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Oh lord, another glowing review for Judas Priest's foray into the heavier side of metal. Let's face it, the praise isn't thrown this way on accident, this is a beast of an album. There is one thing I'd like to address before I even really get down the grit of the review here, and that is that Painkiller is NOT Priest's best album. Not at all, I'd never claim otherwise. Sad Wings of Destiny, Sin After Sin, and Stained Class are all better albums from a musical standpoint. The holy trinity of S albums in the '70s carry a monstrous wealth of musical depth and complexity that Painkiller can only dream of reaching. The dynamics and vocal acrobatics are completely otherworldly and quite ahead of their time. I mean really, how many straight up heavy metal bands, that can still be classified as such by today's standards, were there in the mid '70s? Priest wasn't only in a league of their own, but their seminal works of the time still hold up today as absolute milestones of songwriting. Painkiller can't claim any of those technical landmarks as its own, not at all. It's nothing but big stupid speed metal riffs and mindless double bass. But honestly, given the choice, I'll pick Painkiller every single time, without even hesitating.
Perhaps this makes me a dullard, but god damn I'd rather hang out with the cavemen than the physics professors if this is how they party. This album is a perfect example for dissecting the difference between an album being "the best" and "my favorite". Some examples, like Megadeth's Rust in Peace, are both my favorite and what I would also consider the band's best work. But Priest is different, they completely fucking nailed it early on and only got dumber as time went on. This, to me, seems to be their zenith. This is the perfect combination of retarded silliness, the leather and rock n' roll attitude of their '80s era, and the modernization of their music with heavier, faster songs and a much more aggressive approach. I mean look at the album cover. That ridiculous image right there sums up this whole album perfectly. It looks like Silver Surfer finally got his wings and then celebrated by stealing Wheel Gator from Sigma's Fortress. If that one-two punch of nerd references was lost on you, I'm sure you can still just look at the damn thing and see how over the top and silly looking it is. It's the perfect visual representation of what you'll find underneath.
The album begins with the title track, which probably still, after all these years, ranks as my #1 most favorite metal song of all time, across all subgenres. There's nothing wrong with it, this is Judas Priest working out some immeasurable amount of pent up anger and aggression, and the addition of drummer Scott Travis shows its merits right away as the album begins with a moderately short drum solo. It's fast, it's pounding, it's double bass out the wazoo, and it shows what Priest is now capable of with this young fellow behind the kit instead of the droning, mustachioed kiddie fiddler of Dave Holland. Once the song itself picks up, Rob Halford also shows off his pipes in a way he hasn't done since the glory days of those magical three S albums I mentioned earlier. Some of the passages he belts out are amongst the most heartfelt and agonized of his career, you can really tell he's giving it his all on this record. At not one single moment on the entire album does he sound content or laid back, he is always a snarling, raging beast behind the mic and is determined to scare off all of the infidels in the area. The title track also contains some of the best soloing that heavy metal has ever witnessed, the legendary Tipton and Downing team are also completely on top of their game here. They shred like they never have before, pushing themselves to the limit and beyond, which is quite remarkable considering Tipton was well into his 40s at this time.
With all of the band members pushing themselves so hard and possibly even trying to outdo each other, the whole album carries an inescapable frantic pace. Even the half ballady track, "A Touch of Evil", carries a sense of urgency unlike anything the band had ever done. In a way, this is kind of like the Judas Priest counterpart to Anthrax's Persistence of Time, which came out around the same time. Both albums are the band's darkest and heaviest works to date and were a result of outside factors and tension within the band. On tour for this album, as we all know, Rob Halford managed to wreck his motorcycle onstage, which somehow acted as a catalyst for him to essentially give the band the finger and walk away, thus ushering in the oft maligned Ripper era of the band.
And again, that tension and aggression shows itself throughout the duration of Painkiller. "All Guns Blazing" is one of the more violent tracks in their repertoire lyrically, and the title track, "Leather Rebel", and "Metal Meltdown" are all completely balls out speedfests. "Between the Hammer and the Anvil" and "Night Crawler" are both sheer heavy metal anthems with catchy choruses and huge, hard hitting riffs. This is abundant in the one element that I always felt the '70s era lacked, fun. This is one of the most fun albums in heavy metal history, and while this is overblown and idiotic, I never feel like going out on a Friday night and cranking Sad Wings. This is over the top, headbanging fun and there's no other way I'd rather have it. This straightforward speed metal is something that Priest apparently completely rocks at, and even though they never really expanded upon the sound found here, it's still an everlasting testament to what makes Painkiller so damn awesome. It was a glorious one-off in an already glorious career. The internal strife and pent up frustration with the band members resulted in some of the most high octane music heavy metal as a whole has ever put out, nothing gets the blood pumping quite like throwing on "Metal Meltdown". It retains their '80s signature of being incredibly infectious while providing the goofy AOR anthems with a much needed shot in the arm.
And that's what makes this close to being the perfect album in my eyes. It's a magnificent mixture of everything that made the band so noteworthy up to this point while also keeping it fresh and interesting. The aggressive style really works with Priest's songwriting skill and Painkiller is absolute proof of it. I'll be the first to admit, despite my vigorous masturbation, that this is a flawed masterpiece. The album loses steam at the end, with "One Shot at Glory" not being quite as big, over the top, or anthemic as it wants to be and preceding the kind of disappointing ending with the ballady track really seems to give it a weak back end, but in the context of the entire album it's just a quirk that I don't think brings the album down all that much, if at all. You'd still bone Marilyn Monroe, regardless of whether or not she's got that mark on her face, and I'd still bone this album, even if it does have that mark on its butt. I still recommend this to every newcomer who seems interested in metal, to every jaded veteran who for some stupid reason hasn't heard this, to anybody with a pulse who seems to realize music exists, really. I write love notes to this album weekly, and this time I decided to publish it.