Legendary Metal God Rob Halford is set to release Celestial, a fresh album of Christmas music, on Friday, October 18th through Legacy Recordings/Sony.
Best known for his work with Judas Priest, which bracket his solo efforts under the guises of Fight, Two, and his eponymous project, Halford walk into familiar territory with Celestial. Why you may ask? Well, in case you forgot back in 2009 he released Halford III: Winter Songs, which contained a mixture of original compositions and well-known relics, including “We Three Kings,” “Come All Ye Faithful,” “Oh Holy Night,” and “Oh Come, O Come, Emanuel.” That refresher in mind, while Hard Rock stalwarts “Metal” Mike Chlasciak on guitar and Bobby Jarzombek on drums helped complete the cast for Winter Songs, Halford drew from a smaller, familial circle for Celestial, and as such, the album is officially credited to Rob Halford with Family & Friends.
Indeed, his brother Nigel plays drums, his sister Sue holds bells, and his nephew Alex plays bass, following his father, Ian Hill, the famed low-ender for Judas Priest. Another footnote, Hill dated and eventually married Sue, which led to the birth of Alex; this relationship was the spark that first brought Halford to the attention of Judas Priest in its nascent years. That said, the lineup for Celestial is completed by Jon Blakely and Robert Jones on guitar.
Twelve entries make up Celestial, four originals and eight classic favorites, and the songs here vary widely in terms of selection, style, and realization. The opening title-track places you outside, the taking in the warm sounds of a choir and organ, which quickly fade into galloping hooves and crisp church bells, punctuated by the familiar voice of Santa Claus. The mood then takes a dark, somber turn, and after which “Donner and Blitzen” uses rich Christmas themes and traditions and puts them atop a classic vibe from the heyday of Judas Priest.
Moving on, the band’s rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” following in the scorched footsteps of “Donner and Blitzen,” is a rollicking, Thrash Metal inflection of the traditional carol, played in the vein fans might have hummed in their heads when news of the album was released. Contrast that to the very next track, “Away In a Manger,” which while still holding Eighties Metal sensibilities, is sung as an ethereal ballad, with Halford’s voice lilting over sparse guitar and percussion. This is as “The First Noel” takes a similar path and features subtle guitar and keyboard accompaniment, and this pairing flows naturally into “Good King Wenceslas.”
More of a straight ahead Heavy Metal approach, “Deck the Halls” is complete with the massive sound you would expect from dual guitars fronted by Halford. That in mind, outside of the vocals, this version takes long, winding paths away from its source material, with dueling guitar licks carrying far more than their weight, especially on the back end of the track. Taking a similar path “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” actually comes through as a warm, effective version, despite the brash intonation; its short run time helps move things along, a technique which also works toward “Joy to the World” avoiding a kitschy sound.
Elsewhere, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” successfully mixes the two styles, spending most of its 5 minutes on a slow, somber ballad, before unleashing Halford and his dueling guitar partners. Last but not least warm organ envelops “Protected By The Light” to close the proceedings, and the lyrics find Halford wishing the best of the season, and and the best of all year, to listeners and detractors alike.
Stating the obvious, Rob Halford is still a metalhead at heart, and his harder inclinations come through early and often across the dozen tracks included on Celestial. However, his strength is sometimes best exemplified by his restraint, and the softer tracks here end up being some of the better and more memorable work. Celestial may not be for everyone, but the effort from Halford is sincere, and those able to put aside their spiritual differences may find themselves better for having given the album a few chances to catch. Full of original takes on old classics, and some honest attempts at new material, Cryptic Rock gives Celestial 3.5 out of 5 stars.