When that long run ended in an unceremonious dismissal, he moved to singing for another established metal powerhouse, Iced Earth. Now, after a decade spent dancing on rock's big stage to someone else's tune, Owens is finally calling all the shots in Beyond Fear, his most aggressive project yet. Making a good living and staying in the game isn't enough. He still wants to prove that he's more than a lucky guy with a good voice.
During Owens' controversial run in Judas Priest, the knock against him wasn't that he couldn't get the job done; he more than capably duplicated Rob Halford's glass-shattering hellion shrieks. The criticism boiled down to the fact that he simply wasn't Halford. Fronting a signature metal group, he still felt like Johnny Bravo, a faceless hired gun. When members of Priest had negative notes, they weren't about his performance; they were about Owens' reluctance to wear an ill-fitting shiny silver jacket.
"In Judas Priest, I was playing a character," Owens says, hoisting a 32-ounce mug of Bud Light. "It's never totally you onstage, anyway. You might just wear things you wouldn't normally wear. You wouldn't catch me wearing a leather vest around town."
Owens and his bandmates in Beyond Fear are posing for publicity photos, toasting giant brews in the cantina of El Puente, Owens' local watering hole, where he socializes with off-duty cops and lawyers, and is on a first-name basis with the busboys. When he finally steps into the spotlight on his terms, he wants to make sure that fans see something authentic.
Owens is a charismatic but regular Ohio guy, nothing like the airhead Mark Wahlberg portrayed in Rock Star -- though with some flourishes to accommodate a life in metal, such as his ebony Ohio State ballcap -- with an all-black version of the Buckeyes' O -- covering his close-cropped hair. Even in a chain necklace and black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, Owens has an air of blue-collar royalty. If not for his drive and the gift of his voice, he'd probably still be the kind of well-loved local character who holds court in a bowling alley, talking sports and dispensing advice, missed when he's not there.
A 38-year-old family man, golf enthusiast, and member of Rawiga Country Club, Owens is hardly a heavy-metal poster boy. His band looks the part, though. The rock-and-roll lifers who make up the motley crew are hungry for the same opportunities that have taken Owens around the world. Long-haired bassist Dennis Hayes was Owens' bandmate in Winter's Bane as far back as '92. Shaved bald and built like a muscular Michelin man, guitarist Dwane Bihary is big enough to make his guitar look like a ukulele. Drummer Eric Elkins wears a dark hoodie with a giant skull, but smiles constantly, overjoyed to be in a high-profile band.
With a thick goatee, lead guitarist John Comprix has hair long enough to touch the ground when he plays. Comprix has been collaborating with Owens since 2003, when Ripper was fronting Iced Earth (now on a hiatus) and Comprix's major project was 13 Faces, a metalcore act whose songs were as blunt as a club to the back of the skull. In Beyond Fear, he gets to play the wild, ornate leads that aspiring shredders spend hours in their bedroom practicing.
"I'm playing guitar again," says Comprix. "I'm playing my instrument, playing solos, being creative -- not just going dun-dun-dun. And it feels good."
The band recorded its self-titled debut with Jim Morris (Death, Cannibal Corpse), a legendary producer who helped extreme metal make a transition from fringe fad to viable genre, even with discs that move only 100,000 copies.
"When Jim Morris came in, I said, I want the most violent guitar sound possible,'" says Comprix. "He said, 'I love that. Twenty years in the business, and nobody's ever said that to me.' So he recorded it. And a couple weeks later, he calls me, and he says, 'I played it for some people, some local legends, and you know what the first person said? That's a violent guitar sound. '"
Set to arrive in stores May 9, Beyond Fear is pure power metal, with no crossover influences or hyphenated qualifying terms. The disc opens full-throttle with "Scream Machine," a track with old-school style and modern attitude. It's a little cartoonish -- but Owens says that was the point.
"It was the last song we wrote," Owens explains. "I wanted to write a classic, screaming, ripping-type song. It's this clichéd, metal-monster, '80s-type song. I wrote the music and melodies to show that I could write a classical metal song -- I wasn't able to write in Priest. And it's the one that's people's favorite song."
As Beyond Fear gestated, heavy metal underwent a change, reverting from the dominant trend of simple hardcore influences to a skill-based sound that emphasizes complexity and technical prowess. And while a generation of guitarists has grown up studying Metallica's guitar epics, few extreme singers can match Owens' range or skill. After years of running other people's plays, Beyond Fear could be the band that gets him back into the end zone.
"This is the first time since Winter's Bane that I'm doing exactly what I want to do," Owens says. "Not saying that any of the other stuff was wrong. But this one, I'm putting out music that I would want to hear, making a CD that I would want to buy. Everything about this is more me -- whether people like it or not."