In the late 80's, after the robotic Priest...Live! and the false start that was Ram It Down, a lot of metal fans wrote off Judas Priest as a vital metal band.
They were a tad premature.
Perhaps it was Halford inking a few too many tattoos into his noggin', perhaps it was the long overdue departure of Dave Holland on drums, or maybe they were just angry. The band had spent the summer of 1990 defending themselves in the United States against accusations of murder. Not directly, but through backwards messages supposedly embedded in the Stained Class album. It was a show trial designed to blame bad parenting on someone else. But the band triumphed, and came back meaner and angrier than ever before.
Ex-Racer X (the band that also spawned Paul Gilbert among others) drummer Scott Travis, an American, was on board and the band buckled down with producer Chris Tsangarides and made the best record they'd done since at least Screaming for Vengeance if not earlier. Decks had been cleared, the band meant business. This album distills the sounds of Priest over the last 10 years, and puts the turntable from 33 1/3 all the way up to 45. (Young people who don't have a turntable will have no idea what I'm talking about).
This is OTT metal, shiny and mean, Halford screaming higher and harder than any time before, almost to the point of caricature, but not quite. This chrome plated beast blew away expectations. Tipton and Downing still thought they are interesting enough guitar players to do lead break credits on every album, but it's a touch I like. Tipton is the more experimental one and Downing the fast and furious one. As a combo it works, the solos are mostly interesting and suitable.
The production is loud and clear, at the time I felt this was one of the best produced metal albums I'd ever heard. The drums are so loud and clear that it hurts, Travis doing some serious steppin' on the double bass. To steal a phrase from Halford, this is "primo thrash metal". More accurately, speed metal.
Almost every song is worthy. Only a few fall flat. Yes, the lyrics are cartoony, but "Nightcrawler" takes it too far and is too repetitive with a spoken word section that should have been chopped. Also embarassing is "Metal Meltdown", an OTT song that tries but fails to be as dramatic as "Painkiller" itself.
Bonus tracks are the out-of-place "Living Bad Dreams" (a ballad which spoils the record) and an inferior live cut of "Leather Rebel".
Still, quite the album, and realy gets the blood pumping even today. I wish it came with a DVD with the insane video of the title track. Check it out if you want to have a sweat.
5 stars. An mighty if imperfect return.