Judas Priest – Painkiller – Context, Content, Legacy
Painkiller emerged at the end of a tumultuous, extremely productive decade not just for metal, but for music in general. The advent of the walkman & MTV led to increased exposure for all forms of popular music. Hip-hop emerged in the 80s, as did disco, no-wave, electronica, alt-rock and all manner of other musical genres (many of which, it has to be said, had predecessors of sorts in the 70s – the 80s just brought everything into focus). But if any musical genre truly exploded in the 80s, it has to be metal. From the roots of Maiden, Motorhead, Priest and the influence of the 70s hard rock titans there emerged first the NWOBHM, then in 1983 Slayer unleashed Show No Mercy, with Metallica popping up with Kill’em All. Thus the seeds of thrash were sown, soon to utterly explode with bands like Megadeth and Testament joining the party. Alongside thrash hardcore/crossover, taking much in the way of inspiration from punk, emerged, a gnarly underbelly to the metal scene in some respects, counter-culture to the Reagan/Thatcher years in ethos. Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, Black Flag, Minor Threat, the list is endless. Somewhere in this great sonic soup black metal was born, through the darkened thrash of Hellhammer and the macabre antics of Mercyful Fate, oh, and Venom, who gave the genre its name. A certain band called Mantas formed in 1983, later evolving into Death, who provided the name for the sub-genre they played such a key role in creating. The Florida death metal scene exploded, laying the ground for the subsequent early 90s action in Scandinavia (a key player in this being Peter Tagtgren, who spent some time in Florida in the late 80s).
The above only really scratches the surface of the 80s, such was the level of musical output and innovation in that decade. It isn’t especially clear what caused so much invention and exploration, but the advent of punk casts a long shadow over the decade, influencing hardcore directly, and thrash metal through the speed and anger, if not technicality, of punk’s music. Having England & the US, the two hotspots for metal, dominated by right-wing governments throughout the 80s, likely played a major role also, youthful anger at the actions of Reagan & Thatcher being spewed out onto vinyl and through amps throughout the land.
If I were to summarise what divides 80s metal from 70s metal, I would say that main change would be the technicality of the music – while the 70s acts were talented, and capable of producing works of undeniable skill and dexterity, the music did still have a simple, bluesy edge about it much of the time (no bad thing, I have to stress). Tied into this is the speed of the music – everything just got ramped up to previously unexplored levels in the 80s – even doom got heavier! Double-kick drumming became ever more prevalent, guitarwork became more dextrous, solos becoming increasingly complex. Vocals obviously became increasingly extreme as the decade progressed, from the screams of thrash & hardcore to the growls and shrieks of death and black.
And yet, despite all these changes, much did remain the same. Strip it all down and most bands remained Vocals-Guitar-Guitar-Bass-Drums, or some small variation upon that theme. Progressive tendencies, most often manifested in longer, complex songs, remained even in the extreme genres – see Metallica’s Orion, Slayer’s Hell Awaits, or most of all, Mercyful Fate’s Satan Falls. The slow-burning, emotionally laden metal ballad remained a popular model, Metallica’s Fade to Black and Mercyful Fate’s Melissa.
Perhaps the bands most in tune with the 70s, while retaining a youthful, rebellious edge, were the hair metal acts. They largely followed the traditional metal template pioneered by Priest & Maiden, choosing to push style over substance, appearance over ability. These bands had been around throughout the 80s, serving as the popular vision of metal in the eye of the public, due to heavy exposure on the radio & MTV. As such, metal came to be seen as fluffy & inconsequential, musically inferior and intellectually lacking. This said, I will forever extol the virtues of Appetite for Destruction as one of the finest debut albums of all times, and I have to concede a gigantic weak spot for Van Halen.
The 80s were plainly a right old hotch-potch when it came to metal, indeed, culture in general, a messy, confused, wonderfully productive maelstrom of ideas and invention. Where do Priest fit into all this? Priest began the decade on a high with British Steel, and continued in good form right through to Defenders. Then, for some inexplicable reason, they veered off down an electronic avenue in 1986 with Turbo, followed by Ram It Down. Their popularity may not have waned, but their strict relevance to what was happening in the metal scene at the time certainly did. The albums sounded bodged – it just wasn’t Priest, or rather it was, but it wasn’t good Priest. Priest lost their way at the end of the 80s, lost track of what was happening in metal, and risked becoming mythologised to the point of no return.
I would argue that Painkiller served three purposes: Firstly, it was very much a return to searing, effervescent form for the band. The progressive tendencies of their 70s material are fused to the vicious technicality and ferocity of 80s extreme metal, producing a stupendous hybrid album. Secondly, the album evidently symbolises Priest’s recognition of where true metal had been going over the latter part of the 80s, Painkiller being their take on those progressions. Thirdly, the album serves as a reaction against the superfluous, narcissistic hair metal scene that was dominating at the time and doing untold damage to the credibility of metal as a genre. Priest could easily have swung back as a hair metal band (well, Halford would’ve struggled, to be fair), but instead they acquired a stonking new drummer from a hair metal band and came back with what I’d venture is their last great album. With Painkiller, Priest effectively encapsulated 10years of metal in one album, along with echoes of the 70s. They may have taken their time to wake up and smell the melting frets, but given the end product, I don’t begrudge them their sluggishness, especially given the inter-band conflict that culminated in their collapse after Painkiller emerged.
A popular quote from Spinal Tap is Nigel saying ‘but my amp goes to 11′, in response to questions on the subject from the producer. This album very much encompasses such a vision. The guitars are harder and faster, the drumming is stepped up, the songwriting is tighter, clinical, and Halford is pushing his vocals to their absolute limit. It has to be said that this isn’t a cerebral album – it is all songs about robots and lazers and nonsense, but this in no way detracts from the album. This is very much a musician’s album, the axework especially being in a class of its own. KK & Glenn had been playing for near on 20years by this stage, and my WORD does it show. They had plainly not been resting on their laurels in the 80s, bringing all their skill and style to the fore with their simply astonishing leadwork on this album.
The rhythm section, while being largely ‘standard Priest’ in most respects, does benefit greatly from the presence of Scott Travis, a proper extreme metal drummer for this new, extreme Priest. His double bass work and general pace and dexterity provides the percussive backbone of the album. With regard to the vocals…well, it’s Halford, but Halford as you’ve never heard him before. This is Halford pushing, really pushing his range, bringing in facets of extreme vocals, excelling himself throughout the album. To still be able to hit new sonic highs after 16 years in the industry is truly astounding, and he arguably continued to produce the goods for another ten years after Painkiller, with a decline in form of sorts from Angel of Retribution onwards.
There are some classy effects used on the album, some murky, malevolent atmospheres created through tasteful employment of samples & spoken word. This is very much an album created by a band at the top of their game, in all respects. Somehow the songs remain very memorable, despite their technical structures and ferocious pace. The Priest knack of penning indelible choruses does tend to help with this matter. Painkiller is just a blur of utter insanity, the central solo being a masterclass in classy execution of technical wizardry. The quality continues throughout, possibly peaking on the last, epic cut, One Shot at Glory. There remains variety on the album, slower songs like A Touch of Evil adding atmosphere to the record.
To be honest, there isn’t much to be said about this album in terms of content – it makes no claims to be intelligent, or to be a great leap into unknown territory. It is just a superbly executed collection of thrash/heavy metal songs, with the additional magic that only a band of the calibre of Judas Priest can bring to the party.
Painkiller could have been a glorious new dawn for the band, a cacaphonous declaration of intent at the beginning of a new decade. As it was, internal tensions served to tear the band apart, Halford departing to start his solo career mere months after the album was released. This left the band reeling, only grouping up with Ripper in the mid 90s for two records which, while decent enough, lacked the finesse and song-writing nous that Halford brought to the band. Sure, Ripper can hit the highs – lots of vocalists can – but not many can hit the highs and yet still be astonishing in much of the rest of their vocal repertoire like Halford. The band did of course eventually regroup with 2005′s solid AOR, followed, after interminable delays, by Nostradamus (an album which left me deeply, deeply disappointed – so much potential, so sloppily, indeed, shockingly executed. Rob needed to get Ihsahn or someone with prior knowledge of classical music in metal involved as a co-writer/producer. But no, synth guitars…). The band effectively pissed away what hopes Painkiller gave them of becoming a titanic force in the 1990s, instead becoming dinosaurs, struggling to keep up, to stay relevant, but, in my opinion, ultimately falling short, fatally short, at every step. Nonetheless, Painkiller was a glorious swansong.
Painkiller’s influence on later metal is rather difficult to determine, as it was very much part of the burgeoning extreme metal scene. Metal drifted towards grunge & alt/forms in the early 90s, followed by nu-metal as the year 2000 approached. I can definitely detect traces of Painkiller in the solo-laden material of the likes of Machine Head, Trivium & other such modern, technical solo-heavy bands. The album was much more important to Priest than to the metal scene in general, I’d venture. Metal didn’t need saving at this time (has it ever?), apart from from itself, but fortunately the hair metal bands fell apart or were stomped by the Seattle scene. Painkiller just stands as a fine testament of how a band can return from the doldrums, only to squander all the gains through futile internecine strife. It would be easy to view this entire scenario as tragic, but that would be to miss the fact that born of this strife and tension was one utterly immense album. I’d venture that many bands would love to go out with an album like Painkiller – Maiden certainly could do with popping out something of its calibre, Slayer could take lessons as well, and as for Metallica…
The old masters are never truly dead, for their spirit lives on in their metallic progeny. Priest bore great fruit, fruit that continues to ripen as the years go past.
PS – this is awesome!