REVIEW: Judas Priest – Painkiller (1990)

PAINKILLER_0001JUDAS PRIEST – Painkiller (Remastered, 1990 Sony)

In the late 80’s, after the robotic Priest…Live! and the false start that was Ram It Down, a lot of metal fans wrote off Judas Priest as a vital metal band.

They were a tad premature.

Perhaps it was Halford inking a few too many tattoos into his noggin, perhaps it was the long overdue departure of Dave Holland on drums, or maybe they were just pissed off. The band had spent the summer of 1990 defending themselves in the United States against accusations of murder. Not directly, but through “backwards messages” supposedly embedded on the ancient Stained Class album.* It was a show trial designed to blame bad parenting on someone else. But the band triumphed, and came back meaner and angrier than ever before.

Having written songs with a drum machine, Priest now needed a new drummer.  They selected Scott Travis of Racer X, the band that also spawned Paul Gilbert among others.  Travis, an American, was on board and the band bunked down in the studio with veteran producer Chris Tsangarides.  What resulted from this potent mix was the best record they’d done since at least Defenders, if not far earlier. Decks had been cleared, the band meant business. Travis threw down the double bass, a thrash metal sound previously unexplored by Judas Priest.  While looking forward, the album also distilled the sounds of Priest over the last 10 years.  It  put the turntable from 33 1/3 all the way up to 45 rpm.

PAINKILLER_0002This is over-the-top metal, shiny and mean. Halford’s screaming higher and harder than any time before, almost to the point of caricature, but not quite. This chrome plated beast blew away all reasonable expectations. Tipton and Downing still thought they were interesting enough guitar players to do lead break credits on every album, but it’s a touch I like. Tipton is the more experimental one and Downing the fast and reckless one. As a combo it works; the solos are interesting, adrenaline packed and suitable to the songs.

PAINKILLER_0004The production is loud and clear; at the time I felt this was one of the best produced metal albums I’d ever heard. The drums are so loud and clear that it hurts.  Travis is doing some serious steppin’ on the double bass. To steal a phrase from Halford, this is “primo thrash metal”. More accurately, speed metal.

Almost every song is worthy. Only a few fall flat. Painkiller was more about the overall direction than individual songs,  Yes, the lyrics are cartoony, but “Nightcrawler” takes it too far and is too repetitive with a spoken word section that should have been chopped. Also embarassing is “Metal Meltdown”, a speed metal blaster that tries but fails to be as dramatic as “Painkiller” itself.  On the positive side are the incendiary title track (still classic today), the ballad “A Touch of Evil”, and the riff-by-riff metal of “Leather Rebel”, “Hell Patrol” and “All Guns Blazing”.  You wouldn’t expect an album like Painkiller to have a lot of melody, but some of these tracks may surprise you.

Bonus tracks are the out-of-place “Living Bad Dreams” (a ballad which spoils the record) and an inferior live cut of “Leather Rebel”.

Still, quite the album!.  It really gets the blood pumping, even today. I wish it came with a DVD with the insane video of the title track. Check that out if you want to have a sweat.   A mighty if imperfect return.

4.5/5 stars

* The song in question, “Better By You, Better Than Me”, was pointedly re-released as a B-side on Priest’s next single, “Painkiller”.

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57 comments

  1. This was a great comeback for Priest and probably one of the most important albums they ever brought out… but I’m always a bit torn about it. It’s got some brilliant tracks on it but, as a whole, I always find it a bit of a drag to listen to. I don’t think it is anywhere as good as Stained Class, Killing Machine, Screaming etc… 4/5 at the most for me! But still, and album they had to make and they should have got Travis on the drum stool sooner!

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    1. 4/5 vs 4.5/5…I think we can agree to disagree on this one ;)

      Back when I was in highschool, I would have rated it 5/5 and also argued for it being Priest’s best yet. My opinion has changed since, but my feeling (at that time) was that the most technical and advanced Priest got with their metal, the better they were. Today I’ve embraced a larger world view.

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      1. Yeah, not a big variance of opinion ratings-wise, and I agree with your take on it in terms of best/worst songs. I think your review is pretty spot-on. It’s just that feeling I get when I listen to it that there’s just something missing that I look for in Priest. I think I like the album most as a statement of intent but it’s not my go-to Priest album by any means.

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        1. Priest are awesome for practicing the scream technique! But Rob Halford often sang too fast for me to keep up! There are some seriously fast songs on Screaming and Defenders, and I had no lyric sheet in any of their cassettes until Ram It Down came out.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. “Travis threw down the double bass, a thrash metal sound previously unexplored by Judas Priest.”

    Not being a Priest fan and hence not familiar with the people and instruments they play, while reading this quickly I had the mental image of a bloke with an acoustic stand-up bass in the recording studio with Priest. :-)

    The ballad of Lee Rocker and Judas Priest, anyone?

    .

    Liked by 2 people

  3. First few times I heard this I didn’t like it.
    I think its “One Shot At Glory” that really won me over. Still one of the best Priest songs IMO.
    The only thing I don’t like about this album is that it feels out-of-place. There’s at least two of everything else (well, not Nostradamus) but in an evolutionary way, this seems strange. In and of itself, brilliant, but sometimes I’m like…”where’s the sequel or prequel please guys?”

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    1. In my mind Ram It Down is the prequel, and Jugulator is the sequel. I think with Painkiller they achieved what they were trying to do on Ram It Down. With Jugulator, I think they took it too far and it’s not a good album.

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  4. I have never understood the alleged greatness of this album. Yes, we all have different taste in music but I just don’t get this album. My first reaction when I heard it was that they jumped on the aggro metal trend that happened in 1990 with bands like Metallica, Pantera and such. To me Priest were always metal, but they didn’t have to be so damn angry about it, they were the heaviest metal band anyway.
    Besides, I found some of the titles on this album quite embarrassing. Lether Rebel: Hell Patrol. All Guns Blazing. C’mon. Ok, so they did some of that prior to this album as well with Heavy metal and Monsters Of Rock, but still, that combined with the music became a bit too much. Still, there is some really good stuff on it. The title track, A Touch Of Evil, Night Crawler, Between The Hammer And The Anvil. But I take any old Priest record, except Ram It Down, over this. I even think Angel Of Retribution, Nostradamus and Redeemer Of Souls are far superior. But HMO is right when he says that this album was a really important album for Priest.
    I’d give this 6/10.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Besides, I found some of the titles on this album quite embarrassing. Lether Rebel: Hell Patrol. All Guns Blazing. C’mon. “

      Presumably embarrassing lyrics as well. Together with better music, this is one reason I prefer Maiden to Priest.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Haha. Balsfemy…
          Yeah, well, I do actually prefer Priest to Maiden no matter how cliché some Priest’s ttiles might be.
          And besides, both bands has released useless records with vocalists that doesn’t hold up. I think Blaze is far worse than Ripper, though.

          Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I’ll defend the lyrics to Hell Patrol — I do like them. That song was about the coalition forces in the Gulf War which was happening at that time. I kind of dug the way Halford disguised the meaning within the lyrics, so to a listener it could be about anything.

        I can’t pick between Maiden and Priest. I really do like them equally. I admit that Priest’s lyrics are often inferior. Sometimes they can be downright terrible.

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    2. Hey Jon, well I guess this is one of those albums we disagree on! Which is good because I enjoy your perspective on these things. I totally get where you’re coming from.

      I remember Halford praising Pantera as one of his favourite bands at the time, and I think Megadeth opened for them on this tour. I know Halford was very much into Thrash at the time. I really do believe he was sincere in making this album in the mold of the music he liked at the time.

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  5. Excellent insights here Mike. I don’t have this one in my collection but I think I’ll look for it in the user section. Quite coincidentally I wrote a review last night of British Steel that comes out tomorrow.

    You gotta love heavy metal giants who cover Joan Baez and Spooky Tooth!

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    1. Looking forward to your British Steel review Tim! I will check it out.

      Not only did Priest cover those two artists, but they also covered THIS song — however the Priest version remains unreleased and locked in the vaults.

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  6. I originally came to love Judas Priest with British Steel – probably like millions of others fans. For a few years that was the only Priest album I owned until I heard Machine Head cover “The Sentinel” on their Unto The Locust album. I immediately went out and bought Defenders of the Faith, along with Painkiller (they were both cheap at the time…)

    The short story is: Painkiller is my favourite Priest album. This is a great review, really well-written. Totally agree with your rating, as well.

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