Why Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” Is Essential

I recall in my mid teens I shunned this album, having been lent it by a friend of family. It came along with a collection of older, more traditional releases that all veered within the canon of hard rock/proto-metal to the NWOBHM. Cleaner vocals didn’t float my boat, and my naively youthful knee-jerking towards the perceived “cheesiness” of this milieu was crudely overlooked.

More acclimatized to the dark romanticism of black metal and the intense, rhythmic momentum of death metal, it took a couple of more years to really appreciate its excellence. Whilst I was already for some time into speed and thrash metal, this served as an excellent means to join the dots of metal’s lineage.

“Painkiller” is the twelfth studio album by the band, and it marks one of the greatest rejuvenations of a bands form. It comes on the back of albums such as “Turbo” and “Ram It Down”, both undoubtedly entertaining, sunkissed records, but marking a period of artistic drought that saw them trying to engage the glam-metal market.

Recorded in early 1990, this comes at a stage when speed metal’s glory years were past, and death metal was gathering full creative steam. An essential swansong year, it produced some gems that should be regarded as classics, including (but not limited to) the likes of “Rust In Peace” (Megadeth), “By Inheritance” (Artillery), “Seasons In The Abyss” (Slayer) and “Coma Of Souls” (Kreator).

To listen to “Painkiller” on the back of anything they released post-“Defenders Of the Faith” is to hear a vital reignition of a machine that was on the verge of choking on the steam that was charging it. In terms of arrangement and all-round craft it brings together all of what made “Stained Class” and “Screaming For Vengeance” essential.

To view the album cover is to visualize a landscape within the music itself; a soundtrack to apocalyptic urban warfare in which chaos and violence reign. Where law and order have disintegrated and cityscapes lie in ruin, heroic archetypes of iron, thunder and steel emerge in dark hours of dread.

As stereotypically “metal” as this seems, this sets the scene for everything that metal music should be; profound narrative embedded within sound that takes the listener on an epic and mythic journey. As much as some artists and aficionados within this milieu may be at pains to articulate it at times, this all embodies why such music is made, and why metalheads listen to it and take something from it.

Aesthetically, this is not totally withdrawn from the thudding, digital sounding production of “Ram It Down”. Within that crystalline façade is the maturation and stylistic development of the metal genre that has occurred since the early 1980’s, channelling epic speed metal a la Agent Steel and the high concept stadium anthemics of Queensryche.

It is the addition of American drummer Scott Travis that helps fire this new spark within the five piece’s creativity, blessing the record with characteristics that give the British outfit a specifically transatlantic quality. However, rather than channelling the markets that gave the world Motley Crue and Poison as they had on their last two albums, the band channelled metal’s then “alternative mainstream” and underground.

There are traits and motifs borrowed from their new drummer’s previous band Racer X, notably his relentless use of double bass kick drum. The dual guitars of Glenn Tipton and KK Downing take on a similarly neoclassical flair, but thankfully channel this into an overall profound songwriting and listening experience.

The operatic range of Rob Halford now also channels a similar level of alarm and emergency that the clean wails of Tom Araya (Slayer) have. Whilst this is undoubtedly a deeply melodic affair, the aesthetic and technical violence that become inherent and foundational to metal is preeminent here, and the band usher it forth at a time when their creativity appeared to be in a gradual decline.

Rather than being a mere outlet for technique (i.e. “shredding”) and virtuosity, I personally find that Judas Priest have much in common with the loosely defined canon of “US Power Metal” on this album. If one were to remove the “brand name” Judas Priest, then “Painkiller” is a record which easily sits alongside albums such as “Ample Destruction”, “Thundersteel”, “Hall Of The Mountain King”, “Skeptics Apocalpyse” and “Master Control”. This change of aesthetic is similar to what their fellow countrymen Cloven Hoof took on their albums “Dominator” and “A Sultan’s Ransom”.

The components to make a record as strong as this was quite evidently already within the band, waiting to emanate. It simply took new components to achieve that manifestation. They grasped a similar power of narrative and myth that bands who were in turn influenced by them implemented on the back of their legacy. Yet after a few years straddling a creative wilderness, they remerged to perfect what came after them.

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1 thought on “Why Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” Is Essential

  1. A great review of the send off album for Halford ( for about a decade anyways). I would like to hear your opinion on Iron Maiden’s “Brave New World”, Dickenson’s return album. It is in my opinion one of there best works. Although being much of the same as before he left its as if they never missed a beat. As a youth that album was on constantly in my car or room. I have always been especially fond of the first four tracks.

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