By the time 1990 rolled around, it had been a full decade since Judas Priest had delivered a consistently great album. In my opinion, Judas Priest had been chasing their tail ever since the surprise commercial success of British Steel (1980). The album produced two unexpected hits in Living After Midnight and Breaking The Law. It was then, I believe, that Priest got a taste for commercial success. That sweet taste poisoned them into seeking out more of the same. 1981’s Point Of Entry was pretty much a full album of Priest trying to re-create Living After Midnight and Breaking The Law with over-simplistic, watered down, metal-lite. Point Of Entry received a lukewarm response from fans, so Priest tried to split the difference on Screaming For Vengeance (1982) and Defenders Of The Faith (1984). These two albums were a mixed bag because Judas Priest made the mistake of trying to please everyone at once. They tried to appease their hardcore fan base with a handful of heavy metal screamers while also making a concerted effort to reel in casual fans with commercial, dull crap. All the while, their producer, Tom Allom, was crippling them with some of the stiffest, lifeless production you could never want on a metal album. Additionally, Dave Holland’s relatively simplistic drumming remained a point of contention among fans. Whether by design or by virtue of Holland’s particular style, Priest were falling behind in the drumming department compared to the wave of newer, faster, and louder metal bands rising from the underground.
After sharting out two lousy albums (Turbo in ’86 and Ram It Down in ’88) Judas Priest found themselves at a creative crossroads at the end of the eighties. That’s when Lady Luck intervened. Drummer Dave Holland left the band and long-time producer Tom Allom was unavailable when it came time to record the follow-up to Ram It Down. This predicament turned out to be a blessing for hardcore Priest fans. For 1990’s Painkiller, Judas Priest would have a new drummer (Racer X vet Scott Travis) and a new producer (Chris Tsangarides). Two of the band’s three biggest weaknesses had been addressed. The third, Rob Halford’s awful lyrics, would remain. But as Meat Loaf once said — two out of three ain’t bad!
In my opinion, Judas Priest’s return to high-octane heavy metal on Painkiller came from a place of equal parts inspiration and desperation. The inspiration came from Scott Travis’ ability to play anything the band desired using his double-bass kit. This allowed Priest to write faster, more technical metal numbers. But let’s not give Priest too much credit. They were a very calculating band. They saw that thrash metal had become very popular. Fans wanted faster, louder, and more powerful metal in their ears. Ever desperate to please, Priest knew full well they had to change or die. They were dinosaurs on the brink of extinction.
Unfortunately for Judas Priest, Painkiller didn’t exactly resurrect them from their commercial decline. (The album reached gold status in 1991.) And after their tour in support of the album Rob Halford parted company with the band. But over time, something interesting happened. The Painkiller album became one of the most revered albums in the Judas Priest catalog, some calling it their best ever. The album is now considered a bona fide classic among many a heavy metal aficionado.
My opinion of Painkiller is a positive one, though I do not believe it deserves to be considered a classic. I think Priest fans wanted so badly for their favorite band to be relevant again that they gave Judas Priest too much credit for Painkiller. Better stuff was out there in 1990. That said, I welcome the clean production by Chris Tsangarides as well as the inclusion of some of Priest’s best songs in Between The Hammer & The Anvil and One Shot At Glory. The guitar duo of Tipton and Downing stepped up to the plate and showed off their finest chops. Scott Travis’ annihilation of the drum kit further hammered home the prevailing opinion that Priest should have had a double-bass drummer for the last decade. Meanwhile, the vocal chords of “metal god” Rob Halford were, as per usual, in fine form (although I never quite bought in to his screeching performance on the much-loved title track). Rob’s lyrics were another story. On Painkiller he showed (once again) that he was woefully out-of-touch with the modern metal fan of 1990.
Painkiller was a good “comeback” album for Judas Priest. Was it their best album ever? I don’t think so, but many do. My score: B+