(Sony Music Entertainment)

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RATING: 9/10

First and foremost, KK Downing is gone. We must accept it if we're going to continue embracing JUDAS PRIEST as rightful lords of the metal empire. They now have a young knight in their realm, Richie Faulkner (of VOODOO SIX and the Lauren Harris band) and while it stings to see no KK these days, we can take comfort JUDAS PRIEST did right by themselves and their fans. Faulkner defies the odds like Scott Travis did when joining PRIEST in 1989. Travis has long since blown away his predecessor on the drums, Dave Holland. There'll be no acts of heresy committed here by comparing Faulkner to Downing, yet the lad indeed brings an invigorating spirit to the band as shown on their career-spanning live video, "Epitaph".

While last year's "Epitaph" tour brought the uneasy report JUDAS PRIEST would be hanging up their leathers, that's since proven false. A new studio album is on the way and if they resume their road dogging, they should remain a hot ticket. "Epitaph" reveals some wear and tear in the mobility department from Rob Halford, but not in his performance, by God. Subsequently, the entire band wracks and writhes with every ounce of juice they have. It may sound like a clich?, but the chemical agent igniting their firepower (outside of the expected stage pyro) stems from the youthful exuberance of Richie Faulkner.

Again, we're not to judge Faulkner against Downing. Downing and Glenn Tipton were one of the greatest guitar duos that history will ever see and their harmonious instinct was the sound of two metallic songbirds. Faulkner, a natural crowd teaser, is to be judged for how much of the JUDAS PRIEST catalog he was expected to learn for a retrospective tour featuring staples and deep cuts that haven't been presented in many moons. In that aspect, Faulkner succeeds gloriously. He and Tipton may have a rough time gelling during the solo section of "Heading Out to the Highway", but that's about it.

Faulkner sides up to Tipton and dials in congruently for the remainder of the 23-song "Epitaph" set. It's a thing of awe to watch Faulkner assume the fearsome prospect of taking over a revered spot and nail down PRIEST classics like "Hell Bent for Leather", "Electric Eye", "The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)" and "You've Got Another Thing Coming". Faulkner and JUDAS PRIEST up their ante by blowing the roof off Hammersmith Apollo with a gutsy dust-off of "Never Satisfied" from "Rocka Rolla", "Victim of Changes" from "Sad Wings of Destiny" and their hefty epic "Blood Red Skies" from "Ram it Down". There's even "Night Crawler" to pair off with the title cut from "Painkiller" in this set.

"Epitaph" also brings in "Judas Rising" from "Angel of Retribution" and "Prophecy" from the much-maligned "Nostradamus" album. PRIEST sells them with confidence, even if it takes a bar or two for them to not bust out laughing and stick to the plan on the pop throbber "Turbo Lover". While some fans may look at this block of material as lower points of the band's career, at least they can delight in "The Sentinel", "Rapid Fire", "Metal Gods", "Beyond the Realms of Death" and their calling card cover of Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust".

All of it is pushed with conviction and though it's hard to watch Rob Halford move about with a traceable gimp, there's no slouching in his projection, much less his wardrobe rotation that might need its own trailer on the road. He's still a dynamo and he is still the greatest of living metal vocalists. He is having a rip on this tour and it's to his credit he cares enough about "Never Satisfied" to give it a quick intro as much as the extra effort he throws into his spine-tingling shrieks on "Painkiller".

Tipton and Faulkner captivate their Hammersmith throng with blazing riffs and articulate solos, even if Faulkner has the benefit of youth on his side to torch his frets with outrageous dexterity. The audience cheers every single one of his and Tipton's solos and that's a spectacle in itself. Their tireless appreciation is as compelling as watching them sing "Breaking the Law" in its entirety with Halford silently conducting them from the stage.

Ian Hill is on the bass what Angus Young is on lead guitar, a knee-punishing, cartilage-tearing harbinger of thrust. Sure, Young thrashes a lot more body parts, but for forty years, Hill's been bopping and lurching in ceaseless fashion it's simply mesmerizing to watch. If Hill pauses for even a moment in this set, Halford is there at his hip to kickstart him back up. In other words, what JUDAS PRIEST as a team puts into their act to ensure full-on vitality after so long in the game is just as amazing as watching Steve Harris of IRON MAIDEN jet from side-to-side onstage like age means nothing.

Scott Travis, of course, is still a madman on the kit and cheers to him for keeping his drum solo brief and rhythmic as a sweet lead-in to "Painkiller". Like his bandmates, he serves the cause with dignity and class. Together, JUDAS PRIEST shows they can roll on under adversity as they always have. "Epitaph" will go down as a beautifully-orchestrated celebration of four decades of excellence, touching on every corner except for the Tim "Ripper" Owens era. We're not likely to see anything of this magnitude again if JUDAS PRIEST continues to tour.

On a personal note, I was beyond stoked "Blood Red Skies" made it into the set and I backed it up twice during this viewing. While Rob appears to be catching his breath during the opening lines, he and the band still regale "Blood Red Skies" with such majesty it's enough to move you out of your skin.


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