Review Summary: Everything heavy metal stands for is bottled up into this legendary 55-minute musical whirlwind; an absolute classic.
When it comes to music, rarely is anything more depressing than watching one of your favorite bands fall from grace. For some bands, it might seem inevitable because of how many albums they put out in a certain amount of time; just look at Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! by metal legends Black Sabbath for a good example of that. Others quickly fizzle out after just a few albums and are never heard from again; it all depends on how well the band can keep up with its competition and continually deliver musical freshness. Off the top of my head, I can certainly think of many great bands who became fallen angels over time; Metallica, Queensryche, Yes, etc. However, perhaps one of the worst cases would be with Judas Priest's 1986 disappointment Turbo. Why? Because the streak of albums from 1976's Sad Wings of Destiny to 1984's Defenders of the Faith (probably barring Point of Entry) is not only one of the best album streaks in metal history, but possibly music history overall. The band were truly releasing classic after classic, each new record sounding fresh and unique in its own way.
Granted, Turbo wasn't a godawful album or anything; it just happened to be exceptionally mediocre and boring compared to such a great string of successes. As if that wasn't enough, the band released another dud with Ram it Down; while being faster and more reminiscent of British Steel, it wasn't consistent enough to rival the speed/thrash metal albums on the scene at that time such as Metallica's ...And Justice for All. Clearly the band needed to reinvent their proverbial wheel and freshen up their songwriting to stay relevant, and in hiring Racer X drummer Scott Travis and placing their emphasis on fast-as-hell power/speed metal, they did just that. Painkiller put the band right back on the map and was instantly hailed as a classic by fans and critics alike; to this day, it's known as one of the band's greatest accomplishments. And... yeah, I definitely get behind that as well.
Painkiller isn't a particularly groundbreaking or experimental album; in fact, on the surface it just seems like a standard-issue speed metal affair. There aren't many tricky progressive rhythms and the riffs usually aren't too complex or unorthodox-sounding. No, when you get down to it, the album's greatest strength is just how well everything melds together. Rob Halford's vocals are a perfect fit for this faster, more power metal-esque sound considering his high operatic approach and charismatic delivery; Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing supply endless riffs and entertainingly over-the-top solo trade-offs reminiscent of neo-classical metal; Ian Hill and Scott Travis keep the guitarists in check by providing a powerful rhythm section that never goes too far outside of keeping things in line. There are plenty of anthems that metal fans should instantly recognize on here; of course the legendary title track opens things up in epic fashion with an iconic drum solo and a solo that showcases the guitarists' precise and fluid tapping skills. "Metal Meltdown" is the other song that's most notable on the faster end of things, with a trade-off guitar solo section setting the tone for a truly heart-pounding power metal anthem. Rob Halford displays one of the best examples of his vocal power and stamina during the pre-chorus, constantly singing higher and higher with no audible stress on his vocal cords. Other songs, such as "Leather Rebel" and "Hell Patrol" decide to take the intensity down a notch and let the listener breathe a bit; the riffs are still as abundant and creative as ever, but just refreshingly different tempos. While this album is indeed very well-composed, the atmosphere and ambition are what take it to the next level; as cliched as the term is, the best word to describe the entire experience is "epic." Everything feels big, from the soaring vocals and the guitar duels to the near-constant barrage of intense riffs and power metal-oriented lyrics. Some songs change the atmosphere up a bit, such as the eerie synth-laden power ballad "A Touch of Evil" or the dark fantasy elements of the highly melodic "Night Crawler." More than anything, though, the biggest compliment I can give about this album is that every single song is worth listening to. Every song has at least some strengths to make it worthy of repeated listens, and there's a chance that even the weakest songs will end up growing on you in the long run.
What else is there to say? Painkiller is intense, powerful, consistent, well-written, charismatic, varied, and performed by fantastic musicians who pulled everything off almost perfectly. The only thing that might turn people off is the cheesy lyricism, but I find myself enjoying it; it just seems to fit within the epic music it accompanies. If you're into metal, there's no excuse not to have this record; get it immediately if you don't have it yet. It defines heavy metal and everything it stands for.