By the time ‘Painkiller’ hit the shelves in September 1990, I had been a Judas Priest fan for the best part of ten years.
The 1980’s will often be remembered as Priest’s most successful decade: the release of ‘British Steel’ in the height of the NWOBHM ensured decent sales and pushed the band farther into the public eye. There were also top performances throughout on 1982’s ‘Screaming for Vengeance’ and 1984’s ‘Defenders of the Faith’. However, after 1986’s ‘Turgid’ ‘Turbo’ and 1988’s ‘Ram It Down’ saw a rather lack-lustre band treading water, many fans felt they needed a kick up the arse to get the fire back.
That kick came after long-time drummer Dave Holland was replaced with Racer X drummer Scott Travis. Their regular studio producer Colonel Tom Allom (producer of their six previous studio albums released between 1980-88) had also been sidelined, with the band choosing Chris Tsangrides (engineer on 1976’s classic ‘Sad Wings of Destiny‘) to produce.
I’ll never forget hearing this album for the first time. After a quick burst of the opening number, complete with fast drumming and speed metal influences, Priest sounded more alive than they had in a long time. Two decades on and the power behind ‘Painkiller’ still holds true, thanks in no small part to Travis’s arrival.
The title cut squeals and thunders and Rob is in top scream; Glenn and KK’s twin guitar work still sounds unmatched. A similar approach is taken on ‘All Guns Blazing’, although its couple of slower moments have more in common with ‘Freewheel Burning’. Some elements of ‘Metal Meltdown’ are full on speed metal, although the slower chorus (easily memorable and surely designed for shouting at gigs) helps make it stand out.
‘Night Crawler’, ‘Leather Rebel’, ‘One Shot at Glory’ and ‘Between The Hammer & The Anvil’ present a far more traditional sounding Priest. While the songs themselves could’ve been pulled from ‘Defenders of the Faith’ (the album ‘Painkiller’ resembles the most on its slower tracks), Scott Travis’s bass drums are still hit harder than anything Dave Holland ever recorded. Even on the slower numbers, the band sound exciting and rejuvenated. The album’s power ballad moment (if I may call it that), ‘Touch of Evil’, does exactly what you’d expect. With its fist-in-the-air MTV rock friendliness, its melodic nature makes it an excellent choice for a single release (though not overly successful in the UK, in the US it remains one of the band’s biggest hits). Musically, it sits in the back catalogue comfortably next to ‘Night Comes Down’.
Reviews for ‘Painkiller’ at the time were generally positive. Although some fans found some of the material on offer heavier than they’d been used to, some new fans were pleased by the harder direction the band had taken. At the time, guitarist Glenn Tipton said ‘Painkiller’ “was about the heaviest album [the band] were likely to make”. After touring the album, in a surprise move, Rob Halford quit the band after over seventeen years. He formed a new band, Fight, again with Scott Travis on drums. They would take the power of ‘Painkiller’ and fuse it with even more extreme metal influences. For those who’d baulked at ‘Painkiller’, it was time to say goodbye to Rob, at least for the time being.
Decades on, ‘Painkiller’ sounds absolutely classic: a fantastic achievement for a band so far into their career.