All Guns Blazing
After nearly a decade filled with incredible highs—gold- and platinum-selling albums, arena tours and regular radio play—Judas Priest’s fortunes were starting to look a little shaky in October 1988 when longtime drummer Dave Holland walked offstage on the last date of the Ram It Down tour and abruptly quit. Holland had powered the band through its most successful stretch of albums—from British Steel in 1980 to Ram It Down in 1988—but he wasn’t going to be there to see Priest into the next decade. The Birmingham quintet had replaced its fair share of drummers over the years, but there was much more at stake this time.
Though it was released in September 1990, work began on Painkiller in 1989, well before the band would attend to its vacant drum seat. Without the services of a drummer, guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton toiled away with a drum machine as they wrote and recorded demos of new material for vocalist Rob Halford to put words to. They would inevitably need to find a full-time replacement for Holland before recording, and the choice they made would be a game-changer for all parties involved. In the same way that Black Sabbath added American vocalist Ronnie James Dio to the fold for a “reboot” and released the classic Heaven and Hell, Priest brought in their own Yank a decade later to shake things up on Painkiller.
The ascendency of thrash’s Big Four—Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer—no doubt illuminated a path into the next era of strikingly more aggressive metal. Tempos were faster, the musicianship tighter and the intensity was turned up. It was set against this background that Judas Priest made the wise move to hire Virginia native Scott Travis, whose incredible skills would help them navigate forward into the new decade. Painkiller, with its iconic, ear-splitting title track, reaffirmed Priest’s metal supremacy, and touched a younger generation of metal fans being raised on more extreme forms of the genre.
Painkiller was the album Priest needed to make in 1990. It showed the creative trio of Halford, Downing and Tipton with “all guns blazing”—both songwriting- and performance-wise. They brought big hooks and choruses to fast, complex tunes and the new kid, Travis, gave it the necessary jolt of energy with his thundering double-bass work. For fans who lost faith when the band glammed up for the guitar synth-laden Turbo, or bumbled through the uneven Ram It Down, Painkiller left no question that Judas Priest had plenty left in the tank. Not bad for the band’s 12th album and now second Decibel Hall of Fame induction.
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