Games Meet Metal: Judas Priest - Painkiller 20th Anniversary Long Review

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Judas Priest - Painkiller 20th Anniversary Long Review

Those who love metal are aware of its ability to walk on and blur the lines between cheesy and awesome, awe-inspiring and juvenile. With its soaring, sometimes screeching vocals, furious and flashy instrumentals, and lyrical themes that revolve mostly around war and death (with the occasional exception that sex, beasts, and religion are discussed), Judas Priest’s Painkiller album helps define an era of metal that is as furious as it is ridiculous. Ex-Racer-X drummer and new addition to Priest upon the album’s release Scott Travis keeps the beats coming fast and hard throughout this mostly speed metal record that let Rob Halford and crew go out on a bang before their seven year hiatus in 1990.

Starting with “Painkiller”, the album introduces itself as a beast with a taste for flashy guitar solos, fast and furious drum pedaling and tremolo riffing, and experimentation with just how high that reportedly four octave vocal range of lead singer Rob Halford’s can go. Unfortunately, while the efforts made by Rob to kill pterodactyls using the screech of his voice rather than Gene Simmon’s guitar are admirable and add to the feeling of fury, they are also the album’s main sin. For those of you not familiar with sound production, “clipping” is what happens when a track is mixed so loud it blows out your speakers, and if a human voice equivalent of this exists it’s what Rob is trying here. The instrumental both saves the track and works with this style by aiming for sheer intensity, but it would be nice if “just because I can” wasn’t a thought going through the front man’s mind when this album was in production
Luckily, right after the pterodactyls are good and dead, the vocal style gets more melodic and exhibits operatic influences on “Hell Patrol”. It doesn’t lose anything in the way of ferocity, the vocals lend it an anthemic quality, and the instrumental follows suit, laying back and focusing less on pure intensity, more on good ol' memorable riffage. “All Guns Blazing” goes back to screeching a bit, but manages it more reasonably than the title track, and the amazing assortment of pick squeals and high-end guitar hammering in the solo section don’t hurt one bit. “Leather Rebel” is one of the better tracks on the album, with orgasmic vibrato on the line “lightning in the dark” and again a more melodic feeling (noticing a pattern yet?).
“Metal Meltdown” begins by evoking Van Halen’s “Eruption” with an explosion of flashy tapping techniques, then ironically becoming more cacophonic and sinister in the solo section and verse. The chorus is catchy in an unexpected metal kind of way and the song’s ending slows down the beat in a rather enjoyable breakdown. “Nightcrawler” is similarly sinister and catchy sounding and has the same kind of breakdown effect, but with a less flashy and more gothic/acoustic introduction. Both tracks are a bit darker in overall feel but still fit perfectly on the album.
“Between the Hammer and the Anvil” is a good song, but perhaps because of its placement towards the end of the album, it was the first track to make the noticeably similar style of most of the songs a bit tiring for me. It still has all the elements of a great metal song, but it’s just not as exciting as the other tracks and lacks any little tweaks in song arrangement to set it apart. On the other end of the spectrum, “A Touch of Evil” sounds completely different from the other tracks’ styles. A solid, danceable beat, borderline synth-pop sounding chorus and 80s ballad feel directly contradict the speedy style of most of the record. The lyrical content also replaces war and anger with sex and temptation. It’s a welcome and well done departure.
Finally, we come to the end with tracks deemed worthy of Double Fine’s Brutal Legend videogame. “Battle Hymn” isn’t quite as memorable as “The Hellion,” but as far as 30 second lead-ins go it does what it needs to. “One Shot at Glory” on the other hand, is the best track on the album and one of the best things Priest has ever done, in my opinion leading the “Battle Hymn/One Shot at Glory” team to best the “Hellion/Electric Eye” tracks from their Screaming for Vengeance effort. Its chorus contains some of the best vocal work Rob ever did, and adds an odd sense of childlike wonderment to the quality of the track. It’s a very confidence-inspiring hymn to battle and damn good music to boot.
The remaster comes with bonus tracks “Living Bad Dreams” and a live edition of “Leather Rebel”. “Living Bad Dreams” is a softer ballad number, somewhat in the vein of “A Touch of Evil” but with a much more straightforward and almost hair metal feel where “Touch of Evil” still managed to sound sinister in the spirit of the rest of the album. The guitar work is still quite good, and I like the Skid Row “18 and Life” feeling it kind of has in the verse. As for “Leather Rebel live”, everyone seems to be doing technically fine, but the mix is just too low and dry. Rob’s voice is mostly up to snuff aside from the vibrato in the chorus missing as well as back-up vocals, and the instrumental has no notes missing, but the whole thing is just kind of quiet.
Overall: Painkiller is an album that commits all the deadly sins of metal by employing too-high vocals, high octane instrumentals, and ridiculous lyrical themes that basically sound as though the band wrote down every word they thought of when they saw the homoerotic, war-torn scene that is the album cover, and figured it was good enough to put in liner notes. But while it constantly borders on cheesy, it never bores, and consistently pleases any metal head wanting a high-octane thrill with a damn good vocalist at the helm.
Pros: Flashy solos, furious riffs, great drumming, awesome vocals, consistently entertaining
Cons: Vocals can get too high, lyrical content isn’t extremely original
5/5 Slaytanic

1 comment:

  1. Best Metal album of all-time. That's it.