. The "Epitaph" tour in 2011 was widely talked about to be the last major Judas Priest world tour and yet here you guys are still at it four years later.
A. We were going to try and slow down, but it didn't happen, did it?
At the end of every tour, I put my bass guitar in the corner and go, "Oh God, that's it." And then after a couple of months you start to get itchy feet. You realize how much you miss it. And we do -- we love it. It's why we still do it. I think the thought of not being able to do it is something that terrifies us all.
So we'll continue. We'll continue as long as we can … as long as we can perform it in a quality way. I don't want anybody sitting up there on stools doing it, but if you can still get out there and perform and the fans are still asking for us, we'll continue. And there's no reason why we shouldn't.
Q. After nearly 45 years, "Redeemer of Souls" was the first Judas Priest album to crack the top 10 in America. In a continually changing music industry landscape, metal acts are some of the few artists actually still capable of selling albums. The role of fans in the success of the heavy metal genre is basically unparalleled anywhere else in music. What makes the relationship between metal acts and their fans so uniquely strong?
A. I don't know. I think we have a great connection with the fans. We generally have an empathy with them. If there are fans outside of our hotel, we'll go take pictures. I think it means a lot. Whenever we can, we make it quite clear: Without the fans, there wouldn't be any Judas Priest or anybody else. They're just as important as the music in the band's entity.
Q. The popular cliché saying now is that "rock is dead." But the exception to that would seem to be heavy metal. And what's interesting to me is that it's not only the veteran acts like a Judas Priest or an Iron Maiden that are still filling large venues and selling albums, it's younger acts like Slipknot, too. In your opinion, what is the state of heavy metal? Is rock dead?
A. I don't think it is. Not really. I mean, what are you going to replace it with? People come out with these things … What are you going to replace it with? It's one of these things -- metal in particular but maybe even rock to a certain extent -- it has never really been at the height of fashion, if you understand what I mean. That's pop music -- your Elvis Presley and what have you from years gone by up to the modern people. (Heavy metal music has) never really been in fashion, so it never really goes out. It's still basically music-led more than image-led. Whereas, with the 40 forty stuff, it's the other way around -- that the image means more than the music half the time.
And I think that's why it's still here and I think that's why it will always be in some way, shape or form. It's always been just bubbling under the surface. Sometimes it comes up to the top -- the way it did in the '80s there -- and sometimes it goes back down again.
But it's always there, you know?