A lineup change has taken place from the last album. Dave Holland was good at simple AC/DC 4/4 beats, also good if you’re a social worker who enjoys dealing with molested children and wants there to be a profusion of them, but he was, frankly, an alarmingly boring drummer. In his place is Racer-X skinsman Scott Travis. He preserves the punchiness always associated with Priest’s drumming, but gearshifts the intensity way, way up. The one man artillery assault opening “Painkiller”, the fast double bass of “Leather Rebel”, the stadium-filling snare hits of “Touch of Evil”, and numerous other moments reveal that he is good news for the band.
Painkiller is full of songs that listen well on their own, but the correct way to listen to it is in one go, so that the energy builds and transfers from one track to the next. “Painkiller” is a well-known classic featuring amazing vocals and guitar work, “Hell Patrol” is a bit more restrained, and “All Guns Blazing” and “Metal Meltdown” are vicious and thrashing. “Leather Rebel” sports a signature speed-picked pentatonic riff that’s been copied by everyone from Gamma Ray to Bobby Price (“Donna to the Rescue” – Doom OST).
After track 5 the album officially goes from “great” to “epochal”. “Nightcrawler” is “The Sentinel” with a weaponry upgrade – an impressive mixture of heaviness and atmosphere. “Between the Hammer & the Anvil” features my all-time favourite Judas Priest riff and another incredible vocal job from Rob Halford. But the album’s best moment is “A Touch of Evil,” which slows the tempo to a crawl while Tipton and Downing bludgeon a signature 80s guitar riff through your skull. The instrumentation, the vocals, the songwriting, and Chris Tsangarides’ scorching production all come together in a paroxysm of classic Judas Priest greatness.
There’s a bonus track on some version of Painkiller called “Living Bad Dreams” which is an all-out power ballad. It’s good, but not great. There’s a “live” version of “Leather Rebel” (I have a feeling they punched it up a bit in the studio).
This would be the last Halford-fronted Priest album for fifteen years. It seems Painkiller succeeded in burning Halford out. He would go on to explore musical projects more “alternative” (Fight, Two) and his earstwhile bandmates steered Judas Priest’s style away from Painkiller’s ultra-fetishised 80s metal. Even now, Judas Priest has never fully revisited Painkiller territory. Maybe that’s the final proof of the album’s power…it scared off the men who wrote it.