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"Painkiller". What is there left to say about a true classic in the pantheons of metal? This surely remains one of the greatest 'comebacks' in music history, as the legendary Judas Priest - after two sorely lacklustre records - reinvented themselves in a blaze of molten steel. "Painkiller", from the thunderous drum-roll-to-the-power-of-100 intro of the title track to the cathartically epic closer "One Shot at Glory", showcases metallic masters firing on every cylinder they possess.
What immediately impresses is the sense of vitriolic rage that blazes from the music. This is priest burying the synth-pop horrors of Turbo, and rediscovering the dark, Sabbath-ian-plus-extra-epic sense of Romantic (big R; I'm talking "Frankenstein" here, not "Love Actually"), Gothic gloom that haunted their early 70's classics. Channelled through a ripping post-Thrash sensibility, the results are truly immense. This is Priest sounding angrier, hungrier and more dangerous than they have in a decade; the slow degeneration into a strange kind of camp comedy metal - "the REAL Spinal Tap!", as one eminent British rock publication put it - is swiftly and irrevocably wiped out. This, I contend, is the album which cemented their place as true legends of Metal.
Bold words? Think of Priest's 80's output; slick, heavily produced, streamlined. Along with the bombastic Bruce Dickinson-era Iron Maiden, they set the blueprint for 80's metal. But as the new wave of metal forged on, and as thrash, black and death metal formed around them, Priest were in danger of being left behind. Where once they were the leaders and innovators of a burgeoning, revolutionary genre, now they led huge tours with numerous stage props and enough pomp to bankrupt a small African country. Where once they plied their trade with fury and deadly determination through the clubs and pubs of England, now they resembled nothing so much as a strangely mobile Broadway musical production. This album was a symbolic turning point for Priest; it is the sound of a sleeping beast awakening.
For if any band - or any human for that matter - can truly claim to have pure METAL flowing through their veins, it is Priest. Casting aside the big, anthemic choruses and fruity excesses of their 80's sound, they blast forth with a lightning bolt of pure steel. Scott Travis - their new drummer - invigorates and energises the band immediately; unlike the plodding and pedestrian Dave Holland, he attacks the kit with a frankly blistering combination of power, intricacy and rhythmic perfection. Glenn Tipton and K.K Dowing unleash raging, dark and relentlessly powerful riffs left, right and centre, adding a sprinkling of furiously technical, face-melting solos. And Rob Halford lets rip with the most hair-raising performance of his entire career; a tour-de-force of shrieking vocal mastery, delivered with intense power and conviction.
The lyrics follow suit. You'll find nothing here but nearly formless expressions of rage, violence, terror and glory; archetypes of metal. These lyrics delight in the exultation of pure power. They are great because they invoke; rather than sticking to the descriptive, story-telling aspects of traditional metal, Halford summons the primeval energies that fuel these dark fantasies, and expresses them directly and viscerally. Music and Lyrics together constitute a clenched fist; a mighty blow that lays a true benchmark for traditional metal. There may be many imitators, but none come close to this; a true masterpiece.