To analyze the Judas Priest album Painkiller, we’ll have to consider what makes extreme metal extreme. The factors are speed or lack thereof, vocal styling’s, technicality, compositional complexity and of course great production. “Heaviness” is a dominate factor as well, but it’s an arbitrary concept.
The standards of extremity in heavy metal have shifted over the years; Stained Class was once one of metal’s most extreme recordings, in the same way that the Bell X-1, that Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier back on October 14, 1947, was once the fastest aircraft in history.
The Judas Priest classic album, Painkiller, a high speed piece of metal history, turns a glorious 33-years-old September 3rd of this year.
Painkiller was and still is an extreme metal album. What’s more, the record is considered one of metal’s greatest comeback albums, which is kinda true. Turbo was Judas Priest’s grab for stardom and a critical low point, whereas Painkiller is largely the opposite. In between those two extremes lies Ram It Down, which is half a brilliant album if the Stop button is pressed after “Blood Red Skies”. Ram It Down is a much heavier affair than Turbo, but it’s a commercially oriented ’80s metal record, and the jump to Painkiller’s sound is still thoroughly enjoyed by the devoted Priest following.
Urged on by heavy metal’s increasing extremity, Judas Priest wrote material to fit the era. It wasn’t a forward thinking decision, because Nirvana and co. hadn’t yet shoved thrash and hair metal off of guitar rock’s throne. Priest could easily have released another Screaming for Vengeance, Defenders of the Faith or Ram It Down style album, but did not. Instead, they went really hard at a time when extreme metal’s popularity and sales were starting to peak.
Personnel changes accompanied the changes in the sound, and it’s not clear which was cause and which was effect. Tom Allom, the band’s studio producer since Unleashed in the East, was gone, and so was his stadium metal style production approach to cutting heavy hitting vinyl. He was replaced by Chris Tsangarides, whose credits ranged from Tygers of Pan Tang and Anvil to Sad Wings of Destiny. Dave Holland, the band’s drummer since British Steel, was no longer a member, and neither was the drum machine that flawlessly replaced Holland during the Ram It Down recording sessions. In their respective places sat Scott Travis. Regarding Travis’ credentials and capabilities, he had previously played in Racer X, who were signed to Shrapnel Records.
If citing Shrapnel Records means nothing, then the sixteen second drum solo that opens the record sends the message that Scott Travis has champion chops behind the kit, and therefore so can Painkiller. The riffing is a mix of thrash, power metal, and ‘80s traditional metal played at warp speed. It’s recognizably Judas Priest, but much tighter, faster, and technical enough to merit extreme metal status, with production to meets that standard as well. The drums are loud and heavy, the guitars dry and gritty, the leads piercing and white hot, and the mix, immaculate. “Cleanly produced” is a pejorative in metal parlance for “commercial and polished”. Painkiller was cleanly produced to show off the material’s numerous edges, and those edges are sharp. The record is the sonic equivalent of a high-def television with the brightness, sharpness and color settings maximized.
Above all of it, Rob Halford performed as never before. The choir boy with the lucid, angelic falsetto was long gone, as was the ‘80s metal god. In their place was a middle-aged man who was snarling, shrieking, and screaming for something. We keep arriving at the concept of shred, but that’s because it applies here; Rob shreds across the entire record, often using the modal, falsetto, and vocal fry registers in the same track.
It all adds up to an exhausting listen. As with Jane Doe, Obscura, and the good Suffocation records, we love it, but rarely listen through because Painkiller is such a demanding experience. The concept of high pitched vocals over aggressive music was not anything new back in 1990. Attacker, Helstar, Sanctuary, Watchtower, and other bands had recorded music in a similar vein, and yet none of their records are as draining and punishing as Painkiller. Primal Fear’s debut, cut from the same cloth and sung by Ralf Scheepers, who unsuccessfully auditioned to replace Rob Halford, is also not nearly as punishing. Painkiller just has it. By the time the record skids to a halt with “One Shot At Glory,” we’re spent.
Commercially, Painkiller was very successful, eventually going Gold. Critically, it was a triumph, both the last great Judas Priest album and one of their career highlights. All of that aside, for better or for worse, it will always be the Priest album for extreme metal fans.
Judas Priest – Painkiller (Official Video)