Judas Priest – Painkiller

Written by on January 10, 2019

If there’s one element that defines Judas Priest, other than being pioneers of the Metal genre, is the fact that they have always being willing to alter their sound and experiment with multiple influences. The results may vary, but no one can deny that Rob Halford and his boys have always a courageous group and if there’s an album that shows Priest’s capacity to amaze everyone when the general perception was that they were a thing of the past, that’s Painkiller.

What makes this album so special and impactful is not only its massive musical quality, but also because of its context. Priest started the 80s in a very strong manner, remarking the legendary trifecta of British Steel, Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith, with Point of Entry, a more uneven effort, between those albums. The band started losing territory with 1986’s Turbo: an album that was savagely criticized at the time because Priest adopted a more Pop Metal sound, but nowadays it’s perceived in a better light. The group’s final album in this decade was Ram It Down, which saw them going back to their heavier sound but in a hit-and-miss fashion, with the mighty title track and the monumental Blood Red Skies being the best of the lot.

So the 90s were arriving and the music scene was starting to change. At the same time, Priest was dealing with a dealing regarding a young man that took his life, allegedly, because of the influence of one of the band’s albums, Stained Class. This issue was eventually solved and the group was proven innocent of any crime, this gave Priest a time in the spotlight in a negative way, so they waited a while to release Painkiller in 1990, even though it was already done.

“It affected us more than people might think,” Tipton said about the lawsuit. “I’m sure that people think we just brushed it off, but when you have to walk into court every day for six weeks and have lie after lie thrown at you, with the American legal system making us scapegoats for their own problems, it really winds you up.”

This was also the time where Scott Travis joined Priest, thus becoming the first American in the English band and the new drummer after Dave Holland’s departure in 1989. Scott had been playing with a group called Racer X, featuring the likes of guitar virtuoso Paul Gilbert, so he was a drummer capable enough of providing a new dimension to Judas Priest’s sound and that became an instrumental aspect of what made Painkiller what it is.

A lot of Metal bands, especially as they get older and time progresses, are prompt to soften their sound or try to experiment with multiple different styles, which was something that Priest toyed around with Point of Entry or Turbo in the past decade. That concept was thrown through the window with Painkiller and they decided to bolster their sound–making it darker, heavier and faster than any other album they made in the past (and even later on, because none of their future albums has the intensity or rawness of this work). Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing and Rob basically saw the heavier bands of the 80s that grew up under their influences and became the Slayers, Metallicas and Megadeths that we know and love and they decided to now learn from them, which is an example of how open-minded of a band Priest is to take influences from.

And it worked. Painkiller can not only be considered the finest Metal album of the decade, but also the finest Metal album of all time. If there’s has to be an album that defines the Metal genre, Painkiller would be a superb choice. We can perceive that from the moment we have a look at the cover: it’s such a powerful, impactful and exaggerated concept that just screams Metal. And let me tell you something: Painkiller is definitely a screamer.

The title track has gone on to become one of Judas Priest’s most known songs and for a good reason because it’s a complete and overpowering one. Scott Travis introduces himself to the wide Metal world with a drum intro that has become synonymous with the song and the intensity doesn’t stop from there. Rob Halford’s vocal performance here is the stuff of legends and it goes to show how far he can soar with his vocals, showcasing why he is the Metal God–devastating shrieks that deal with a being that causes death, pain and destruction all over the galaxy, which is probably the most Metal theme of all time. The guitar work is just as good, with Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing giving all the young Thrash guitar players a run for their money by churning riff after riff in a complete storm of power. This song tears you apart and when it ends, you feel you have lived something memorable, and you have.

Hell Patrol does slow the pace a bit, but we’re still at breakneck speed here. Rob’s mid-range is not often highlighted as much as his high notes, but this is a song that shows that side of his vocal style and it’s a joy to listen to–just like the rest of the band, he is delivering a very special performance in this album. This song also has a few rhythm changes in certain sections and the dual guitar melodies from K.K. and Glenn are just as enjoyable. Much like the title track, this song has become a classic, but, to be honest, we could say the same thing about almost the totality of the album.

I’ll be honest here and say that Halford’s opening vocals to All Guns Blazing has always been a bit of a drawback for me, but after that the song is just pure gold: a straightforward, powerful and, fittingly enough, blazing track. The whole band sounds rejuvenated with a tremendous emphasis on the riffs and Scott Travis adding another layer of complexity to the drumming side of things. A personal favorite of mine is Leather Rebel; I have always been a fan of faster tracks and this one certainly delivers with one of the finest guitar works of the entire album–the song flows at a breathtaking pace with such pace that is just marvelous to behold.

By this point, you should already have guessed that Painkiller’s main theme, musically speaking, is sheer intensity. And if you’re still not 100% sure, then we have Metal Meltdown for sure, with Scott Travis’ double bass drumming being a new card in the band’s deck. Nice middle section when they slow the pace for a more mid-tempo approach, with even more focus on the riffs. Another aspect that is worth pointing out about Painkiller is the fact that while as intense as it may sounds it still doesn’t neglect melody and hooks, which is why a song like Metal Meltdown or the next one are very heavy but still able to stick in your mind.

Night Crawler is quite probably the most melodic track of the whole album and one of the better known songs in Priest’s catalog–and for a good reason, it has to be said. This song is definitely carried along by K.K. and Glenn’s guitar work, while Rob uses once again that middle range that allows for a better emphasis in melodies and a certain rhythm on the riffs that creates a great hook. This is a song that could fit quite well in the first half of Defenders of the Faith, but a grittier and heavier approach.

The times of lawsuit that they had to endure before releasing this album definitely took a toll on them and this was made quite clear with Between the Hammer and the Anvil. It’s not only one of Priest’s best songs of all time, with Halford delivering a memorable vocal performance and a main riff that feels as monumental as the Wembley stadium, but it also has the best lyrical work of the whole album, dealing with the feelings that they had with the trial, the prejudice for a crime they didn’t commit and the overall experience as a whole. It’s that combination of darkness with heavy music and great writing skills that make a memorable Metal song and that’s what Between the Hammer and the Anvil is.

After seven tracks that were completely demolishing, A Touch of Evil opts for a more mid-tempo pace and we can enjoy what it’s one of Rob Halford’s most versatile vocal performances. He’s the star of the show in this song, accompanied by heavy and rhythmic riffs that make for a great combination, proving that while he’s ceremoniously known for his high notes he can also sing in other registers. It’s along with Night Crawler the most accessible and melodic song of the album, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Not at all. It’s a terrific song with a fantastic arrangement and the Metal God being, well, the Metal God.

Battle Hymn doesn’t add much to the album and it’s rather a slow introduction to the last song of the album, One Shot at Glory. To be honest, this song ends the album in a somewhat low key and I don’t think it’s because it’s a weak track (it’s not, and it actually has some of that influence from their 80s catalog with power injection of the Painkiller album), but rather because the other eight songs are just ridiculous good, which makes this look pale in comparison. But I don’t think that justifies me being nitpicky when we had such a tremendous ride here.

Naturally, Painkiller was an obliterating success and it surprised everyone: nobody was expecting Priest to get so heavy and doing so in such a modern fashion–props to producer Chris Tsangarides, who made such a good work with this album’s production that it still sounds amazing. The album also allowed the band to go on a massive world tour and participate in the Rock in Rio II festival in 1991, along the likes of Megadeth, Guns ‘n’ Roses or Queensrÿche. It’s still regarded as one of Priest’s finest work–even as the best to some- and it has become a testament to the band’s capacity to always evolve, to always strive for something new and to never stagnate. That’s what made Judas Priest so brilliant throughout the years.

Painkiller is much more than just a great Metal album.

Painkiller is the definition of what Metal is.

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