(Note from the, uh…Editor’s Desk: Hi everybody! I started writing this piece back in December, but I never finished it for a completely valid, professional, and not at all super embarrassing reason which I will explain in a bit. Since there’s not much doing these days, I’ve decided to bring it to a bare minimum of completion, partially out of boredom but mostly because I’m legitimately proud of what I did finish, and would hate to leave this in the vault forever simply because I’m an idiot who can’t be bothered to undertake the most basic of research. Enjoy!)
Last year, I ranked every studio album Iron Maiden ever did in this space. It was fun and kept me busy for a few days, so I’m going to perform a (vaguely) similar service for Judas Priest’s studio output, with a few changes to the format. The most important of these changes is, as the title of this article implies, I will not be ranking Priest’s albums from worst to best, as I did with Maiden. Rather, I am going to work through their discography chronologically and assign letter grades to each. And yes, I am going to examine the Ripper Owens albums as well, even though the band has mostly disavowed their existence (Jugulator isn’t even on Spotify, for fuck’s sake).
Here I must admit my secret shame – with the exception of 2005’s Angel of Retribution (Grade: B), I haven’t listened to any of their post-1990 albums more than like, once. Since my wiring is such that I can’t really listen critically to any piece of music until the second time around, in order to finish this article as originally intended, I would have had to spend several hours of intent listening on the remaining albums, some of which are entirely too long (2008’s Nostradamus clocks in somewhere around 100 minutes, which, I mean…fuck that) and several of which simply aren’t particularly good. I have too little ambition and too much self respect for such an ordeal. Therefore, I’m stopping at the terminus of my actual expertise.
The advantages of this approach are two-fold. First, it allows me to tell the story of the band as I go, rather than cram in a few too many dense expository paragraphs up front. This is extra important here because the history of Judas Priest is a hell of a lot messier than that of Iron Maiden. There isn’t a single dude in Priest who has been there the entire time, and they went through so many drummers that I will go to my grave convinced that the bit about ex-drummers in This is Spinal Tap is a dig at Priest, specifically. This is to say nothing of the various other forms of instability the band has endured, which are much more difficult to condense. Better to tell the story in something approaching real time, you know?
Second, there are certain pairs of albums in the discography where I really can’t tell which album I prefer. I am at a phase in my life where I simply cannot be bothered to obsessively hem and haw about ranking each album in a wholly subjective sequence when letter grades provide pretty much all of the same information (this album is Excellent/Good/Meh/Shitty) without forcing me to make a series of pointlessly overthought and ultimately arbitrary decisions.
Before I get going, I must establish the ground rules. Starting with the obvious, these grades are entirely subjective and reflect my opinions and my opinions only. If any of them make you mad for some reason, I encourage you to re-examine your life and your emotional priorities, since I’m guessing the true source of your anger isn’t actually what some asshole on the internet is saying about 40 year old metal albums, you feel me? Take care of yourself.
Also, as with the Iron Maiden album rankings, I am narrowing my focus to studio releases only. 1979’s Unleashed in the East is the band’s best live album by a comical margin (Grade: A+++), and the rest mostly just exist, and aren’t worth commenting on. The exception to this is 1987’s Priest…Live!, which is terrible (Grade: F-). Also also, as you can infer from above, I reserve the right to qualify letter grades with however many pluses (or minuses) I see fit.
Finally, to the extent that this piece has been researched, I have taken all of my information (that is not specifically cited later) from both the band’s Wikipedia page and the Judas Priest Info Pages, a horrific nightmare of late 90’s/early 00’s amateur web design that nevertheless contains a vast treasure trove of information on the band (interview snippets, album recording details, tour and specific live show details, etc.). Even though most of the (also rare and interesting) photo library seems to be broken images now, the text-based information remains gloriously preserved.
Rocka Rolla (Released 1974)
For the present purpose, the story of Judas Priest beings in medias res, as the band had already been grinding it out on the club circuit (and had already gone through a stupefying amount of lineup changes) for years before recording an album, having settled around a core of guitarist K.K. Downing, bassist Ian Hill, singer Rob Halford, and whatever poor schmuck happened to be playing drums at the time. (The drummer on this album was a guy named John Hinch. You will never need to remember this for any reason, including bar trivia.) At the insistence of their record label, a long-defunct British independent called Gull, the band added a second guitarist named Glenn Tipton shortly before entering the studio. Rocka Rolla is a reflection of the band’s early days as a heavy-to-heavy metal-ish blues band, and it’s mostly pretty terrible. The riffs are clunky, the hooks are underwhelming, and almost nothing grooves. The title track is the lone exception to this, and even that song is merely competent (as opposed to good).
This album is not worth listening to, unless you decide you are such a die-hard fan of Judas Priest that your honor demands it. Fortunately, things would improve quickly. K.K. Downing did most of the songwriting here (by plurality; most songwriting in Priest was a team effort, with Tipton and Downing writing most of the music and Halford writing most of the lyrics), but in a very real way, he didn’t know what he was doing. Tipton had actual knowledge of how music works (scales and chords and shit), which he would soon put to extremely good use. Not that you always need musical knowledge to make good music, but it was an undeniable boon in this instance. Grade: D
Sad Wings of Destiny (Released 1976)
For all intents and purposes, Sad Wings of Destiny is Judas Priest’s actual debut album, heralding the dawn of heavy metal’s second age and proclaiming Priest as ambassadors of this brave new style. Starting with this album, Priest started slowly stripping away the influence of the blues on their sound and replacing it with Gothic-tinged classicism (Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and such), a trend they would lean into more and more with each successive release.
This ethos would have an incalculable ripple effect on the genre as a whole, since it proved to be a fantastic idea – solely on its own merits, Sad Wings of Destiny is a quantum leap past Rocka Rolla in every conceivable dimension. The songs are better. The production is better. The band plays with full greater confidence and identity, and projects that confidence out onto the performances while still finding time to stretch out into spooky psychedelic experiments. (Also, while album artwork is generally outside this article’s purview, I can’t not remark on it here. I mean, holy shit.) The Ripper, Tyrant, and especially Victim of Changes aren’t merely classics, they are each foundational metal texts all their own.
The total effect is not unlike a dark mirror reflection of Queen’s A Night at the Opera, full of operatic bombast and crushing power contrasted with the occasional moments of menacing but oddly contemplative quiet. If Judas Priest had called it quits after this album, they would still be Heavy Metal Hall of Famers. But this was only the beginning. (For the record, the drummer on this album was a guy named Alan Moore. No, not that Alan Moore, and no, you still have no reason to ever bother remembering this.) Grade: A
Sin After Sin (Released 1977)
Sad Wings of Destiny wasn’t a tremendous commercial success or anything, but it did get Priest noticed enough to snag a deal with a real record label, ending a protracted period of will-this-band-even-make-it-or-not struggle. In many ways, the triumph that the band surely must have felt as a consequence carries over to their major label debut. Part of that is due to the superior resources Priest had at their disposal. The production is improved yet again, with the album sounding fuller and more balanced. Their last drummer quit unexpectedly before recording began, so they brought in a ludicrously hot shit studio drummer named Simon Phillips, who enabled the band to push the songs faster. But part of it is also the songs themselves.
Sinner is dark but aristocratic, as if handed down from atop Mount Olympus. Starbreaker is positively peppy, Let Us Prey/Call for the Priest is overblown in the best way (on top of being as fast as metal got back in those days), and even the famed cover of Joan Beaz’s Diamonds & Rust functions as a flex, deftly preserving the melancholy of the original even though it’s fast and loud and shit. There’s also Raw Deal, a bluesy plea from Rob Halford for gay rights (Halford wasn’t publicly out at this time, but the references to gay subculture here are the sort of references that lots of people, especially at the time, wouldn’t necessarily pick up on. Even listening almost 30 years later, I still needed to have the song explained to me) that really roars down the stretch, and the album is capped off with Dissident Aggressor, a three minute song of horrifying, earth-shattering power and precision that stands as one of the two or three best songs the band ever recorded. All of that said, Sin After Sin isn’t perfect. There are a couple of ballads that drag, and there’s a try everything ethos underlying the album that, while admirable, dilutes the focus. Focus would not be a problem on the next album. Grade: A-
Stained Class (Released 1978)
While Sad Wings of Destiny and Sin After Sin are undeniably heavy metal albums, they still reflect the state of a band that could have taken its sound in a few different directions. But with Stained Class, Judas Priest as they would come to be known in the popular imagination emerges fully formed. All traces of psychedelia have been excised, and, more notably for both Priest as a band and the genre as a whole, any lingering blues influences have been entirely eliminated. What’s more is the band finally managed to bring a permanent drummer; Les Binks joined up to play on the Sin After Sin tour, and they kept him around, because he rules at playing drums. (The circumstances surrounding his departure are sad and more than a little infuriating; we’ll get there soon.) The double bass attack of Exciter kicks off (pun very much intended) a relentless engine of an album that refuses to let up at any point.
Stained Class starts out in 5th gear and remains there for the duration, and the results are thrilling. White Heat, Red Hot crams more cool riffs into its sub-five minute length than lots of bands can devise in a career, and it stacks them together with unparalleled savvy. The title track churns forward in the galloping beat that would soon become Iron Maiden’s signature, and the breakdown sports a truly sick riff snippet, followed by one of my very favorite Glenn Tipton solos (and he accrued plenty of good ones). The only points of even relative quiet lie in the album’s centerpiece, the ballad Beyond the Realms of Death, and those exist solely to usher in bone-crunching, thunderous riffs, accompanied by Rob Halford’s signature power shrieks.
Stained Class is nothing less than Judas Priest’s masterpiece, and it foretells the future of the arms race of faster and louder that would define metal in it’s 80’s glory days. Oh, one more thing – this album was also at the center of the time the band got sued for using subliminal messages to influence a couple of kids to commit suicide. I don’t have much to say about this, except to point out the obvious – the moral panics of the 80’s were outrageous in their stupidity. Grade: A+++
Killing Machine/Hell Bent For Leather (Released 1978/1979)
There are two titles and release dates here, because there are two versions of this album. The UK version was named Killing Machine and made it to shelves by the close of 1978, while the North American version was re-titled Hell Bent For Leather, and saw an early 1979 release. They’re mostly the same album, but Hell Bent For Leather includes Priest’s cover of The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown), a song from Fleetwood Mac’s early blues-rock period.
Regardless of which version of the album you’re examining, its place in the Priest catalog is clear – this is a transitional album, taking the essential, vicious speed of Stained Class and streamlining it and pushing it into more pop-oriented territory, thus foreshadowing the commercial successes to come. The songs here are shorter – very little passes the four minute mark here, whereas on Stained Class, the opposite is true – and as a result, the songs are more efficient. Delivering the Goods, Hell Bent For Leather, and Running Wild deliver quick hits of speed and power, while songs such as Evening Star, Take on the World, and Burnin’ Up sound tailored to garner some radio play (and still bring the thunder while doing so).
Like Sin After Sin before it, Killing Machine/Hell Bent For Leather is drunk on possibility, but now that Priest has figured out what they’re about as a group, the entirety of the album hangs together much better. Both albums are outstanding, but if you are seeking this out, make sure you’re listening to Hell Bent For Leather. The aforementioned cover of Green Manalishi is a complete monster; it became mandatory at the band’s live shows for a reason, and it elevates the album into the stratosphere.
One more thing on this album – unfortunately, this is the final studio album to feature drummer Les Binks, who was stupid awesome at this job, and whose departure has been a source of puzzlement to Priest fans for decades. For years and years, I was given to understand that the rest of the band thought he was stylistically ill-suited to the even more straight-ahead material on British Steel, as the dude loved throwing in busy fills and such. It never made much sense to me personally, and, in researching this very article, I learned that wasn’t true at all! He quit because the band’s manager refused to pay him for his work on Unleashed in the East, the ensuing live album, and as the linked interview with man himself shows, it wasn’t the first time had been dicked around on money, either. Holy fuck! What kind of asshole does that!? I would have quit, too. This was not the last time the band and its management would make terrible business decisions, but its certainly the most amoral example I am aware of. Grade: A for Killing Machine, A++ for Hell Bent For Leather
British Steel (Released 1980)
Binks’ replacement was a guy named Dave Holland, who would remain in place for the entire decade despite not being good at anything other than rudimentary mid-tempo four-on-the-floor stomping. He would later spend time in prison for sexually assaulting a mentally impaired 17-year old, so he sucked at being a person, too (he died in 2018).
Anywho, British Steel continues the work of distilling down Priest’s sound that began with Killing Machine/Hell Bent For Leather,emphasizing the underlying grooves and hooks at the expense of speed and purely flashing guitar work. Riffs are slowed down and rooted in the work the rhythm section is putting in, and while there are guitar solos aplenty, they are largely melodic, and very few of them feature shredding for its own sake. Even Rob Halford seems to be minimizing his signature metal god screaming and favoring a more normal vocal range. Therefore, British Steel is Priest’s most accessible album, and the album that finally pushed them over the top and into real mainstream popularity, both in their native UK and the US.
The big radio hits here are Breaking the Law and Living After Midnight, both of which you’ve probably heard somewhere at some point, and the album produced a good number of beloved deep cuts and live standards. Metal Gods and Grinder are both groove-heavy bashers that foretell the rise of Pantera a decade later. United rewrites and further simplifies Take on the World from the prior album (which was itself a pretty shameless rewrite of We Will Rock You), and the shout-along chorus has netted it occasional live plays. You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise is my personal favorite, a straight-up banger that smashes its way into your skull and gets you as locked into the beat as the band is.
Because of the album’s aforementioned accessibility (and resultant commercial success), British Steel is often cited as Priest’s best album. I’ve never really placed it in that tier; it’s a solid A when I’m in the mood for it, but when I’m not it comes across like a more generic version of Hell Bent For Leather, and when I’m in that headspace I’d probably only give it a B- (partially motivated by my latent contrarianism, but still). Therefore, this grade splits the difference. Grade: B+
Point of Entry (Released 1981)
How do you follow up on success? This is a tricky question for artists in any medium, and metal is no exception. That said, your options invariably boil down to two, even if both options contain entire constellations of possibilities. You either attempt to run back the thing that made you successful in the first place, or you attempt to do something different. After the true breakthrough success of British Steel, Judas Priest decided on the former as hard as anyone has decided on anything, ever, and while there’s nothing wrong with that as a matter of principle, the execution on Point of Entry is sorely lacking.
Point of Entry tries its very hardest to mimic the feel of British Steel while pushing for even more radio friendly pop hook crafting, resulting in an album that does neither effectively. I’m not saying that to be dismissive, either – a handful of songs here match up almost 1:1 with a better song on British Steel. Troubleshooter is nothing if not a de-fanged Living After Midnight. Solar Angels has more than a few things in common with Metal Gods and isn’t as good. You get the idea. There’s also dross like You Say Yes and Turning Circles that waste the time of all involved.
But Point of Entry is not without highlights. Heading Out to the Highway and Hot Rockin’ were both released as singles, and both blast out effective mid-tempo jams (even though I still don’t know just what the fuck Hot Rockin’ is supposed to entail, making it the ‘streets ahead’ of metal songs). Also notable here is Desert Plains, which became a staple of live sets despite not making much of an impression (in fairness, the live versions were invariably faster, so there’s that at least). All told, Point of Entry isn’t a complete waste of time, but I’m never choosing to listen to it from start to finish ever again, for any reason. Grade: C-
Screaming For Vengeance (Released 1982)
Suffice to say, while Point of Entry didn’t ruin Priest’s career or anything, it performed below expectations and made it clear that running back the British Steel formula again and again was not the path to sustained popularity. Like hip-hop, metal has an element of competition baked into its culture. As a general rule, metalheads want metal bands to push their own limits, as well as the limits of the genre, whether it’s based in speed, heaviness, technical precision, or what have you. Therefore, metal bands strive to push those limits, and Point of Entry was a dud largely because Priest didn’t even seem interested in pushing much of anything.
In an effort to get back on track, Screaming For Vengeance utilizes a more enlightened approach to the band’s new formula, taking the guts of what worked on British Steel – instantly memorable shout along choruses, tight grooves, precise yet hooky guitar work – and dealing some of the showing off from their late 70’s output back into the mix. Halford spends more time in his upper register than he has since Stained Class, but the real workhorses here are guitarists Tipton and Downing, who are back to unleashing true pyrotechnic displays for the first time in the decade. The riffs are just as tightly constructed, yet more complex, often driven by melodic leads instead of chugging power chords, and the solos are built to shred.
All of this crystallizes from the very start of the album; The Hellion/Electric Eye is far and way the finest Priest song of the 80’s, executing everything the band was about at the time with hook-stuffed, sub-five minute efficiency, and giving us one of Glenn Tipton’s very best solos to boot. Riding on the Wind and the title track bring adrenaline and Halford heroics, and Bloodstone and Devil’s Child provide refreshingly sophisticated updates to the British Steel sound.
And yet, there are times when this album really sinks slow clunky nonsense, most notably on You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’, Priest’s biggest chart hit in the US and proof that everything that Americans love on a large scale is crap. Recorded and thrown on the album at the last minute, You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’ is vaguely compelling at points but also dull, dreary, and at least two minutes too long, a guilty pleasure at absolute best. But its success made Judas Priest so big in the US that they kept adding legs onto their US tour until there was no time to tour their native UK, even after dragging the tour into 1983. Hold this thought. Grade: A-
Defenders of the Faith (Released 1984)
Allow me to establish a somewhat oversimplified dialectic that is nonetheless convenient to the narrative I’m pushing here (with thanks and apologies to the great Martin Popoff, who framed the band’s career for me in very similar terms at an impressionable age). On one side, you have Judas Priest as they existed from Sad Wings of Destiny through Hell Bent For Leather – relentlessly innovative and as fast as any band got in those days, the scions of just about every metal style and subgenre that came after.
On the other side, you have the Judas Priest of British Steel and Point of Entry – less concerned with speed and more concerned with groove and hook. One could (simply, but accurately) describe this Priest’s sound as a juiced-up take on AC/DC with the blues influences scrubbed out. These two manifestations of the band then achieved synthesis on Screaming For Vengeance, which dressed up the band’s new found accessibility with several of the bells and whistles common to their 70’s work, many of which most newer metal bands were using all the time by this point. What, then, does one make of Defenders of the Faith, an album that pulls towards both ends of this dialectic at once?
Defenders of the Faith is Priest’s fastest and heaviest album of the decade, and yet it’s not quite their best. Side A is flawless; the aggro speed of Freewheel Burning and Jawbreaker (a song that very much snuck under the radar at the time – it sounds like it must be about punching people or something when it’s actually about blowjobs) transitions seamlessly into the ornate power shout-along Rock Hard, Ride Free, which then leads into the condensed epic The Sentinel, an undisputed Top 10 Priest track. And then, Side B kind of…sucks? That’s not quite fair, but Priest pivots to slower material down the stretch, hurting the momentum. Love Bites is longer than it is good, Heavy Duty/Defenders of the Faith is a sub-Spinal Tap chore, and on the infamous Eat Me Alive, the band sounds drunk. These aren’t all bad songs, but they are letdowns after that white hot opening run.
Defenders of the Faith is still a damn good album and required listening, but the cracks that would soon usher in the band’s decline are starting to show. This is the first album where Dave Holland’s presence on drums is actively holding the band back, as his ham-fisted thudding can’t keep up with the faster material (dude couldn’t even sustain a proper double kicker). On top of that, the production decisions here seem counter to the band’s motivations, putting a thick layer of 80’s gloss over everything. The guitars are buzzy and don’t crunch enough, and the drums are gated, which emphasizes Holland’s limitations instead of hiding them. Grade: B+
Turbo (Released 1986)
Listen. I want to preface everything I’m about to say here by acknowledging (as do all of the people whose opinions I respect) that musicians are allowed to pursue whatever sounds they choose, and that I don’t get a say in what those sounds should (or should not) be. The discourse around metal and all of pop music (to say nothing of my personal participation in said discourse) has progressed a great deal in the 20 or so years I’ve been following it, and we are all better for it. I can’t imagine how intractably stuck in pathetic rockist nonsense said discourse was 30 years ago. If an established metal band wants to add a bunch of synths and go full-on pop-metal, so be it. That said, holy fuck y’all, Turbo is a mess.
As you probably gleamed from the above, Turbo swings as hard away from Defenders of the Faith as it possibly can. 1986 may be best remembered as the year that gave us the Holy Trinity of Thrash Metal (for the uninitiated, this Trinity is comprised of Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Slayer’s Reign In Blood, and Megadeth’s Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?), but the popularity of hair metal was also swelling at this time. Priest, quite possibly (I’m making an educated guess here) willing to do whatever it took to keep their US popularity going, jumped on the hair metal bandwagon and churned out nine tracks of purely bright party metal, with nary a trace of real darkness or speed to be found.
The results are decidedly mixed. Turbo Lover is a great song, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. Locked In, Rock You All Around the World, Hot For Love, and Reckless at least succeed on their own terms, even if they’re not exactly great tracks. But the lesser material here is straight up awful. Private Property provides a slice of the passive-aggressive douchebaggery that made the 80’s so loathsome. Priest also attempts to clap back at the PMRC (as much as I’d like to tell this story, I’m already way over my word budget so uh, here you go) with the embarrassing Parental Guidance, and let me tell ya, if you direct a comeback at a target as easy as Tipper Gore and it still scans as lame, it means you fucked up.
While Turbo was a big success in the short term, it would be an understatement to say it damaged Priest’s credibility in the long term. While Priest had been gunning for radio hits in the 80’s, they still retained the admiration of the serious headbangers, and it’s not hard to see how Turbo would have played to that crowd like a fart in church. Even without invoking various forms of rockist dipshittery, ask yourself – which would you rather listen to, Turbo or Master of Puppets? This isn’t a trick question. Grade: C
Ram It Down (Released 1988)
Only two albums removed from the flawed but still great Defenders of the Faith, and it’s already come to this. This is rock bottom.
So here’s the thing – Turbo was originally conceived as a double album, with one album consisting of the hair metal-aping material that made the eventual cut, and one album consisting of more conventionally heavy tracks. This obviously didn’t happen, but by the time Priest was ready for the next album cycle the band, having been publicly flogged for Turbo by fans and critics alike, attempted to release an actual heavy metal album, made up in no small part of the heavier leftovers from the Turbo sessions.
I say attempted not because metal isn’t allowed to suck from time to time (it demonstrably is), but because Ram It Down doesn’t just have shitty songs, it has shitty everything. The production doubles down on buzzy, toothless guitars, and by this point, Dave Holland was so bad at his job that the album was mostly done with a drum machine (seriously). I’d rather not spend much time discussing individual songs here. They all stink, though I do have a soft spot for Hard As Iron, obvious drum machine and all. Also, there’s a truly fucking rancid cover of Johnny B. Goode that is demeaning to all parties, Chuck Berry included. So instead, let’s review the state of Judas Priest at the end of the 80’s.
Ram It Down still made it to Gold in the US somehow, but everywhere else the band was showing signs of stagnation and rot. This is me speculating here, but I’ve always read a tragic element to Priest’s saga, especially at this point. Like Black Sabbath before them, Judas Priest came from Birmingham, England, a city synonymous with the grind of industrial misery. They spent almost all of the 70’s just trying to stay afloat so they wouldn’t have to head back home and work in the steel mills. Once they truly hit it big with British Steel, it’s only natural that they would try and keep that success going. I sympathize with that, I really do.
But the way they tried to keep success going leaned far heavily on inertia. Dave Holland should have been a stop gap drummer at best; his weaknesses far outpaced his strengths, and this became clearer and clearer as the 80’s went on. Priest also retained producer Tom Allom for all of the 80’s, and while he was far, far better at his job, he too became part of the problem eventually, and the band would have done well to put a pair of fresh ears in the booth around Defenders, give or take an album. And, perhaps most distressingly, the band didn’t play any shows in their native UK between 1981 and 1988(!), choosing instead to focus all of their tours on the lucrative but fickle US market. This may not seem like a big deal, but it did permanent damage to their reputation in the UK that not even the 2000’s reunion was able to completely fix. All of that said, two pieces of good news emerged from this era. First, Tipton and Downing had become ridiculous shredders, and the technique on display in their solos was miles ahead of where it was on any prior album. Second, Holland finally left after the ensuing tour, and his replacement would prove to be the mother of all upgrades. Grade: F+
Painkiller (Released 1990)
Consider what it means for a person to be the best possible heavy metal drummer. What qualities must such a drummer possess? Such a drummer must plays as loud as possible at all times, and must possess a most vicious double kicker. Such a drummer must also be capable of varying feels effortlessly depending on whether a given song is based on speedy gallops or powerful grooves, and must also also throw in tasteful but dope fills when the situation calls for it (preferably only when the situation calls for it). This is but a thought experiment, and therefore it may be tempting to believe no such drummer actually exists. But he does – his name is Scott Travis, and Priest had the good sense to hire him after Dave Holland’s departure.
The title track of Painkiller is both as instant and classic as an instant classic can be, and the key to its success is Travis’ legendary opening barrage. In less time than it takes to pour a beer, Travis displays each and every one of the qualities above to announce a new standard, and the rest of the band responds with equal heat. The main riff is pure destruction, the solos shred, and Halford puts on the performance of a lifetime. And that’s just the opening track! The rest of Painkiller, while not as fast, follows suit in terms of sheer metal power, and with its release, Judas Priest was transformed from the rusted-out Cessna they had become on Ram It Down back into the state-of-the-art fighter jet of a band they were in their glory days, all thanks to the monster now manning the kit.
Every song on the album kicks absolute ass, and just as impressively, each song does so in its own way. Hell Patrol, A Touch of Evil, and One Shot At Glory are perfectly content to slow the tempos down to emphasize groove and power, while Leather Rebel, Metal Meltdown, and All Guns Blazing operate quickly but effortlessly. And, due to the aforementioned leveling up Tipton and Downing had done in the past decade, all of the solos are awesome, being equal parts melodic, technical, and classy. Even when they’re operating in a heightened state, both guitarists know how to play to the song and avoid self indulgence. It’s a real treat.
You may be tempted to conclude from this that Painkiller is a perfect album, and the one true highlight of the catalog. While the album does in fact rule, neither is the case. For starters, Halford is just about always operating in full screaming mode, which runs counter to his true strengths. Halford is awesome because he can do both upper register shrieks and mid-range belting, and to spend so much time doing the former at the expense of the latter is a bit much. In addition, the lyrics pivot from the band’s traditional themes towards stuff about monsters and tales of the supernatural. This isn’t bad, necessarily, but it is a bit jarring. The supernatural was never Priest’s thing – previous references to such things were far more abstract, and most of their lyrics dealt with more familiar topics, like criminality, or the surveillance state, or tracts on how awesome metal is. And finally, and I cannot stress this enough, the arrival of Travis and the instant renaissance that followed conclusively proved that the band wasted more than half a decade, for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. Therefore, it is my sworn duty that I assign additional demerits. Grade: A-
This concludes the album review portion of this article, but since I promised a history lesson allow me to briefly explain what came next. After extensive touring in support of Painkiller, Rob Halford left the band to pursue other projects. On the last date of said tour, he crashed his motorcycle on stage and was lucky to escape with relatively minor injuries, which may or may not have influenced his decision (riding a motorcycle on stage had been part of the band’s live shows since the late 70’s). First, he fronted the Pantera-adjacent band Fight (which also had Travis on drums), then he formed a more industrial group called Two. Finally, he formed a solo band (simply called Halford) that focused on traditional metal. He also came out publicly in 1998, around the time Two’s lone album was released. I haven’t listened to any of these albums, although I’m told Halford: Resurrection (released in 2000) is pretty good.
After a few years off, the rest of Priest soldiered on with new vocalist Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, a guy who got the job based off his impressive work singing for a Judas Priest cover band (seriously). The very, very basic guts of this story became the inspiration for the movie Rock Star (although be advised that beyond that framework, the events of the film aren’t based on any actual events in Priest history. Be further advised that Rock Star kind of sucks as a movie, and your time is better spent on other things). While the saga of Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens is an inspiration to us all, his hiring did not lead the band into a new golden age by any means, and what little I’ve heard of the two studio albums they released with Ripper was generic and lame. Glenn Tipton also put out a solo album in 1997, which is charming but inessential.
In 2003, Tipton and Downing met with Halford to discuss details of a Judas Priest boxed set. This immediately resulted in the decision to reunite with Halford, who has remained in the band ever since. Priest has released four albums since that time, although K.K. Downing quit in 2011. No exact reason has been specified to my knowledge, although a close study of the band’s history suggests Tipton and Downing are both pricks who don’t really get along or like each other that much, so I feel empowered to fill in the blanks accordingly. Anyway, he was replaced with a guy named Richie Blackmore. Tipton is still technically a band member, but was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2018, and has therefore retired from touring. His touring replacement is a guy by the name of Andy Sneap.
And that’s the story of Judas Priest. While I do get frustrated at some of the self-defeating moves the band has made over the years, they still released more than their share of classics, and their place in the Pantheon of Metal is beyond secured. Truly, they are Metal Gods.