"I discussed it about five months before [the split happened], saying, 'Listen, if you're going to get Halford back, get him back, because you have my blessings to do it," says Owens, who earned the nickname "Ripper" from his years fronting an Akron-based Priest tribute. "I needed it. I had talked to Ronnie Dio on the phone about what I should do. I said, 'Should I quit the band?' His suggestion was that I should quit if I have feelings of doing my own thing. But I would have never quit Priest."
While waiting to learn of his fate with Priest, Owens set other projects in motion. He recorded vocals for the forthcoming effort from the Indiana-based power-metal band Iced Earth, after the group parted ways with its singer. He had also been formulating a band of his own since late 2002, cutting tracks with 13 Faces guitarist John Comprix at Comprix's home studio.
"When Priest and I split, I had a decision to make of whether to join Iced Earth, do the other offers that were coming in, or do my own thing right at that time," he recalls. "I talked with Jon [Schaffer, Iced Earth's guitarist and founder], and I took about a month and a half to decide. I just said, 'You know, I could join Iced Earth: It shows off my vocals, I've already done promotion all around the world, it's good publicity and great music; and I can also do my own thing when next year comes.' It made me think I could do everything I wanted to do."
"I'm telling you, from a technical standpoint, there is not a better singer in heavy metal today," gushes Schaffer. "I have had the pleasure of recording some of the best in the business. I've been producing records for over 10 years, and there was no doubt ever in my mind that he was 10 times the vocalist that Rob Halford was, even in his prime."
The move made sense for Owens, both creatively -- he'll still get to focus on his other band during Iced Earth's breaks -- and financially. While Judas Priest still has plenty of leftover cachet from its '80s heyday, the band sold fewer than 50,000 copies of its last LP and toured only sporadically. Iced Earth, on the other hand, moved close to 250,000 copies of its last album, Horror Show. It drew upwards of 2,000 fans each night on its latest U.S. tour and did even better in places like Greece, where it plays the country's biggest venues. Owens's first release with Iced Earth, the November single "The Wreckoning," debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard Singles Sales chart and has sold more than 50,000 copies. His first full-length with the band, The Glorious Burden, is due on January 9. The new material remains very much rooted in Iced Earth's metal tradition, with cast-iron riffs and rhythms that gallop like snorting thoroughbreds. "It's good traditional metal," beams Owens, whose vocals, rooted in the falsetto fireworks of '80s metal gods like Halford, pay great dividends for the band's sound.
"Obviously, I'm a heavy-metal singer, and that's what I feel I do the best, but my voice isn't limited to the stereotypical '80s heavy-metal voice," Owens says. True enough, in his part-time work with the area cover band the Sickness, Owens balances his sterling upper register with touches of dark melody, à la Layne Staley and Chris Cornell. "I think my voice does cross over. I can sound like myself and have the young kids like it."
The kids won't get a chance to hear Iced Earth live until next spring. Band rehearsals should begin by February, and Iced Earth hopes to land an opening slot on a major metal tour next summer. Ironically, they'd love a spot on Priest's comeback trek.
"Judas Priest and I are the best of friends still," Owens says. "I just talked to Glen [Tipton] and Ken [Downing] the other day. They were in the studio writing, and we just laughed. It's like nothing's different."