For those reasons and more, Priest became one of the key bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, especially during the period from 1976 until 1982, when they released one face-melting,fist-pumping album per year. British Steel—which was released in 1980 and included the classics “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight,” “United,” and, yes, “Metal Gods”—is considered by many to be the band’s magnum opus.
But Tipton, Downing, and Co. have hardly let up since then, even though intra-band turmoil threatened to end it all in 1992, when Halford left to form Fight, a band that followed the Priest format closely. After two albums with Fight, Halford collaborated with John Lowery— a.k.a. John 5—on the industrial, Trent Reznor-produced 2wo project before returning to metal with the five-piece outfit called simply Halford. All the while, the remaining members of Priest soldiered on, scoring major media coverage and inspiring the 2001 film Rock Star, by recruiting Tim “Ripper” Owens from a Priest tribute band.
All was forgiven between Priest’s key members in 2003, when the prodigal Halford returned to the fold and the band subsequently released 2005’s Angel of Retribution. Their latest release, this year’s Nostradamus [Epic]—the band’s first concept album—is a grandiose double-disc set chronicling the life of the 16th-century French visionary. GP dialed up Downing and Tipton in Germany during the first leg of Priest’s world tour to talk about their legacy, refining their chops over the years, and how they used not just trusty Hamers and raging Marshalls— but also synth-equipped Godin 6-strings and Babicz flattops—to intertwine classic Priest tones with orchestral patches, acoustic interludes, and blinding neoclassical sweep picking to tell a nuanced, epic story.
Did you feel compelled to write more epic or cerebral guitar parts for Nostradamus, or did you just let things happen naturally?Glenn Tipton: Half and half, really. We put all our personal ideas into the pool to see what we all got off on. Some of the ideas we already had before we decided on the concept album were very appropriate, and some weren’t, so we discarded the latter. Then we did some composing on keyboard, which made us write differently—a little bit more classical or operatic in places. Then we transposed that to guitar. But we wrote a lot on guitar, as well. Then we mixed and matched it. Before we knew it, we’d gotten enough material for a double album, and we felt we needed all of it to tell the story properly.
K.K. Downing: It was apparent to us early on that to get that extra drama and authenticity and atmosphere, we had to bring in orchestration to combine with the metal of Priest. The first thing we did was to look at the latest technology for converting a guitar signal into MIDI, to see exactly how good the new gear was. We got several MIDIenabled Godin LGXT guitars, an Axon AX 100 MIDI interface, and Roland GR20 and Fantom XR7 sound modules. When people listen to the record, they will think we brought in some genius musical director, but Glenn and I composed everything.
What were some of the challenges of writing and recording so many guitar and synth-guitar parts?Downing:With synths, you have to be aware of latency and glitching. Also, if you really want to make your guitar sound like a violin, for example, you have to change your vibrato. And to create sweeping arpeggios like you would on a piano, you’ll find you’re a couple of strings or fingers short. But when you play a guitar part and suddenly it becomes a church organ or choirs or a cello, it really makes you feel good as a musician—like you’re more valid. I think it’s fair to say many people put metal down, like it’s not really valid music. But that’s not the case. If we gave many of the things we’ve written in the past the same orchestrated treatment, they could be a movie score or something.
Tipton:As far as synth guitar, it just depends what sound you’re using. For example, on “Lost Love,” there’s a bit that’s half piano and half guitar, and if you’re playing a sound like that, as opposed to a string sound, it’s more staccato so you have to play it a lot cleaner. Pad and string sounds are a lot easier to play. The rhythm guitar sounds on Nostradamus were also a challenge. When you’re just doing a metal album, it’s not that difficult to come up with a good guitar sound. But because the guitar had to blend into very subtle, classical-sounding pieces, it couldn’t stick out.
What gear did you use for the regular guitar sounds?Tipton: I used my Hamer GT Phantom— my favorite guitar—for a lot of the rhythm and lead tracks. It has EMG 81 pickups, wired at 18 volts, and an SG-type neck that’s slightly slimmer and not as round as a Stratocaster’s. I’ve got another GT Phantom with Seymour Duncan Livewire Metal LW-HMET pickups, too. I also used a guitar with a modified Hamer shape that was built by a guy named John Diggins. It has a more bassy sound. I like simple guitars, and I don’t like tone controls. The GT Phantom only has a 2-way switch, and I can get all the tones I want from that or the EQ on my rack. I also used a ’61 Fender Stratocaster on a couple of things for a cleaner sound. We plugged into a DigiTech GNX3 and a DigiTech GSP1101 preamp, but we also used other old preamps such as the Piranha, a ’76 Marshall JMP 50-watt head through a ’76 Marshall 4x12 loaded with Celestion greenbacks, a Marshall MG15DFX combo, and even little practice amps. There’s still nothing like the crisp edge of a miked-up sound. We used Shure SM57s and some ribbon mics and experimented with positioning two orthree mics at a time.
Downing:My main guitar was my cherry red Hamer Vector. I’ve also got a black custom ESP flying V. I mainly use EMG 81s and 85s because they perform so well live. For the acoustic parts, I used a Babicz. It’s loud as hell and records very well. Also, I don’t play anything now without the Floyd Rose SpeedLoader tremolo, which is the dog’s bollocks. It stays in tune perfectly even when you give the whammy bar hell, and you can change strings in one minute. You don’t even have to stretch them. My new main guitar is a white Flying V made by a guy in San Diego whose company is called KxK. It’s got a push-pot that changes the pickups, and LED lights on the fretboard. I can play a whole set without even changing guitars, that’s how good it is. I use .008-.038 gauge Dean Markley Speed- Loader strings and Dunlop 1.3 mm picks. Live, I use a POD XT Pro into Marshall power amps, and I change presets with a Rocktron MIDI Mate. My wah pedal is a Morley Bad Horsie.
The “Revelations,” “Pestilence and Plague,” and “Death” solos feature impressive sweep picking. Did you improvise those and piece together different takes, or compose them and record them in one take?Downing: Those solos are pretty much composed. I think the only ad-libbed solo on this album was the one at the end of “Alone.” I’m kind of two players in one: I love to get onstage, as I will tonight, and play “Sinner” or “Victim of Changes”—and the solos will be totally ad libbed, with a ’60s, Hendrix-type vibe. But there are other times when I like to vary and mix scales and plan everything out.
Tipton: I do it either way, but I don’t have to do them in one take. There’s no need to do that in today’s Pro Tools world.
Your solo styles have evolved from a bluesier sound in the beginning to incorporating exotic scales and other neoclassical influences.
Downing: When I came to guitar in the ’60s, pretty much everybody was stuck in the natural minor and blues scales. And then Yngwie Malmsteen and guys like Vinnie Moore came along and did things that sounded more musical, but fit into rock. I already had my style of ad-lib playing—like Robin Trower, Jimi Hendrix, and Paul Kossoff— but when things moved along in the ’80s, it made sense to get into that, especially with tablature making it so easy. Mixing chromatic, diminished, whole-tone, and harmonic minor tonalities in with the natural minor or the blues scale makes the solos sound more complete.
Tipton: I’ve always worked on my own style. I don’t sit down and practice scales. Maybe that’s lazy, stupid—I don’t know. I think guitar playing comes from the heart, and, if you’ve got a style, it’s very important to work on that style and identity.
The harmonized solo in “New Beginnings” is so unpretentiously lovely and melodic—and your vibrato makes the simple theme touching.
Tipton:We were tempted to put some fast bits in there, but you’ve got to curb those instincts. It’s all about composition— especially with a concept album.
Downing:I originally improvised a solo that was quite long. But at the end of the day we did what fit the song and created an emotion without being self-indulgent. You’ve got to be really disciplined and go, “A lot of people are going to be listening to this. Let’s not put anything on there if it’s superfluous.”
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