Judas Priest’s Painkiller was more than just a comeback album for the iconic British group. It was a bold new statement of intent and a record that would prove to be highly influential on the European metal scene in the early 1990s. The quintet showed that they still had plenty of fire left and could show up their younger thrash successors with innovative songwriting and supercharged performances.
It turns out that you can teach some metal masters new tricks.
The latter half of the 1980s was a strange time for Judas Priest. While they had a platinum breakthrough with Screaming for Vengeance in 1982, which opened the floodgates for the ‘80s heavy metal revolution in America, the 1984 follow-up Defenders of the Faith (while arguably a better album) did not fare as well commercially even though it led to a successful arena tour around the world. By the mid-1980s, there was a growing schism between the burgeoning thrash metal movement and the rising hair band scene. Priest wanted to reflect the diversity of music that was coming out at the time, not to mention that had been inherent in their catalog from the beginning. But the proposed double album, Twin Turbos, which the group wanted to sell for the price of one release, was rejected by their short-sighted label Columbia. (The same fate would befall Bon Jovi’s New Jersey in 1988.)
Whittling down their track selection to one album’s worth of material, Priest opted to go with the more synth-heavy tracks for Turbo, an album that expanded their female fan base but angered many longtime fans. Album sales did not grow, but the tour was very successful. After incurring the wrath of numerous followers, Priest doubled back with the aggressive Ram It Down (1988), mixing in some unused Turbo tracks with newer songs. While amped up and featuring fantastic guitar solos (plus an off-the-wall cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Good”), the result was heavy but underwhelming for many.
Considering that Dave Holland was not a double kick drummer, the group opted to use programmed drums on some of Ram It Down. “There was some programming on that,” acknowledges bassist Ian Hill. “The drums were triggered. That’s where the sound came from. We started triggering on Turbo.”
The group’s creativity was stalling, and the Metal Mercenaries tour was not quite as successful as past treks. The band was very aware that change was needed. The situation reminded former guitarist K.K. Downing about the time that Priest opened for KISS in 1979.
“I think that it probably did them more harm than good in some ways,” Downing told me in a 1998 interview for Goldmine magazine. “Where what they did was going slowly out-of-date and what we did was fast coming in-date. We were more touchable, reachable, more street, if you like, at the time. Believe it or not, in the denim and leather, as opposed to the untouchable superhero people. We had real faces and real names.” Around the time of Painkiller, things were changing “because you had bands like Pantera, Anthrax, and Sepultura, [and metal] was becoming even more street. So you could see KISS and Judas Priest, Judas Priest and Pantera, and you can see everybody’s becoming more street. The fear of being pretentious was creeping into certain people’s minds.”
The band needed something to revitalize it artistically for their twelfth studio album. An unexpected change came when long-time drummer Dave Holland decided to retire from the band due to a family illness.
“I don’t think you’ll find anybody’ll knock Dave, but it was time to move on, time to change gear, really,” guitarist Glenn Tipton told me in 1998. “And Priest has always been known for people who could handle double kicks. It gave us the ability to do the faster-paced numbers, which is more Priest. With Dave Holland, we wrote the songs around his capabilities. It’s no disrespect because the albums we did were good albums.”
Priest spread the word about auditions, and one of the people who tried out was Racer X basher Scott Travis. The group already had him on their radar because that California band, thanks to Halford’s connection to their singer Jeff Martin, got to record an unreleased Turbo tune called “Heart of A Lion.”. Travis had the double-kick chops and groove skills that the band was looking for. They actually could have used them on Ram It Down, a sentiment that, with all due respect to the late Dave Holland, Hill agrees with.
“Scott is a phenomenal drummer,” Hill tells Discogs. “We were able to do things that Dave couldn’t possibly handle. God bless him. It opened up a whole new avenue for us when Scott joined because of the faster tracks and the double-bass drums. He excels that it and still does. He’s a good technical drummer as well.”
Another critical change took place. After working with producer Tom Allom for a decade, between 1979’s Unleashed In The East (Live In Japan) through to 1988’s Ram It Down, Priest wanted someone new manning the boards. That person would turn out to be Chris Tsangerides who had been one of the engineers on the seminal 1976 album Sad Wings of Destiny.
“If you go back to British Steel, you can take a small step with each album up to Defenders really,” explains Hill. “You can see the steps, and we were looking for the next step from what became Turbo. It had become increasingly more difficult. Along came Roland with their guitar synthesizers. That’s where Turbo came from, and that was the end of the line with the genealogy, if you know what I mean. It stopped with Defenders. Obviously, Turbo was very experimental.” While Ram It Down returned with a harder edge, the band felt it had reached the end of the road with Allom. Tsangerides’ reputation had been growing thanks to his work with artists like Thin Lizzy, Mama’s Boys, Anvil, King Diamond, and Black Sabbath, so Priest gave him a shot.
The group spent the tail end of 1989 working on material for the album that would become Painkiller. They recorded the album during the first three months of 1990 at Studio Mirval in Correns, France near the French Riviera. It seemed to be an unlikely place for the band, but then they recorded Ram It Down at Puk Recording Studios in Gjerlev, Denmark, a chillier locale than the warmer environs of Ibiza, Spain, or the Bahamas where Priest had recorded Point of Entry through Turbo.
As Hill recalls of the chateau that was Miraval, “It was a winery which was dangerous because come lunchtime you had an endless supply of house labeled wine. Most of the work at Miraval was done during the morning. It was a great atmosphere to work. If you get a tough period or your brain’s just full of what have you, you just walk through the vineyards. It was a magnificent place to record. There were very few distractions, unlike Ibiza and Compass Point in the Bahamas where there are multiple distractions and not much recording went on in either of those places.”
For Halford, the choice of a winery location might have seemed odd considering he was approaching his fifth year of sobriety. “It didn’t get in my way. I had my sober tools in place,” Halford recalls to Discogs. “It was lovely. It was just a beautiful retreat. About a year or two ago, I read that when Brad and Angelina were married, they lived at that chateau for many, many years because it was so out of the way. It’s a very long drive up on country roads.”
One might think the relaxed environment in that France studio would induce a lighter album like Turbo, but the pioneering group, creatively hungry and inspired by the thrashing power of their new drummer, unleashed a maelstrom of heavy metal fury that captured the energy of their earlier years. The title track was a full-on sonic assault featuring maniacal shrieks from Halford, searing guitar work from Tipton and Downing, and a pummeling rhythm section from Hill and Travis. “Hell Patrol” was jam-packed with ever-changing riffs, a galloping groove, and a majestic solo from Tipton, who also shredded fiercely on “All Guns Blazing.” “Nightcrawler,” “Between The Hammer And The Anvil,” and the keyboard-drenched “A Touch of Evil” were brimming with gothic overtones and sinister riffs.
One might think that because of their now infamous court case looming up – in which parents of two young men who shot themselves listening to the band’s music were suing them and blaming subliminal messages allegedly created by the group – that the album was fueled with rage and concern over the outcome. But the trial would not take place until July, months after writing and recording had finished. Halford confirms that the case was not an ongoing concern for them in early 1990.
“I don’t recall anything about them saying they were,” Travis told me for a Drumhead magazine interview in December 2017. “To be honest, the trial hadn’t started yet. They were concerned about it, but I think they were more believing the next step was it was going to get dismissed. The whole idea was ridiculous, and their lawyers were working behind the scenes on a daily basis, so every time updates would come along [it was] like the next phase it was going to get thrown out.”
One thing that was a big influence on them was the type of shredding metal that bands like Travis’ previous group played. Performed with aggression and precision, it had an impact on Priest, notably the sweep picking technique of people like Racer X’s guitarist Paul Gilbert.
“When they mentioned they were looking for a drummer and I was one of the candidates – obviously, I sent over the Racer X stuff as my resume – I know for a fact that they were influenced by our arpeggio [driven] sweeping whirl of guitars that they had never really delved into before,” recalls Travis. “You hear that even on the song ‘Painkiller.’ Glenn’s lead on that has the sweeping arpeggios, so definitely they were influenced by that style. It was the shred days, as we call them.”
Halford notes that Priest have always been open to ideas from outside sources. They have recorded other people’s songs, and Allom certainly brought a lot to the table in terms of sound design.
“Some great ideas come at you from many different directions and add value, and if they have merit and do the best for what you’re doing, then why ignore them?” notes Halford. “Chris was very hands-on, and he knew what we were after, on the desk especially, really getting the drum sound that we were after. And the guitar sounds and everything else. He was absolutely getting it sonically in the right pocket.”
On top of offering suggestions in terms of song structure, Tsangerides also co-wrote the album’s other single, the dark and moody “A Touch of Evil” which became a video and is one of the album’s best tracks. It features a fantastic solo section that starts with two guitar tracks (acoustic and electric) and climaxes with five parts interweaving together. (Sadly, the radio/video edit cut the solo section in half.)
This songwriting collaboration happened spontaneously. When I profiled him for the August 1998 issue of Mix magazine, the late Chris Tsangerides told me, “I do library music for a publisher, Bruton Music. They use these albums I make. If a film company wants a heavy metal riff to put behind somebody getting murdered in a scene or whatever, they can go to the library and say, ‘Take one of these and use it.’ So I had a couple of these CDs of mine down at the studio, and I was just testing the monitors. I played ‘A Touch of Evil,’ which I had written for this library album, and Glenn came in and went, ‘Bloody hell, what’s that?’ I told him, and he said, ‘Just a minute,’ then came back and said, ‘We could work with that.’ Rob wrote the lyrics, Glenn came up with the middle eight and some choruses, and there you have it. All the riffs and the bridge is me. The solo section is Glenn.”
“He was a lovely guy,” Halford reminisces of Tsangerides. “All of these producers are characters. It’s just something about their temperament. I always feel that they’re undervalued to a great extent for various reasons. Some of the greatest records ever made wouldn’t have been made without a producer’s input. Even bands that are established now years later like ourselves are on different levels. You’re foolish to ignore the opportunity that a good producer will provide.”
On his end, Halford’s lyrics dealt with different topics: The titular alien coming to save the Earth from destruction (“Painkiller” and “All Guns Blazing”), erotic/vampiric possession (“A Touch Of Evil”), nods to both fearsome might and bravery (“Hell Patrol” and “One Shot At Glory”), and the obligatory odes to a “Leather Rebel” and a “Metal Meltdown” (the album’s weak track, to be honest). Throughout the album, Downing and Tipton unleashed appropriately aggressive and dazzling solos, some of the greatest work they have ever done.
Painkiller was mixed by Attie Bauw at Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum, Netherlands, but the release was delayed until after the summer’s court trial. While the situation in the Reno, Nevada courtroom was both sad and tense during that time, the band was eventually exonerated when Halford was able to prove how, despite the ridiculous accusations of evil subliminal messages lurking in the grooves of their albums, that there were plenty of random things to be heard like, “She asked me for a peppermint.” In defiance of their accusers, the band’s label put a sticker on the new record that declared, “Sounds great, forwards or backwards!”
Upon its release, the album was greeted with critical acclaim and enthusiasm, and it was certified gold within four months of release. The Hellraiser-inspired video for the title track and Halford’s insanely powerful (and difficult to replicate) vocal performance turned heads. But the band’s bassist recollects that some fans were taken by surprise.
“It was different from the traditional stuff so some of the older fans probably didn’t get along with it that well, but it gained a whole block of new fans,” remarks Hill. “It was critically acclaimed. There were no radio-friendly tracks on there. Probably ‘A Touch Of Evil’ came closest. We’d been known for our singles at that point.”
Starting on October 18, the band embarked on a world tour that would last until August 19, 1991. The stage set was designed around a tank concept. The tour was intense and must have been rough on Halford’s voice given how punishing the song “Painkiller” was, but he recalled that it was not too bad. Concert videos on YouTube show that he and the band were delivering the goods onstage.
“We’d had a decent rest before the Painkiller slog happened,” says Halford. “It was a very long tour with multiple shows back to back. I don’t know how we did it now. I was in my 40s, wasn’t I? I’m not singing like a 20-year-old [and] different things start to creep in. Thankfully, I had been clean and sober for a number of years, and that was helping me. I was in decent shape. I had a fucking six-pack! Rarely have I ever had one. I was on a major health kick as well. I was sleeping a lot better than I do now, so my insomnia wasn’t really getting in the way. I felt like I did okay.”
For Painkiller, Priest toured North America twice, Europe, and Japan, and they headlined at Rock In Rio II in January 1991 before 200,000 people. The first North American tour included support from Megadeth and Testament, and the second was a co-headlining trek with Alice Cooper called Operation Rock & Roll, reportedly a tribute to American military members fighting in Operation Desert Storm. (It was an odd choice of title given that the band had written anti-authoritarian lyrics in the past.) Arriving as the first wave of grunge was ready to hit the mainstream, Operation Rock & Roll did not perform very well. At the last show, Halford unintentionally bashed his against the drum riser when he rode his Harley out on stage for the opening number “Hell Bent For Leather.” It was an unceremonious (and Spinal Tap-ish) way to end his time with the band.
After the Painkiller tour ended, Halford wanted to pursue a solo project, but wrangling with Columbia forced him to quit the band in 1992 so he could form the Pantera-ish group Fight. Undoubtedly, we will learn all about what happened then in the singer’s forthcoming autobiography Confess, which is due out on September 29. Halford would record and tour with Fight, followed by the industrial rock outfit Two, and then return to his classic metal roots with the Halford band before reuniting with his Priest bandmates in 2003. His original group would soldier on with powerful young screamer/singer Tim “Ripper” Owens for two albums: the underrated Jugulator (which landed them their second Grammy nomination for “Bullet Train”) and the inconsistent Demolition.
Thirty years later, Painkiller still stands as a heavy metal classic and one of the best releases in Judas Priest’s large catalog. From its apocalyptic cover art by Mark Wilkinson to the last strains of the epic anthem “One Shot At Glory,” the album still sounds as wild and electric today as when it was released. Sixteen years into their recording career, with band members at least a decade older than many in the younger metal generation nipping at their heels, Priest not only reconfirmed their vitality but also helped to redefine the genre they had a part in creating. (Coincidentally enough, AC/DC would pull off the same trick for hard rock that year with The Razor’s Edge.) In 1991, Painkiller landed Priest their first Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance. Inexplicably, it lost out to Metallica’s cover of Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy.” But in 2009, on their fifth nomination, Priest won for Best Metal Performance for their live version of the classic “Dissident Aggressor.”
Let’s face it: Metal has always been the underdog genre, and Priest know that feeling well. The point has always been the music, not mainstream accolades. And if there is one metal album to make you feel supremely empowered and to exorcise your demons, Painkiller is it.