It’s 1988, and you’re Judas Priest. Your last studio album, Turbo, was a big commercial success, although longtime fans deem it a betrayal of the classic Priest sound. You went on a big worldwide tour in support of the record, and put out a very good live album. Heavy metal music has entered the mainstream. Things are looking pretty good. Where to go from there? Where else . . . you record a song to be featured in the new Anthony Michael Hall movie. Wait a minute . . . what was that last bit?
Like the bratpacky Mr. Hall, Judas Priest was long past its sell-by date in 1988. By then, the frat boys and metal chicks had abandoned Turbo in favor of Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Cinderella, Poison, and countless other mousse abusing bands. The more hardcore metallers were now embracing thrash metal, in the form of Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer. And Guns ‘N Roses were set to conquer the world, for a short while, anyway. Like 1986, 1988 was another very strong year for heavy metal music (the genre would never hit similar commercial heights again), and just like in 1986, Judas Priest’s new album was utterly clueless, completely out of touch with what everyone else was doing. When they released their new single that spring, an abysmal cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, in conjunction with the Anthony Michael Hall movie of the same name (actually spelled Johnny Be Good . . . why, oh why do I remember that?), it signaled the end for the band. Oh sure, they’d soldier on, but by the summer of 1988, they managed to lose all respectability. They were nothing but a sorry self-parody.
That album, Ram It Down, is so bad, in fact, that it is only beaten by Raven’s epic failure The Pack is Back for the dubious honor of The Worst Eighties Metal Album Ever Made (okay, that’s only my own opinion, but take my word for it). After the synth-driven pop-rock of Turbo, Priest decided to make a heavier album, which should have been good news, but instead, the band sleepwalks its way through a record that overflows with Spinal Tap clichés. You know you’ve completely run out of ideas when you start singing about nothing but how great heavy metal is: “Ram It Down”, “Come and Get It”, “Hard As Iron”, “I’m a Rocker”, “Monsters of Rock”, and, of course, “Heavy Metal”, all recycle the same idea. With lyrics like, “It started many years ago / Out of the black country / The seed became the embryo / For all on Earth to see”, it’s the funniest stuff since Spinal Tap’s “Rock & Roll Creation”. Sadly, this is real life, there are no cocoons for bassists to get trapped in, and this is all much too embarrassing to bear.
The rest of the album is just as bad, with the kinky “Love Zone” and “Love You to Death” (which comes complete with whip-cracks) sounding almost as funny as “Sex Farm”. “Blood Red Skies” comes closest to working, but the band’s playing sounds so wooden, so by-the-numbers, that you lose interest a couple minutes in. This remastered version of Ram It Down includes two live tracks: “Night Comes Down”, recorded in 1984, and “Bloodstone”, from 1982, and both are crudely recorded, and sound just as tepid as the rest of the CD. As far as the remastered sound, who cares? Ram It Down blows. This new version only blows more efficiently.
“As mankind hurled itself forever downwards into the bottomless pit of eternal chaos, the remnants of civilization screamed out for salvation—Redemption roared across the burning sky . . . the Painkiller!”
Now that’s the Priest we once knew. Their 1990 album, Painkiller, was a vast improvement. The addition of new drummer Scott Travis injected new power into the music, vocalist Rob Halford’s screaming vocals were his best since 1984’s Defenders of the Faith, and guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton went completely nutso on their solos, their solo breaks meticulously (and hilariously) indexed in the liner notes (after all, we have to know who’s doing the noodly-noodly solos and who’s doing the dwiddly-dwiddly ones). And whereas Ram It Down was heavy, Painkiller is heavy, best exemplified on the incendiary title track, and “Hell Patrol”. Best of all, Priest was back embracing their metal schtick with enthusiasm, instead of recycling tired ideas, and the moody, melodic-yet-heavy “Touch of Evil” showing some creativity. Here, it’s all doom and gloom, instead of songs about rock and the act of rocking. Not at all original, just in keeping with the classic Judas Priest formula. Unfortunately, the classic metal sound was over by the end of the ‘80s, and though the fire was back in the band, their best music was behind them. Halford sensed the same thing, and Painkiller was his last Judas Priest album.
The reissue of Painkiller is decent, with two bonus tracks: the unreleased, and forgettable “Living Bad Dreams”, and a good live version of “Leather Rebel”. However, there is a technical glitch in the CD, during “Touch of Evil”; a minute and a half in, when the first chorus ends and the music stops, instead of reverb, there’s just dead silence. It’s minor, but this is supposed to be an improved version of the original album, and careless remastering mistakes should never be tolerated.
Today, Judas Priest is still chuggin’ along, with vocalist “Ripper” Owens at the helm (he was the inspiration for that Rock Star movie), but the band is like Lynyrd Skynyrd without Ronnie Van Zant; it’s nice to hear them do the old stuff, but it’s nowhere near as good. Halford, though, made a terrific comeback with his Resurrection album, his music sounding fresh while simultaneously embracing the heavy Priest sound of the past, something the band should have done 14 years ago.