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I guess I'll never understand the metal world's love affair with this one. Yes, this is better than Turbo and Ram it Down, but it's not one of Priests best efforts. I love the fact that these guys stood up and said 'yeah, we fly the flag for metal and we're actually gonna try to participate in this whole thrash thing', and when this album is hot it's red hot. It's hard to find better slabs of boiling metal than "Painkiller", "Metal Meltdown", and "Between the Hammer and the Anvil", but in between it's like biting tinfoil, Priest writing dumber lyrics than I'd thought possible (remember, Jugulator wasn't out yet) and really just trying too hard to recapture their youth.
This not to say that musically Priest has rarely been better. Halford is like a man possessed, really taking his vocals to their logical extremes and just generally screaming his head off. At times it's eerie, Halford displaying an almost King Diamond-like flexibility in taking off from growl to screech, but with about a million times more force and technical ability. Downing and Tipton have completely forsaken the more melodic soloing of Turbo in favour of an even more extreme version of what was attempted (and failed at) on Ram it Down, shredding like men half their own age. The solos throughout, but particularly the title track, are about as loopy and speedy as they'll ever get, but perhaps lacking in the intelligence of some of their classics. I also sorta feel that new drummer Travis is a little intrusive, his double-bass insanity and generally busy style almost getting out of hand.
This is a Priest album crafted for the metal heads who wanted "Freewheel Burning" for a whole album, edgy and extreme in every way, but with a slightly glassy eyed stupidity that has been crippling this band since approximately 1979. It's like a comic book, every song seeming to wish to escape from the reality into this brightly coloured and shallow world where you can say words like 'vaporapeize'. I understand this, because Priest was in a bad way at this point, slowly being usurped by Maiden as the classic metal of choice, slumping album sales, and of course the idiotic trial and Rob Halford's struggles with living a lie. That is the simple explanation for why this album is totally obvious, everything on the surface with no depth and really no thought required. Bang head, sing the chorus, everything is okay.
While the lyrics are the all-to-obvious Achilles heel of Painkiller, there are other issues that gang up and ruin the parade. Consider "Leather Rebel" for a start. There's nothing all that wrong with the catchy chorus or rockin' riff, but it just feels warmed over, like any one of a dozen Priest albums served up to you to gobble down once more. The drumming too, man, just a Racer X drum track grafted onto a regular Priest song, disconcerting and totally throwing off the whole feel of the song. Hell, on the live track thrown onto the remaster Rob seems bored off his ass and itchin' to get out of the damn chaffing leather and into... well, he did wear it in Fight and Two as well, but cut me some slack.
"Once Shot at Glory" is a boring, boring, boring anthem, something that aside from the man on the stick and the man banging the skins could've been performed by any third-tier power metal act without creating any waves. The "Hell Patrol" has a really kickin' chorus too, but the lyrics are just absolutely laughable. There's just something about Halfie screaming about 'devil dogs' and making up words to fit a rhyme-scheme that reeks of a man totally fallen out of love with this metal muse, a fire that would wane through a pair of adequate Fight albums, be completely snuffed out on the infamous Two project, only to reignite on his solo records, although there's something about them that indicate a slight depression that he's locked into this figurative straightjacket, or even an iron maiden if you will.
Regardless, this is Judas (“fuckin” optional) Priest, and they are still one of the greatest metal acts of all time. The love affair with this album, like British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance, is not entirely unwarranted. "Between the Hammer and the Evil" brings back the religious themes of the early records with stunning results, band tight and locked in, Travis behaving himself as the Metal God rewards us with a conventional (!) singing performance, and therefore a relatively unique one on the album.
And hey, I never said Priest and speed metal couldn't be cozy bedfellows, and the energy of the musicians combined with their sage-like knowledge of how it works (they were one of the primary practitioners of the early form) serves them well. "Nightcrawler" works both as a creepy Halford vocal platform and as an instrumental knock-out punch, the guitars lusty and feral and Rob ferally lusty (for the blood of innocents), also recalling favourably "The Sentinel" with it's spoken break and epic style, thankfully without that song's mechanical window-dressing. "Metal Meltdown" is exactly what you'd want from a track called "Metal Meltdown", a thrashed out guitarfest that is all intense, all the time, and with an essentially great base (or at least essentially hot performances on a hot riff) so that it stands out from the rest of the maelstrom.
Of course the best track is "Painkiller", that conceded by everyone with a pulse and brainwave activity who has heard the album, screaming through your skull and pounding away at the tasty mush inside, six minutes of pay-off, amazing bit leading to amazing bit, from the crazed drumming to the multi-tiered solos, to Rob grabbing his balls and incinerating ours. The song is absolutely astounding, because it should not work. There are about six false endings to this thing (or maybe this is just how Scott does fills), and the lyrics are uniformly stupid, but unlike on the rest of the album where you just wish you were listening to something of substance, it's just like 'yeah, I'm rocking so hard that it doesn't matter'.
"Painkiller" the song is what Priest wanted for this whole album. Alas, thoughts can only be suspended for a short time, and only when what they're being aborted for is worthy of the effort.
Stand-Outs: "Painkiller", "Between the Hammer and the Anvil", "Nightcrawler"