Forgotten series: Judas Priest – Painkiller (1990)

In 1990, Judas Priest was coming out of something of a tough period. After recording metal classics like British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance in the early 1980s, they had released the polarizing Turbo, with its synth sounds, and the lackluster companion piece Ram It Down. They needed to make a statement and reclaim their stranglehold on the metal world. And Painkiller was that statement.

British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance are fantastic albums – absolute classics of the metal genre. But when I really need a Priest fix, Painkiller is my go-to album. It remains my favorite work from their entire catalog.

That statement they were looking for was made right off the bad with the thundering crashes of then new drummer Scott Travis that opened up the title track. Then K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton come in with a thrashing guitar riff and the Metal God himself, Rob Halford, is shrieking like he never has before. It’s the heaviest thing that fans, to that point, had ever heard from Priest. And it’s absolutely incredible. To this day, I can’t listen to the song without getting up, throwing horns in the air, playing air guitar and banging my head. To me, it’s one of those songs that captures the essence of what heavy metal is all about – balls to the wall speed, aggression and power.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: For me, Judas Priest ranks second (after Iron Maiden) among the most important bands in the history of metal – and 2011’s ‘The Chosen Few’ drove that point home.]

The thrash/speed metal influence continued throughout the album on songs like “All Guns Blazing” and “Metal Meltdown,” which gave Tipton and Downing opportunities to shred to their fullest potential. Travis, who had previously played in technical rock outfit Racer X, brought a new dimension to the sound that former drummer Dave Holland, who had departed due to health and personal reasons, just didn’t have. That’s never more apparent than on another of my favorite tracks, “Leather Rebel.” Travis just thunders away on the song. I’ll admit that I’m no expert on drums, but even I’m impressed with the double bass attack on the tune, and it was the one song on the album that all of my drummer friends were falling over themselves trying to learn.

Judas Priest didn’t totally abandon their classic sound for speed, though. “Night Crawler,” one of the more sinister tracks on the album, has that essential Priest sound, and has become a staple of their live shows over the years. “One Shot at Glory” also hearkened back to the band’s early days with a great, memorable vocal melody.

Even when the band did slow down on this record, though, it was still powerful. Despite its synths, “Touch of Evil” is definitely a high point of Painkiller. It opens with a slightly classical-sounding keyboard line, then a big, bold classic Priest guitar riff. Halford remains in his lower registers for much of the song, a contrast to the all-out shrieks and growls found on many of the tracks on the album. Then there comes that big, theatrical chorus where Halford is the puppet master holding the listener in his hands, hanging on his every note. You just picture him as a maniacal villain delivering the line as he calls to his minions. It’s great stuff, as is the entire album.

Sadly, Halford left the band just a few years after the recording of this album, and they were dormant until 1996, when they emerged with the Tim Owens-fronted Jugulator – another fine album in my opinion, but one I’ll leave for future exploration. Though their reunion album Angel of Retribution in 2005 was a good one (I won’t mention Nostradamus), they couldn’t equal the power they’d delivered on this one. I would have liked to have seen a more immediate continuation in this vein, and I guess we did in a way with Halford’s Fight, but I’ve always wondered what that next record might have sounded like.

I love the classic Priest albums as much as the next metalhead, and I can’t imagine a world without “Breaking the Law” or “Electric Eye” or “The Ripper.” But for me, Painkiller is and always will be the pinnacle of their power.

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Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Alan

    The problem with selecting a favorite Priest album is due to the very thing that makes them so great: they are able to regularly reinvent themselves and remarkably still sound like Judas Priest. Personally I am unable to state definitively that “this is my favorite album”.

    I love the genre defining creativity of Sad Wings, the complex writing of Stained Class, the shocking power of Screaming for Vengance, the phoenix-like unleashing of Painkiller and yet again with Angel of Retribution.

    I agree that Painkiller is special, one of the few rock albums that truly is “all killer, no filler”, no missteps or slow spots unlike Screaming, which can drag here and there. Even Touch of Evil, the slowest track on the release, has that powerful Glenn solo reminiscent of his work on Beyond the Realms of Death. Additionally, this album was the first with Scott Travis and lets face it, Mr. Holland’s expiration date had passed several albums prior. (around Screaming For Vengance)

    I was fortunate to see them on tour for this release with Testament and Megadeth, the latter promoting Rust In Peace and the JP material more than held it’s own against the young upstarts.

    So while I may be too timid to commit to one favorite Priest album I will agree that in the Judas Priest pantheon Painkiller will ultimately rest on the highest pedestal.

    • matto

      Alan, what you wrote,”they are able to regularly reinvent themselves and remarkably still sound like Judas Priest” is what makes them so great. Could not have put it any better.
      My favorite Priest albums are their first, “Rocka Rolla” and their last,”Nostradamus”

      • Alan

        Wow, a Rocka Rolla fan, not too many around. The songwriting was surprisingly ambitious for a first album. The production was tinny and some of the jams were a little too long but GOD what a voice on Halford back then! Run of the Mill “Cling to the gutter, in case you fall” I still get chills when he sings this section, even before the high notes at the end.

      • Fred Phillips

        Those early Priest albums are really underrated. I can’t say that I like them better than the more “metal” records, but I do like them. Some great straight-up hard rock on there. I always crack up when I see the “Rocka Rolla” videos from the Old Grey Whistle Test and see the big Halford hair and the band decked out in the 70s glam/hippie gear.

        “Nostradamus,” on the other hand, I just can’t get into. There are a few songs I like, but on the whole, it does nothing for me.

  • Fred Phillips

    Man, what a show. I vaguely remember that tour, but I was a beyond-broke college kid at the time. One of my great regrets is that I’ve never seen Priest live. An even bigger regret is that they visited my area on a double headlining tour with Iron Maiden when I was a teenager, and I didn’t go for some stupid reason or other. I had planned to catch Priest on their “farewell” tour a year or so back, but sadly, they priced the tickets way out of my range, particular with gas and a hotel factored in. I’m hoping I’ll get one more shot before they actually call it a day.

  • Alan

    Yeah it’s almost getting a little embarrasing with them these days. It used to be KISS with all the compilations (I think at one time they actually had the Guinness record for most comps) but the past 7 years or so Priest has been giving them a run for their money with all the rereleases and comps and overpriced concert tickets.

    Instead of “hey guys, thanks for making us all millionaires and allowing us to spend our lives just making music, here’s a discounted concert tour for all of you.” it’s become the “Last Desperate Dash For Cash” tour. Really guys? You don’t have enough money already? How’s about a little love for the little people, the ones who saved their pennies from their crappy McJobs just to give them to you, to make you all wealthy men, the little folk who still need to know how much a pound of hamburger actually costs, and have to go out and buy it themselves. You know, the FANS?

    Anyway, sorry about the rant, it’s just that I always had such respect for them, and to see the group that always stood true to their music (no “I Was Made For Loving You” here) make such an obvious, Rolling Stones-like savage grasp for those last few dollars kind of hurts a little.

    Well it looks like they will be touring with Falkner for awhile so you will probably still get your chance. I’m pullin’ for ya. Good luck and keep the faith!

  • Pat Raulea

    To the author of this article/review:

    You sound like a complete Judas Priest novice when you don’t mention Defenders of the Faith at all.

    You conspicuously omit any mention of this album, which is an absolute classic, arguably even better than British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance.

    This applies to all the people who left comments. None of you remember this hugely underrated album?? Shame on you. If you forgot it or don’t know it, you need to listen to Defenders of the Faith ASAP!

  • Fred Phillips

    I didn’t mention Stained Class, Hell Bent for Leather (another personal favorite), Sin after Sin or Point of Entry either. Doesn’t mean I don’t like them or am not aware of them. It just means I didn’t mention them in this review of Painkiller.

    I think Defenders of the Faith is a very good record. I don’t, however, think it’s as good as British Steel, Vengeance or Painkiller. Just my opinion. Yours obviously differs. And that’s one of the cool things about music. It speaks to different people in different ways.

  • Alan

    @Pat Raulea: Bet I can guess what your favorite Priest album is.
    Seriously though, wasn’t an omission, it just happens that it didn’t come up in conversation. I didn’t mention quite a few albums, that doesn’t mean I don’t remember or appreciate them.
    This article was a look back at a possibly overlooked release. In our discussion of this album all of us have referenced other priest albums as well as thinly veiled references to albums from other bands.
    If you have something to add to this discussion that includes references to DOTF by all means chime in. However we would ask that you adhere to the tone of the discourse and refrain from needless aggression.