Judas Priest have created some memorable stories and characters through their music over the years. Classic Metal Hawk’s favourite character of the lot is ‘The Painkiller’.
‘Painkiller’ is the title track from the Judas Priest album of the same name released in September 1990, their 12th studio album in all, and probably one of their all-time best. Without doubt, a high ranker in the entire Classic Heavy Metal hall of fame – one of its best albums ever.
Classic Metal Hawk has already blogged about the ‘Painkiller’ album and tour. Check it out here, and that’s well worth a longer read – some of the stories cross over nicely to this song blog. But in this post, we’ll be delving into that famous title track in more detail – and its eponymous hero.
Who is the Painkiller?
The eponymous ‘Painkiller’ is a character dreamed up by Judas Priest lead singer and lyricist Rob Halford – maybe even an alter ego for anything the Hawk knows. He (The Painkiller, not Halford) is a winged cyborg-type character sent to a futuristic Earth to rescue mankind from imminent destruction.
We don’t get to find out what the cause of said destruction is, so that’s for the fans’ imaginations to fill in.
Classic Metal Hawk likes to think of it as a Marvel Avengers ‘Battle of New York’ type scenario, with the Chitauri sent to conquer the Earth. But this time, instead of the Hulk and Iron Man saving the planet, we have a futuristic character riding in on a flying jet-powered motorbike with saw blades for wheels and a dragon’s head instead of handlebars.
Presumably nobody mentioned that idea to the Marvel Cinematic Universe producers, and that’s a shame because just those wheels alone would have done some damage.
A New Heavy Metal Weapon
At the time of writing ‘Painkiller’, Judas Priest felt under pressure to come up with something special – them and many other 80s Heavy Metal bands at the time. The scene was changing, Seattle was stirring, you know the drill. How would established bands respond, especially those of a vintage the length of Priest’s? Could they get away with more of the same 80s stylings? Priest thought not – they’d need to come up with a blistering statement of intent that would set a new direction for the band in this uncertain new decade.
Fortunately, they had a head start in that mission in the shape of new tyro drummer Scott Travis. A controversial choice at the time as an American in a British heavy metal band, Travis nevertheless offered the band something clearly new and ferocious, with the possibility to drive Priest’s sound like never before – he was certainly a massive technical upgrade on previous drum-stool occupant Dave Holland who’d flounced off from the band in a huff.
The song is the opener on the ‘Painkiller’ album, as well as the title track, and so the first thing the fans would have heard when they got back from the record store. It starts with a drum solo that showcases Travis’s double kick drum talents, starting with a fast feel, then slowing but with that fresh double bass groove in evidence the whole time. New boy in the band`? Let’s get him into the action right away. It immediately showed the fans what to expect from their revamped rhythm section.
Then the guitars. While we’re on superlatives, that opening riff is one of Classic Metal Hawk’s all-time favourites. Technically difficult single note riffing with power chord finishes to each section, and all punctuated by the double bass drums which carry on the whole time and are nice and audible in the mix. Then the vocals kick in, with some classic Halford high register work over the top of that classic riff. He’s straight into the story of our heroic cyborg:
Faster than a bullet, terrifying scream
Enraged and full of anger, he’s half man and half machine
After a couple of verses and choruses of unrelenting brutality (where the combo of tremolo picked guitar synced with the double bass drums in the chorus is quite something), Priest then manage to crank up the tension even more in the interlude section:
Faster than a laser bullet
Louder than an atom bomb
The way the drums and guitars are able to accelerate to a crescendo right before the solo is incredible. The solo itself is a long one, mostly a Glenn Tipton effort with plenty of sweep picking, but with some KK Downing call and response towards the end.
Another verse and chorus, then we get a reprise of the interlude riff and intro riff, and there’s still time for an outro solo to finish it all off.
Famously, the release of the album was delayed because Judas Priest were sued for subliminal messages in some of their songs causing the deaths by suicide of 2 young men in the US – read about that full horrifying story here. One of the defences Priest brought to bear in that legal case is that their lyrics were not and are not evil – they have plenty of songs covering the battle between good and evil, sure, but the good typically comes out on top. And there’s no better example of that than ‘Painkiller’, with our heroic cyborg saving the day for all of mankind. ‘Nevermore encaptured’, indeed.
According to his autobiography ‘Confess’, Rob Halford often used a thesaurus to help him come up with the right words in his lyrics, and this sounds to Classic Metal Hawk like a great example. (Though maybe not – ‘encapture’ doesn’t seem to appear at all in the Cambridge dictionary on The Hawk’s desk, so maybe Halford just made it up on this occasion.)
Anyway, the fans and critics all loved the song – it was even nominated for a Grammy (‘Best Metal Performance’, since you ask), and although Priest were pipped to the award by Metallica, the nomination was evidence of the quality of the composition. The band themselves were also delighted with it – Halford told Kerrang! magazine as late as 2013 that ‘Painkiller’ is the song he’s most proud to have written, commenting that, “I think it’s a wonderful statement. It embodies what metal is – it’s everything a full-on screamy metal track should have. Everybody is going a million miles an hour on it, and yet the melody still comes across. That statement that ‘He is the Painkiller’ – you get 30,000 metalheads chanting it at a festival and it’s a great feeling. It’s become a very important song for Priest, and for metal too, I think.”
The warm glow only at the time of recording and mixing the song in Amsterdam was punctured only slightly when Halford managed to be thrown off his bike, dislocating an elbow in the process.
Priest had flown in a keyboard player, Don Airey to perform on the album, but then decided that keyboards would spoil the new heavier vibe they were aiming for. It wasn’t a wasted trip for Airey though – regular bass player Ian Hill was unwell for much of the recording, so a lot of the bass you hear on the record is Airey playing a Minimoog. Hill performs the parts on live shows of course.
And finally, the new sound was assisted by the appointment of a new producer, Chris Tsangarides. Not totally new – Tsangarides had worked with Priest as an engineer way back on ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ (the album at the centre of the backwards messages court case). But by this point, he was making a name as a rick and heavy metal producer, and helped Priest capture that aggressive sound.
By the time Priest came to record the video for the ‘Painkiller’ single, and go on tour, Rob Halford had also shaved his thinning hair. New drummer. New sound. New look. It all came together as an all-time Classic Heavy Metal song. Let’s give it a listen.