Painkiller arrived in the midst of metal’s second golden age. Along with Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss, Anthrax’s Persistence of Time, Testament’s Souls of Black, and Iron Maiden’s No Prayer for the Dying—all fellow 1990 records that come to mind—it helped solidify the style as a dominant cultural presence that bled into the mainstream.
Looking for an emotional jolt, wanting to revel in the sheer power of exceptionally played heavy music, or needing a reminder that righteous triumph remains possible even when the odds seemed decidedly stacked against you.
Given the ongoing obsession with comic books and their largely benevolent characters, it seems obvious Painkiller should soundtrack a film about the superhero subject of its title song. Yet the record will also be forever associated with the subliminal-message court trial at which Judas Priest members were exonerated from any wrongdoing—a backdrop that doubtlessly influenced the album’s plaster-cracking, go-for-broke intensity. Any movie or documentary about the case should involve music from Painkiller.
Recorded in the months leading up to the groundbreaking trial in which Judas Priest was accused of including a subliminal message in its cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better by You, Better Than Me” on 1978’s Stained Class—a track the parents of two young men who attempted suicide claimed led their offspring to shoot themselves—Painkiller remains the heaviest, fastest, and most aggressive album the metal legends ever made. It still looms as one of the genre’s front-to-back masterworks, a molten-hot slab forged out of desperation, determination, and a desire to prove relevancy.
On its two prior albums, Judas Priest turned away from its hallmark British New Wave of Heavy Metal style to embrace digital synthesizers, disco-derived beats, and commercial devices that seemingly announced the band having lost the plot. Marking the debut of drummer Scott Travis, and attacking with a sheer ferocity without ever forgetting the importance of maintaining strong melody, Painkiller reversed all such thinking. It also came out as America entered the Gulf War, a conflict that appeared to further stoke the band’s fury.
Not for nothing does “Hell Patrol” nod to daredevil military pilots while “All Guns Blazing,” “One Shot at Glory,” and “Leather Rebel” concern notions of heroism, fearlessness, victory, and invincibility—traditional metal themes all, but for the band members at the time, as well as a flag-waving American public that watched the war unfold in real time on CNN, the topics possessed a pertinence that still resonates today. And that says nothing of the double-bass-drums and impossibly high Rob Halford shrieks that punctuate “Painkiller,” whose titular motorcycle-riding savior comes to life in vivid detail. Coupled with the smoldering, dark, possessed ballad “A Touch of Evil” and escalating, spirit-exulting instrumental “Battle Cry”—complete with twin magnesium-burn guitar leads from K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, whose individual solo parts are chronicled and credited in the liner notes—and there’s not a wasted note or second-rate performance in sight.
Sony/Legacy’s 2017 analog reissue marks the first time Painkiller has been available on LP. Alas, its sonic presentation isn’t what a record of its magnitude deserves. Get it for the striking artwork, better-than-average inner sleeve, and ram-it-down fury within, all the while looking past the squelched dynamics and fact it lacks the in-your-chest punch and airiness you’ll doubtlessly want to hear—and feel. Compared to Mobile Fidelity’s now out-of-print editions of Stained Class, Killing Machine, and Screaming for Vengeance—the gold standards for audiophile-quality Judas Priest—this pressing hurts for openness, impact, and dimensionality. That said, consider it an indispensable part of any library and hope a reissue label gives it the treatment it warrants.
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