There's no shortage of candidates for the title of best Judas Priest album, but 1990's Painkiller might very well have them all beat. Arriving after the somewhat cool receptions toward Turbo and Ram It Down, Painkiller finds the iconic group back at the top of the heavy metal heap where they belong.
Unlike groups such as AC/DC and Motorhead, acts comfortable sticking with their trademark sound, Judas Priest always pushed themselves to grow and try something new. No two of their albums sound alike; they are part of an ongoing evolution that is Judas Priest. You can listen to their work chronologically and chart the progress.
Painkiller finds the band showing all those thrash metal bands how it's done. Priest plays faster, heavier, darker, and more aggressively than ever before, and the result is an album that sinks its hooks in you immediately and never lets go. The only thing you can do is hang on for the ride.
"Faster than a bullet
Enraged and full of anger
He's half man and half machine."
Even the "slower" numbers such as "Metal Meltdown" and the instrumental "Battle Hymn" feel less like breathers and more like ominous eyes of the storm: with any second, the tempest can begin raging again. Other songs have atmospheric flourishes - the thunder of "Night Crawler," the industrial sound effects of "Between the Hammer and the Anvil," and the keyboards of "A Touch of Evil" - that don't overwhelm or distract but instead give those numbers a dark, delicious flavor.
Lyrically, Painkiller has a strong fantasy feel. The title tracks refers to a super hero savior of mankind, "Night Crawler" warns us to "beware the beast in black," and in "A Touch of Evil," Halford sings of a "dark angel" who "mesmerizes" and "put me in a trance." Priest couples that with songs about heavy metal: "Leather Rebel," "Metal Meltdown," "Between the Hammer and the Anvil." "Metal Meltdown" in particular sounds like it's describing the most metal show ever.
In the night
Roars in sight
Heat is rising
Hot and evil
Feel the blast
Out of control
About to explode
It's coming at ya."
Painkiller marks the debut of drummer Scott Travis, who's been with the band ever since. He opens up the album with the thunderous title track, setting the tone for the whole enterprise. Some drummers will sacrifice technique for aggression or vice versa, but Travis' playing is both intense and complex.
Travis seems to push the rest of the band to keep up with him, in a good way. The guitar tandem of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing had never been heavier, and their duel lead attack matches breakneck speed with bone-crunching tone and technical wizardry. Their riffs drive furiously, and their solos erupt. Ian Hill joins in with his reliable bass, and Halford, what else is there to say about Rob Halford, the Metal God?
Halford has never sounded better. His voice truly is an instrument all its own, cutting through the fury around him. He hits those shrieking high notes, muscles alongside those heavy riffs, and lends those somewhat silly lyrics (a staple of Priest) a power and conviction few can match. You'll follow this guy into battle, preferably on a motorcycle, to defend heavy metal.
One shot at glory
Driving hard and seeing red
Destiny calls me
One shot of fire
One shot at glory.
Painkiller - This song is a battering ram. It opens the album with an assault.
Hell Patrol - My personal favorite off the album.
Nightcrawler - The crackling of thunder to open gives this song a dark, eerie touch.
One Shot at Glory - An epic climax to the whole album.
The end of "Battle Hymn" as it transitions into "One Shot at Glory." As the guitar begins building up, you'll feel like you've just clawed through a hard-fought battle, victory is at hand, and now is the time for the final charge.
A metallic angel rides across an apocalyptic landscape on a demonic motorcycle. It's captures everything ridiculously awesome about metal in one image. It's over-the-top, fantastical, and cool.
2) Hell Patrol
3) All Guns Blazing
4) Leather Rebel
5) Metal Meltdown
6) Night Crawler
7) Between the Hammer and the Anvil
8) A Touch of Evil
9) Battle Hymn
10) One Shot at Glory
Rob Halford - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitars
K.K. Downing - Guitars
Ian Hill - Bass
Scott Travis - Drums
Don Airey - Keyboard (on "A Touch of Evil")