Can’t Stop the “Painkiller”: Judas Priest’s Classic Album Dominates Metal Thirty Years Later
Painkiller is important for what its musical strength did symbolically for the band’s legacy but also for showing the potential in all of metal. Judas Priest at that point (despite Rob Halford’s term of absence) and to this day reigns as the longest-running metal band that still commands the attention and adoration of the metal world. That standing easily could have fallen apart after the mixed results they had in seeking further mainstream success with Turbo and the lukewarm attempt to return to heavy with Ram It Down. Both albums have certainly been re-evaluated critically over the years since, but it’s no exaggeration to say those albums left many fans, young and old, in the cold -- a generation emerging in the mid- to late-1980’s in the speed, thrash, and burgeoning extreme metal scenes where for many Priest had been an integral influence. Hell, Judas Priest’s output in the 1970’s was just as influential on all the NWOBHM bands that in turn influenced the later and more extreme sub-genres.
Having influenced already two generations of metalheads, Judas Priest could have rested on their laurels or called it quits while still nearly guaranteeing their legacy would hold strong. Instead, the band forged within the crucible of the metal gods a slab of sonic destruction they christened Painkiller, perhaps the band’s heaviest release ever and held aloft by many fans as their absolute best work. It's an album that truly lives up to the motto of “all killer, no filler,” and not even their biggest seller Screaming for Vengeance meets that mark for most fans.
Judas Priest understood they needed to take a stab into the future while still being themselves and fulfilling the trajectory of their legacy. The urgency of tapping into the future certainly is noted in how, after a few years with openers like Dokken and Cinderella, their tour in support of Ram It Down concluded with thrash metal titans Slayer opening. Such a pairing seems almost destiny met as Slayer themselves embodied how important Judas Priest were for metal, given that Slayer started as a Priest cover band and their latest album at that point, 1988’s South of Heaven included a cover of Priest’s 1977 proto-speed metal rager “Dissident Aggressor.”
The will was there, but the means came by interesting circumstances that forged together the future and the past. The future came in with their new drummer Scott Travis, formerly of Los Angeles speed metallers Racer X, replacing long running 80’s drummer Dave Holland after health and creative differences provoked his departure. Travis brought in a far more aggressive drumming style than Priest had wielded before, especially in making use of double kick drumming. The band's past worked its way in from legendary producer Christopher Tsangarides returning to work with the band for the first time since their breakout sophomore album 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny. However, instead of focusing on recapturing the sound of Priest’s early days, Tsangarides engineered a modern metallic thunderclap of a studio production that helped the band’s revitalized song writing truly embody the album’s cover image: a winged chrome monster biker warrior screaming across a world engulfed in apocalyptic fire.
The subsequent tour for Painkiller seemed to build off of the experience with Slayer and the time spent creating their most aggressive album yet. The openers wound up including heavy-as-hell rising stars in the metal world: Megadeth, Testament, Annihilator and a very fresh faced Pantera. Ultimately, Halford would leave at the end of the touring cycle for the album, severing the core of the band that included Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing and Ian Hill, all of whom had lasted together since 1974. Even though the rejuvenated Priest only lasted one album, at least until Halford’s return in 2003, it left enough of a mark, showing that a band could tap into a third era of metal fans and releasing an album that was as artistically relevant as any younger group’s contemporary achievements. Perhaps this truth is best exhibited by the choice of Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, one of a few candidates for the creator of death metal, to cap off his final album ever before his untimely passing with a Judas Priest cover. Yet it wasn’t an old classic from the 70’s or early 80’s, but rather he chose the furious “Painkiller” that was only eight years old at the time.
Painkiller could even today be claimed to not be Judas Priest’s final high point. Despite the reunion, there hadn’t been an album released to reach the same heights as Painkiller or the band’s previous fan favorites, but that seemed to change only a couple years ago. After another line-up shuffle seeing founding member K.K. Downing leaving and replaced by one Richie Faulkner, a second album for this new incarnation in the form of Firepower was released to widespread acclaim with many citing it as the best thing Priest had done since Painkiller and ending up onto many a year-end list. Think of that -- a band on their fifth decade of existence putting out an album that’s just as relevant and captivating as anything from generations far younger.
Such is the eternal flame of metal that lies at the heart of Judas Priest, one that like the mythical phoenix has been reborn not just once but continuously. In the spirit of praising the 30th anniversary of Painkiller we invite you to continue reading as three of our writers present their personal experiences and reflections on this monster of an album. “Faster than a lazer bullet, louder than an atom bomb… can't stop the Painkiller!”
Following a period where Judas Priest all but got away from what made them who they were, the band changed their style, fortunes (and drummer) with Painkiller. The songs were chock full of bombast; the title track was the shot of adrenaline the band needed after they released Defenders of The Faith. Rob Halford sounded like a shrieking eagle coming in for the kill and his compatriots were not to be outdone. The virtuoso-like performance by their newest member at the time in drummer Scott Travis was simply sublime. His influence goes beyond this album as his prior experience with Shrapnel Records and shredders like Racer X’s Paul Gilbert can be heard throughout this disc. Go listen to "One Shot At Glory" and don’t just tell me about those double bass drums, tell me about those LEADS.
Speaking of those twin lead guitars, K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton sounded fully revitalized going into their third decade as bandmates and, sadly, their last foray with Halford for 15 years. From scorchers like "Metal Meltdown," "Leather Rebel," and "All Guns Blazing" to the more mid-paced fare like "Between The Hammer & The Anvil" and "A Touch of Evil" this dynamic duo met each of the styles here with aplomb, delivering more and more memorable performances than the band had in recent years, priming the 1990s to be another successful decade for the band. Sadly, this was never going to materialize.
For heavy metal progenitors like Judas Priest to be able to change their fortunes on a dime this late into their then 20-year career and inspire many bands (especially power metal bands) was particularly impressive. To be able to put out an album that could be considered a top-five album in their discography and one of the greatest examples of speed metal of all time is not only hard to believe by today’s standards, but at the time changing your fortunes was a less than likely feat to accomplish, especially being a heavy metal band in 1990 on Columbia Records. Judas Priest entered their darkest period with Rob Halford officially leaving to form Fight shortly thereafter with Scott Travis in tow, and Judas Priest themselves was to release two ill-fated, Halford-less albums before his readmission to the foray in 2005 with Angel of Retribution. We will always have this wonderful and powerful album, one that still kills the pain after 30 years, and one that will continue to do so for the rest of time.
It may seem strange to hear, but it's odd to think about Painkiller. Judas Priest is perhaps the most "metal" heavy metal band in history, not by being its heaviest or its most extreme but by being as close to the very center of the abstract map of the genre as you can possibly be. Sure, Black Sabbath are the band that are credited with founding the genre as something separate from merely heavy rock, and that's no doubt a necessary and important moment in the evolution of the genre. But it was seminal records such as Sad Wings of Destiny and the later Stained Class that seemed to finally unmoor heavy metal from its roots in psychedelia, prog, and heavy rock and define it absolutely as something not just new but separate from its influences. Looking back on those records, it can sometimes feel inexplicable that they were coming out in the 1970s, especially when you stack them chronologically against what else was out there. There's a reason that functionally the entirety of NWOBHM were Judas Priest acolytes and why literally every single thrash band on the planet cites them as massively influential to their sound. And, given that from thrash we receive all of extreme metal, this places Judas Priest as a strangely out-of-time Platonic ideal of heavy metal suddenly thrust back into the perpetual contextualizer that is the flesh of history.
Painkiller is in many ways the apex of the group's evolution, a perfection of an ideal. The record is made legendary, of course, by its title track, a song that will go down along with tracks like "Hallowed Be Thy Name" and "Master of Puppets" as one of the quintessential songs of the entire enterprise. But the remarkable thing about the record is that this level of strength in the material is maintained throughout the entirety of the record, a feat that even few Judas Priest records had done before. They were primarily known even on their best records previous to this for having a handful of legitimate all-time classics padded out with a small amount of filler; something that, given the superlative strength of those key tracks, was easy to accept given that few records, if we are honest, are 100% bulletproof from tip to tail. Painkiller lives in the same rarefied heights as the group's own Sad Wings of Destiny, an album many in certain circles hold up as perhaps the greatest heavy metal record ever recorded. Songs like "Leather Rebel" and "Between the Hammer & The Anvil" would for other groups be careermakers; here, they are equals among peers.
I was born before the record was released, just barely, but my conscious memory doesn't begin until after the record was absorbed into culture. As a result, I have never been cognizant of a time without Painkiller. This adds another layer of inexplicable magic to the album. It's not unlike the mystique of Metallica, especially those first four magical essentially holy texts of heavy metal; for those born early enough, they were watershed moments for the genre, but for those of us born late enough, they are instead not unlike the Gospels in the Bible or the pyramids at Giza, facts and functions of history as undeniable as the world itself. I have never known a world that did not know Painkiller, adding to its unearthly sense of power and its position as an object-out-of-time in my mind. I can reference a timeline, sure, and establish that there was a world before that black and white, blown-out, and hyper-saturated video showcased the meanest Judas Priest the world had ever known, come to seize back their throne from the legions of thrashers who had usurped their position as most important metal band in the world. But this may as well be like telling me that in the 1980s, Narnia was real and Mr. Tumnus would visit children in the winter with his jaunt umbrella; it is fiction to me, something that not only isn't real but emphatically cannot be real.
I was a music video hound growing up and, due in no small part to that magical green grocery basket full of heavy metal CDs an older cousin had given my brother once on a trip to Florida, I developed a taste for metal relatively young. I remember staying up late to the only point at night when they'd play the heavy and extreme stuff, sneaking downstairs and (as quietly as possible) turning on the TV at low volume to see what was in store for me that night. The squeals of the "Painkiller" music video, the way the blown-out black and white makes Halford's glaring face appear like a scowling god out of incense smoke... it felt like a baptism, a dangerous induction into a secret cult worshipping a hi-tech/lo-tech heavy metal god bestride some wicked smoke-plume spewing behemoth out of the Bible. There is something hard to put into words, something closer to the ekstasis of spiritualism you might feel in a church when you are younger or the way your stomach turns and your heart alights when you make eye contact with your crush in middle school, the feeling when something magical is happening, a thing beyond rationality and reason and the mechanics of the world. This is the place where Hegelian dialecticism breaks down and the Nietzschean primal force of pure will exerts itself, breaking the systems of the world. There are songs that can do this: "Stairway to Heaven", the aforementioned "Master of Puppets", "Black Sabbath" with its wicked tritones. "Painkiller" is too, a bolt of divine lightning from the gods, like a seed that splits open and gives birth to the ocean.
So what is my relationship to the album? Worship. I have been a heavy metal acolyte since I was very, very young, albeit not always with a palette for the extreme stuff, but the record has more or less remained a polestar in my mind. There are things about the world and about the culture of heavy metal that can make you fall rapidly out of love, be it the tendency in some places toward fascism, the casual misogyny and abuse of women, non-binary and trans people, the comfort with racism, the homophobia, or the sexual impropriety that veers on occasion into full on assault (or worse). Over the years, I have learned to be conscious of how my distinct lack of experience with those things can enable me to be more deeply in love with something than people who experience those things and whose experiences in those realms are tied as well to the thing that I love so dearly. But I also try to hold deep in my heart that lingering fire, the reason why any of this matters, that primal impossible magic that I fell in love with in the first place that makes both the perpetual celebration of the genre and its works as well as the perpetual fight against people and institutions that would make it more wicked and more hurtful for others so necessary to me. Painkiller is one of those things, like the Arc of the Covenant or Triton's trident, an object of power and wisdom that makes the enterprise suddenly seem worth it. It is renewing, rejuvenating. In a world that seems more and more suffused with evil as you age and know, sadly, where best to look to see the wickedness of the world, that is an impossibly precious thing.
My introduction to Judas Priest actually came from a compilation album. After Metallica rammed down the doors to the world of metal for me in late 1999, I sought out their contemporaries and their influences, which eventually grew to bands quite distant from that starting point. That included discovering a lot of classics like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and most certainly Judas Priest. I was financially limited in what I could obtain and with dial up internet at home I was a few years away from the sort of overindulgence I’d experience in my college days. One tactic I employed for discovering as much as possible was rather than take the risk on a full length album, I'd instead pick up a best of compilation from a band -- and all the better too if it was a cheaper release. For my introduction with Judas Priest it was their 1998 compilation The Best Of Judas Priest: Living After Midnight.
It’s for sure a compilation that feels like a push by the label for a quick buck and in retrospect is inferior with its limited track inclusion compared to almost every other best of compilation from the band, but hey, we all have to start somewhere. A start was exactly what it helped fuel, as the tracks found within caught my ear with urgency. Now, my copy was the original release which unlike the 2002 reissue, did not include the song “Painkiller,” nor two other tracks from the same titled album, but instead had for sole representation “Metal Meltdown.” I remember the track struck me in particular from the compilation due to how frenzied of a musical attack it launched and with, what I’d later discover was the case across the Painkiller album, a metallic heaviness that gave Priest their most aggressive production. The track is almost a sibling to “Painkiller” with the screeching guitar scales forming a foil for the album title track’s pummeling drum opening, Rob Halford’s heavy use of his high register screams and an absolutely pummeling pace of wicked riffs and beats. The pace only slows down near the end for Halford to restart the chorus now as a sung countdown for nuclear annihilation that the lyrics had been forewarning before. It was easily the most menacing and, especially for my young teenage mind, the most frightening track on the compilation. I knew I needed more of that.
It wasn’t long into making my way through the Priest discography (when allowance and holiday gift money allowed) that I hit upon Painkiller and the full album certainly lived up to the mere taste I had from the compilation. The title track, as mentioned before, opens the album with a mountain shaking drum solo that immediately establishes what new energy Scott Travis not only brought with his own fresh performance behind Priest’s kit but electrified the rest of the band into composing and performing some of their best work ever. The song isn’t the sort of short length sing-along expected for a single but instead all six minutes of what might be considered the band’s heaviest and meanest track ever became the lead single from the album and an eternal fan favorite often clamored for by packed arenas.
While “Painkiller” is often the most demanded live track on the album, there’s no song on it that I wouldn’t personally love to see played live. Front to back, it’s just stacked with gold. Mid-paced fist-pumping action on the Top Gun soundtrack worthy “Hell Patrol,” the sing-along anthem with the best solos of “One Shot at Glory,” and the darkened ballad-esque “A Touch of Evil” that taps into the smooth synth action on previous album hits like “Love Bites” and “Turbo Lover.” The steel pounding assault doesn’t end on the previously discussed title track and “Metal Meltdown,” as it continues on “All Guns Blazing” and “Leather Rebel," though the pace never escapes the lower velocity required for a proper headbanging and fist raising. Then you have tracks like “Between the Hammer and the Anvil,” its slow strikes coupled with a menacing gallop to convey the title quite well, along with “Nightcrawler” which works as a wonderful atmospheric fable of terror where Halford gets to play ominous storyteller over screams before the band kicks back into attack mode.
Thirty years after its release, with a little more than half of that time being my exposure, Painkiller hasn’t aged a day past relevance. Just as a teenager in 1990 played a brand new tape of it while driving down the highway screaming their head off along with the metal gods, I’m sure someone will be doing the exact same today -- even if it's likely being played from a streaming app on their phone. The world and our technological surroundings may march on, but Judas Priest will be forever.
Painkiller released September 3rd, 1990 via Columbia Records.