Judas Priest had their fair share of peaks and valleys during the 80s, mostly peaks though. They started the decade with their critically acclaimed album, British Steel. The forgettable Point of Entry followed, but 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance redeemed the Priest and became their best selling LP. The heavier Defenders of the Faith continued Priest’s success in the middle of the decade. Turbo in 86 suffered from being too commercial and glam. Ram It Down showed that the band heading back in a heavier direction, but it wasn’t quite there. Then Painkiller came out in 1990.
Painkiller, Judas Priest’s twelfth studio album, is one of their best. After the over-commercialism of their then-recent releases, Priest screamed for vengeance in the studio. The end product contains the band’s most brutal material. This new direction helped Priest grow out of their dated 80s approach for a more timeless sound. It was the British Steel for the 90s. And today is the record’s 25th anniversary. Let’s look back.
Right when newly recruited percussionist Scott Travis’ drums come slamming in at the beginning of the title track, you know you’re in for a treat. Then the main riff comes in. Wow. Just wow. The twin lead guitar attack of K. K. Downing and Glen Tipton is nothing but raw brutality mixed with serious guitar virtuoso skills. The riff itself isn’t hard to play, but it’s the speed that makes it intense. Rob Halford is screaming in his falsetto the whole time, which is often reserved for only certain parts of songs. The solos are insane too. Though it is at times overplayed, this is one of the best metal songs of all time. It is an interesting cross between the traditional and the extreme, with the seasoned, old-school Priest doing a very intense song compared to the most of their material. If I were to play a metal song to someone who has never heard heavy metal before, it would be this one.
And that’s only the first song. Most of the songs continue the speed metal frenzy that “Painkiller” started. “Hell Patrol” is another great track in its own right and contains the amazing line “Soul stealers – RIPPING UP HEARTS” screamed by the Metal God himself. “All Guns Blazing” starts with more amazing Halford screams. The dude should be on that upcoming show Scream Queens. The track owns up to its title, and could have a hell of a music video with some kind of crazy 80s/90s action movie scene. You can’t have Judas Priest without tanned cowhide, and “Leather Rebel” exemplifies that. Though a cool song, it makes it clear at this point that the LP can be a bit formulaic.
“Metal Meltdown” continues the Priest tradition of heavy metal, and is a blazing track with a catchy hook. “Night Crawler” is the first track that breaks from the formula. With some sick riffs and melodic soloing, it is an unquestionably blistering song. They even slow it down a bit, and have Halford sing in an uncharacteristically deep voice. “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” jumps back to the conventions of earlier, but still works. “A Touch of Evil” truly stands out, with a very theatrical vibe. It sounds like it could be from a hypothetical modern remake of Phantom of the Opera.
“Battle Hymn” is a short instrumental that would usually be used as an album or concert intro, but it is toward the end of the record. I could take or leave this one. “One Shot at Glory” finishes the record proper, but it feels a bit déjà vu. There is a bonus track, “Living Bad Dreams,” that is in the same realm as “A Touch of Evil”. It should have replaced something like “Between the Hammer and the Anvil,” as Halford delivers an emotional performance. Though melodramatic and a bit over the top, it’s a nice break from the mold.
Looking back on the record made me realize the somewhat cut-and-paste approach they went with for most of the songs. It’s still amazing, but a bit more variety would have helped. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it as they say, and the title track certainly isn’t broke. The lyrics are pretty cheesy, but I’m always down for some sci-fi/fantasty anecdotes. All of the rapid songs work really well while driving down the freeway, or doing any high-energy activities. Rob Halford left Priest shortly after Painkiller’s tour, wanting to go in a more Pantera-esque groove metal direction. But they have since been back together to spread the good news of heavy metal to all. This record continues to be remembered fondly by the metal community and for good reason. Long live Judas Priest! \m/
Painkiller Track list:
2. Hell Patrol
3. All Guns Blazing
4. Leather Rebel
5. Metal Meltdown
6. Night Crawler
7. Between the Hammer and the Anvil
8. A Touch of Evil
9. Battle Hymn
10. One Shot at Glory
11. Living Bad Dreams (Bonus Track)
Rob Halford – Vocals
K. K. Downing – Lead Guitar
Glenn Tipton – Guitar
Ian Hill – Bass
Scott Travis – Drums