If truth is stranger than fiction, the Judas Priest saga is one that somebody should make a movie about. In fact, somebody has, sort of. Rock Star, the recently released Mark Wahlberg vehicle, is loosely based on the life of Tim "Ripper" Owens, the bar-band imitator who replaced original Priest howler Rob Halford. Halford's much-publicized 1992 departure was followed by the revelation that the closet was not just a place where he stored his leather chaps.
Unfortunately for Owens, there are few similarities between his life and that of his big-screen counterpart -- a corn-fed boy who attains a sort of Rip Magazine version of rock-and-roll nirvana in his newfound frontman status. While the thirty-something native of Akron, Ohio, admits that he expected to be living in a mansion shortly after being tapped to fill Halford's biker boots, he's long since realized that it will take a lot more hard work before he begins reaping such rewards. The biggest surprise during his tenure with Priest, which began with the 1997 release of Jugulator, has been the rather unseemly makeup of the band's crowd.
"All we draw is ugly guys," Owens says. "We're not breaking any records with bringing in the women, I know that much."
Such comments reveal just the sort of Brian Johnson-like self-deprecation you'd expect from a divorced father of one who's landed one of the most sought-after gigs in the rock firmament. (Owens is quick to note that his recent second marriage supersedes any interest he may have had in indulging the metal-god lifestyle.) Yet beyond somewhat disappointing audience demographics, one suspects that the most nettlesome aspects of Owens's newish membership in Judas Priest is the relative creative chokehold that's been placed on him by the veteran leadership of guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing who, along with stalwart bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis, complete the group's current lineup. Specifically, Owens was forbidden from releasing any solo material during the three years between Jugulator's release and the unveiling of the band's latest long-player, Demolition. Although he appreciates his cohorts' position in this regard, Owens states, "I don't agree with that whatsoever." Should such a hiatus occur again (which appears unlikely in light of the favorable reception Demolition is receiving), Owens adds that, at this point, he couldn't afford not to pursue side projects.
For now, though, the singer says, "I live and breathe Judas Priest." Actually, Owens was inhaling the band long before he was invited to become part of it: As recounted almost faithfully in Rock Star, he played the Halford part in an Akron-based Priest tribute band called British Steel, crafting an impersonation that was so dead-on that observers could have been forgiven for mistaking him for the original, leather-clad vocalist. Owens's longstanding devotion to Priest might explain his disappointment over not being able to contribute more to the writing of the band's current material, the vast majority of which was assembled by Tipton, who also produced the group's new CD. "They're letting me put my two cents in. But when it comes down to making money off album sales, you have to be a writer. So I would like to put a little bit more than my two cents in" next time around. Perhaps as a concession, a version of the CD tailored for the Japanese market includes an Owens ballad called "What's My Name."
Occasional creative chafing aside, Owens, who had the Priest logo tattooed on his arm a decade ago and takes his nickname from the band's classic, "The Ripper," isn't about to bite the hands that feed him, particularly when they belong to some of the most influential instrumentalists in heavy-metal history. "Since Glenn and K.K. write such great songs," Owens says, "I really have no problem if they don't want to use my stuff."
Fortunately, the admiration appears to be mutual. According to Tipton, the chemistry between the new singer -- whom the band discovered after watching a tape sent in by fans of British Steel -- and the band started off strong. And since then, it's gone "through the roof...It's really a small miracle, better than anything we ever expected. We wanted to continue playing Judas Priest music. And we wouldn't have continued if we didn't think we'd found someone stupendous. I can't sing his praises enough," raves Tipton.
Clearly, the group has come a long way since the mid-'90s, a period so bleak that Tipton released a solo album while Priest's future hung in the balance. After considering thousands of applicants -- including a woman and an undertaker -- the bandmembers spotted Owens on a video that had been sent to Travis at the last minute. One transatlantic flight later, Owens delivered the first lines of "Victim of Changes" so impressively that Tipton knew they had their man.
Some observers outside the band, however, required convincing. While Owens's ability to conjure Halford perfectly was what ultimately got him the job, it smacked of a worrisome lack of identity.
"The problem is, I have the same style of singing [as Halford]," Owens says. "You've got to go on stage and sing the classic songs just like they're supposed to be sung. So you're not going to go out and get a singer who sounds really different. You can't." As for his sometimes uncanny sonic similarity to his predecessor, with whom Owens had a cordial meeting at Halford's behest at an outdoor venue in Ohio, Owens asserts, "That's just my voice. People that know me can go back through all my singing and tell you I've always sung this way. I think I've got a wider range: I still have the same high notes, but heavier low notes."
One listen to Demolition bears out the latter part of his assertion. "Machine Man," for example, showcases a beefy growl that seems influenced primarily by Metallica's James Hetfield and his '90s-era contemporaries. The tune, like the devilish "Hell Is Home," also spotlights Owens's affinity for inhabiting a range of character voices. Halfway through "Hell," however, it becomes apparent that Owens's upper register betrays a shrillness of which Halford could rarely be accused.
Demolition's most serious flaw, though, is the self-indulgent nature of Tipton's songwriting. The disc certainly has its moments, including the searing lead work on "Close to You," the refreshing stab at the legal system made by "Bloodsuckers" and the soaring harmonies of "Hell Is Home." But such passages are more than outweighed by the disc's deadly serious tone. Despite bandmembers' insistence that they've preserved their characteristic tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, the platter makes plain that any appreciation of Priest's inherent campiness departed with Halford, along with the band's ear for melodic hooks.
Nearly every number packs in enough musical non sequiturs to confound all but the group's most faithful devotees. What's more, four of Demolition's thirteen selections stretch past six minutes, a virtual eternity by modern standards. Overall, the impression the CD creates is that if Owens possesses anything resembling compositional chops, the band's future releases will need them badly. And if the positive reviews that have appeared in outlets including Rolling Stone weren't penned by hacks whose only contact with metal is in their SUVs, it would be a bigger surprise than Halford's exit.
Luckily, Priest's core audience is a forgiving one.
"The fans accepted me a lot quicker than I ever thought they would," Owens reveals, even though he admits to feeling less than comfortable during his early appearances. "I think when I first came out, it was hard to be myself, to show the humor that I have. I was little bit too serious on stage. You know, you're trying to project a heavy edge and make sure everybody knows you're mean and all that stuff."
Nowadays, however, Owens -- a fitness buff who's into boxing -- says he's able to flex his funnybone as well. Perhaps it's simply maturity that enables the singer to wax philosophical regarding his good fortune. To other rock-and-roll dreamers, he offers the following advice: "Never quit your day job -- that's a given. I mean, I always had some sort of job" while playing music on the side. Indeed, Owens was living a Clark Kent-like existence as a purchasing agent at a law office before getting the call from his idols. But during this period, he says, he never quit dreaming, "because it can happen at any time. Really, it's just a matter of a lucky break."
This attitude explains why Owens now finds himself performing for fans as far away as Europe and South America. Back home, however, his life has changed little. When asked if folks in Ohio are treating him any differently since he's joined Judas Priest, Owens quips, "Not really. I wish they would." In truth, he states, "I have some friends in radio and such, so I am getting treated a little better. But there's no free meals or anything like that."
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