Judas Priest prepares for life without Tipton

It’s going to be strange looking over and not seeing him looking back at you.”

That’s how Judas Priest bass player Ian Hill described the thought of being on stage without Glenn Tipton, the only person besides Hill who has appeared on every album and, until now, played every tour.

The band announced last month that Tipton, who has been battling Parkinson’s disease for a decade, would be unable to join the band for its upcoming tour in support of its new album, “Firepower,” which will be released Friday. The tour starts Tuesday in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and the second date will be March 15 at Youngstown’s Covelli Centre.

“Glenn has suffered from Parkinson’s for a long time,” Hill said during a telephone interview. “As you know, it doesn’t get better; it gets slowly worse. We had a similar scenario before the last tour. We started band rehearsals, playing stuff, and he started out quite rough. As time went on, he got better every day and by the end of rehearsal he was ready to go.

“We were expecting, or at least hoping, for the same, but it just wasn’t happening. We could see it, but we had to wait for Glenn to figure it out for himself. It’s a horrible thing to admit to us, and moreso to himself, that his body wasn’t going to let him do what he loves more than anything else.”

Hill said Tipton is the one who suggested his replacement, Andy Sneap, who co-produced “Firepower” with Tom Allom.

“We called him up and once he picked himself up off the floor, agreed to give it a go,” Hill said.

Sneap had helped shaped the new material in the studio and was familiar with Priest’s catalog, which enabled him to step in without the band having to reschedule any of the early dates on the tour. In addition to full band rehearsals, Hill and Sneap live close enough to each other that they’ve been working together as well.

“He’s in good shape,” Hill said. “I think Glenn will be proud.”

Judas Priest helped create the sound (and the look) of British heavy metal, and “Firepower” draws on the past and the present by pairing Sneap and Allom.

Allom has worked on two live and eight studio albums for Judas Priest, including such influential releases as 1980’s “British Steel” and 1982’s “Screaming for Vengeance.” As a producer and engineer, Sneap has worked with many of the bands that followed Judas Priest, including Exodus, Napalm Death, Machine Head, Megadeth, Opeth and Testament.

“They gelled and got along really really well,” Hill said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you see more collaborations from them.”

Hill cited “Rise from Ruins,” which he described as an epic Judas Priest song, as a great example of Allom and Sneap bringing their styles together on the band’s music, and he said Sneap made suggestions that really changed the way he played the song’s bass line.

The songwriting process followed the same formula it has for decades — the guitar players (Tipton and Richie Faulkner) creating the song structure, lead singer Rob Halford writing the lyrics and then Hill and drummer Scott Travis creating the rhythm parts.

Hill said he always believes the band’s latest album is its best, and he’s excited to hear fans’ reactions when it’s released.

“Without question this is the best sound we’ve had on an album” he said.

Hill often refers to the other guys in Judas Priest as family rather than bandmates (he and Halford actually were family at one time with Hill married to Halford’s sister). While there has been a little bickering in the press lately between current members and former guitar player K.K. Downing, who speculated that Tipton isn’t the one playing guitar on “Firepower” and said he was surprised the band didn’t invite him to take Tipton’s place on tour, Hill still sees Judas Priest as a family.

“We’re a bunch of chums, all easy going, all gregarious characters … There’s a friendly rivalry, but no cut-throat stuff. It’s more of a family atmosphere than anything else.”

The band parted on good terms with Akron native, Tim “Ripper” Owens, and Hill said he wouldn’t be surprised if he turns up backstage. Owens sang lead vocals with the band from 1996 to 2002 after Halford left to pursue a solo career. Being plucked from a Judas Priest tribute band to singing with the real thing (very loosely) inspired the 2001 Mark Wahlberg-Jennifer Aniston film “Rock Star.”

“He’s got his own career, but I’m sure if he’s in the area, he’ll be there,” Hill said.