Judas Priest are celebrating their 50th anniversary with a box set called 50 Heavy Metal Years of Music. The 42-disc collection arrives on Oct. 15 and includes all of the band's officially released albums; 13 of those discs feature unreleased material from the archives restored by the group's longtime producer Tom Allom. 

The band will also be celebrating the milestone with a special tour that starts on Sept. 8 in Reading, Penn. The metal legends previewed a fraction of what fans can expect with a recent performance at the Bloodstock Festival in England, where they performed a 22-song set spanning their career.

For nearly two hours Judas Priest regaled fans with popular favorites and a number of rarities from their catalog. Singer Rob Halford talks to UCR about the band's return to the stage and how it's planning to navigate touring during COVID.

The band played one show in mid-August at Bloodstock, your first show in more than two years. It seems like that would have been an emotional event - taking the stage after what we’ve been through as fans and, in your case, musicians over the past year and a half.
“Emotional” is the word. [Playing a concert] in our home country. The first date of the 50th-anniversary celebration [of Judas Priest]. The 20th anniversary of Bloodstock. The first time a heavy metal crowd had been able to get together in that beautiful way. Twenty-thousand heavy metal maniacs. There were so many things running through my mind. The guys are going, “Are you going to say anything?” I never say much from the stage, because I let the music speak for it. I could have stood on that stage and talked for an hour, and talked about the pandemic and how it has been such a horrible but yet beautiful experience. What I mean by “beautiful” is the humanity of it all, the way it brought us all together in a very special way.

It’s unfortunate that that’s what tragedy does to people. That’s what conflict, discourse, any kind of part of your life that you’re going through with other people does. It brings the beauty out of it. It’s one of the purest essences, sharing an empathy and a love and compassion with each other. I could have said all of that out of my lips like I’m saying it to you now. But no, everybody had the horns up, they were drinking their brews. All of this, it was amazing. It was just great to be in a festival atmosphere, because they are special. There’s nothing like a heavy metal festival. Particularly, in your home country. It’s, like, 30 minutes and change from my home? So, I was able to do the show and go back to my own place, and be laying wide awake at 5AM in the morning, because I’m buzzing from this great, extraordinary experience that we all shared together.

The band played a few songs for the first time in a long time - most notably, the title track from Rocka Rolla. Why that one in particular? And what was it like rehearsing that one? 
We all have a list [of things we want to play]. I threw that out, and Glenn [Tipton] went, “I don’t think that’s gonna work.” [Laughs] And I said, “I don’t think it’s going to work either! But wouldn’t it be so cool if we did it?” Because there is the title track of the first album this band ever made. So, when we got into rehearsals and jammed it, Richie [Faulkner] put a bit of a twist on it and doubled the tempo, and made a little bit of an arrangement adjustment. I thought, “Oh, man, this is definitely going to work.” When I did make a little tiny bit of a [speech] before we played that song at Bloodstock and then it came in, it just felt euphoric.

It was when [our] foot connected with the heavy-metal football and the game was on. I really loved that. I’ll tell you what I liked about the arrangement. I was on the flight back to America, and I was watching this really cool show that Robert Plant did with [his band] the Sensational Space Shifters at Austin City Limits. The way that he takes the [Led] Zeppelin material and restructures it, there are still important aspects of the song that you connect with, but he takes you on a little bit of an adventure. That’s what I felt. I was on the flight back, and I was thinking about “Rocka Rolla,” and now my mind’s going, Is there anything else we can do like that? What’s another track that we can possibly take a look at that might take that kind of twist from something way back in the ‘70s to 2021? There’s endless opportunities in music.

Watch Judas Priest Talk About the 'Rocka Rolla' Album

The band is really in the midst of one of the most distinct periods of their career. Judas Priest are about to go out on tour in the midst of a pandemic. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen both Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from Kiss test positive for COVID. I would imagine there’s a range of emotions as you prepare to start this run of shows.
Here’s the thing: We’ve got to get out there and do it, man. If we don’t, we’re going to be sitting home for the rest of this year, next year, the year after that and the year after that. This stuff isn’t going to go away. We’ve got to find a way of getting through it. You talk about herd immunity, you talk about all of these different things, you can only do as much as you can do. You’ve got your bubble, you’ve got your masks, you’ve got the sanitizer. And even that can’t kill this evil demon of a virus. It hits you when your friends, like Gene and Paul, get it. And Sebastian Bach and Bruce Dickinson, and all of my other friends.

Thankfully, they haven’t been devastated by the horrible thing like so many people have. But we’ve got to do it. I think if the scientists had said, “Look, everybody hang on, if we give it another year or two, we think we’ve got the vaccine that’s going to kick its ass,” but they haven’t, have they? They’ve just said that there’s a booster shot coming. I’ll be first in line for that. And then it’s like a lottery, because, again, I was talking to some friends the other day with certain bands that I won’t name. But they’ve been out for a while and everybody’s fine. Crew is fine, the band is fine. They’re doing the bubble thing, they’re doing the protocol thing. It’s like a lottery, this virus is, the way it can suddenly come out of nowhere. I know that Gene and Paul, their whole Kiss [organization] was doing as best as they could. And yet it creeped in. It’s a horrible, horrible thing.

So, we have to battle on. We really have to battle on. I think that’s all we can do. And if ever we needed music, if ever we needed to be with each other, now is the time that we need to do that. And talking about the fans, we have our protocols in place for the fans, as well, with Live Nation, who are making the bulk of this tour. We have a great relationship with Live Nation, and we’re working together to make sure that we can make it about as safe as we possibly can. Because at the end of the day, you’ve got something or you’ve got nothing and nobody wants nothing, right? So let’s just do our best and keep our fingers crossed, and please, God, don’t let any of us be hit by this horrible thing.

You have artists like Eric Clapton and Van Morrison who've been taking a strong stand against the vaccine and even writing songs about it. Judas Priest are on the other side of the argument. How much has this whole pandemic experience influenced the songwriting for the record you've been working on?
The simple matter of that is that everything we’ve written in Priest has always had this optimistic type of [we’re going to] get through [tone]. It’s the heavy metal battle, isn’t it? We get through stuff, we struggle through stuff. We fight against stuff. We push back, and we succeed. We overpower. All of these things that surround this pandemic battle have been in Priest’s music for as long as I can remember. So there’s your message from this band: Never give up, never give in. Glenn Tipton [has] Parkinson’s [and he’s] still getting onstage. It’s who we are. Not just Priest, but all of the metal maniacs. Everybody involved in what we do. That’s the tenacity and the drive that keeps pushing us ahead. You can’t be submissive. You can’t submit. You can do the necessary things to get you from A to B, particularly with touring.

But I don’t know. We’re making a new album, maybe there will be a reference. I don’t know. Is it time to forget about it? Unfortunately, we can’t. Is there a possibility of [Halford sings] “COVID heavy metal / Go to hell![Laughs] I don’t know, we’ll see.

The Best Song on Every Judas Priest Album

Eighteen tracks that prove the British veterans never abandoned their core principles.