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In the year 1990 metal was going through a strong period of reckoning. Many of the previous masters of metal were beginning to have their credibility questioned due to the over-the-top image the many bands had exhibited, and the lack of musical intrigue to back up the flamboyance. The thrash scene was on the verge of being overrun by a group of minimalist groove bands, whom ultimately grew out of the seeds of Metallica’s overrated “Master of Puppets” album and it’s similarly overrated mainstream counterpart in “The Black Album”. Bands such as Pantera and Sepultura would end up completely dumbing down their sound soon after and the way was paved for a generation of musical malformations which properly labeled themselves “Grunge”.
However, as all was seemingly slipping away from metal and the end seemed looming, a seed was planted that would start to grow even as the old guard began to fold the tents and the metal mainstream would go back to the underground that it came from. The seed was an album that had all the melodic hooks and technical intrigue that defined 80s power metal, and yet had the speed and the attitude of early 80s thrash, and the resulting growth would be the rise of a generation of new bands who would focus on the untapped potential of this innovation in Europe, most notably Germany and the Scandinavian countries. And that new generation would come gradually from obscurity to laugh at the short and utterly pathetic rule that the so-called Nirvana wave had at the top.
Painkiller is, from start to finish, an all out assault on the conventional wisdom that heavy metal is either fluffy glam music or inaccessible/atonal art dominated by nihilistic darkness. It throws caution to the wind and blazes away with blinding speed and technical flair from start to finish, forcing the listener to take a musical breather after the close of a listening session. Even the more mid-tempo tracks such as “A Touch of Evil”, “Nightcrawler” and the somber lead-in to the bonus track “Living Bad Dreams” are pulsating with power and glory. It takes the soft ambiences of the synthesizers that dominated “Turbo” and married them to the endless assault of metal riffs and dueling solos with a genius that would inspire many speed metal bands to pursue the possibilities outside of the traditional bass, drums, and guitar arrangement.
We kick off this album with a thunderous drum intro to the title track, which sets the tone for the rest of the album. Rob Halford screams away with the best of them, and the atmosphere is dominated with a driving heavy guitar riff. “Hell Patrol” follows with more double bass work, though a bit more melodic emphasis. We have a riff on here that somewhat resembles “Children of the Grave”, a riff that is often looked to for inspiration by the early thrash fold. “All Guns Blazing” brilliantly continues the merging of melody and speed that the previous track exhibited, with some brilliant drum work. “Leather Rebel” is probably one of the most inspirational songs to the current wave of power metal acts, and showcases a trademark riff that is often paraphrased by speed metal bands in the late 90s to now.
The high octane thrill ride continues with an amazing guitar shred fest of an intro that leads into “Metal Meltdown”, which showcases more of the brilliant marriage of thrash and melody at work on this album. Probably the easiest chorus to remember and sing along with on here, especially considering that the verses are most likely not within the range of most male metal fans. “Nightcrawler” is a more mid-tempo anthem with a spooky keyboard intro, but bear in mind that it is mid-tempo in comparison to what has come before it, which means it’s still pretty damn fast. The main guitar riff is highly memorable, as are the horrifying lyrics which provide a super-villain contrast to the heroic figure depicted in the title track. “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” has a quasi-doom inspired intro that reminds a bit of early Sabbath, though the rest of the song is more amazing riffs and a good amount of speed. “A Touch of Evil” is probably the only track on here that could be qualified as down tempo, but the guitars are heavy and dominant enough that you still can’t sit still. We also have another brilliant, yet less spooky keyboard intro that would later be paraphrased by Nocturnal Rites on their latest album. “Battle Hymn” is a brief instrumental segue to “One Shot at Glory” which is a highly memorable metal anthem loaded with melody and yet still kicks ass in the riff department, great closer to a riveting album.
The re-mastered version of this album contains a bonus track titled “Living Bad Dreams” and a live version of “Leather Rebel” to complement the collection of brilliance on here. The former is a ballad that is still loaded with power and amazing guitar work, though it doesn’t have the speed that dominated the original album. The latter is what I would call a perfect performance of a highly difficult song, as I had a hard time distinguishing it from the studio version, except for the sounds of the crowd.
People may ask, what is the significance of this album? Especially when considering all the groundbreaking work that was done on Priest’s earlier efforts, one would definitely be tempted merely to shelf the significance of this release as a great band merely going out with a bang. To this I respond, look at what is contained within this bang of an album that they ended their 80s era sound with. Even Pantera’s “Power Metal”, though having a good deal of speed and power, doesn’t quite capture the groundbreaking formula at work here. The problem is that it took 7 years for the full effects of this album to be realized, when Gamma Ray released “Somewhere out in Space” and Iron Savior released their debut, which ushered in a new era of melodic speed metal. Metallica may have killed metal in the 80s, but Priest brought metal back in the late 90s, and the fruits of this work are still be realized in the metal world as bands such as “Rhapsody”, “Luca Turilli”, “Sonata Arctica” and a bunch of other European bands mix the standard set by “Painkiller” with their own unique symphonic and electronic influences.
In conclusion, this album is essentially for any fan of speed metal and melodic power metal. Fans of the current scene in Germany and the rest of Europe will not only find a great album, but the very manifesto of the music that they love and cling to as a haven from the mediocre garbage that has dominated the radio for the past 15 years. Some may downplay this album as merely being good, but I know better, and am unapologetic in giving it a perfect score.