Few sonic nightmares come to life as vividly as the Judas Priest epic “Night Crawler.” Though some may point to the Grand Guignol in death metal extremes, they fail to appreciate the refined fright fuel seeping out of speakers thanks to this track. In the hellish gallery of horror portraits, “Night Crawler” deserves a place of honor, and since childhood, I’ve revisited it often. The song is a spine-chilling headbanging horror show none should miss.
That said, for me, this story starts with video games. As a kid, I lived through the early Nintendo era, watching Mario and Link evolve one adventure at a time. The pioneer days before concepts like Metroidvania became commonplace, when everything thrilled because there hadn’t been anything like it before. Still, although imagination conquered the limits of 8-bit visuals, one area remained woefully inadequate.
Call it blasphemous, but no matter how good it was, I eventually found the music monotonous. Even beloved soundtracks got painfully repetitive. Plus, in the old days a gamer didn’t need to keep an ear out for any hint of creeping footsteps or the wicked whisper of killers lurking in shadows. That delightful evolution came much later. So, bored by monotonous music and seeing no need for sound effects, I hit mute. However, I didn’t play in silence thanks to various albums. Yet, none killed the quiet quite like Judas Priest’s Painkiller.
Released in September 1990, it marked the twelfth record delivered by the British brigade that helped carry metal out of its infancy. Erupting out of the hole dug by the disappointment of their two previous releases, Turbo (1986) and Ram It Down (1988), Painkiller came roaring straight out of Hell. A return to form as well as an evolution thanks to Scott Travis acting as double kick drum demon, Judas Priest delivered a slew of memorable gems. From the titular “Painkiller” to “Metal Meltdown” and the wondrous horror of “Night Crawler” the whole record provided me with an alternative soundtrack to a variety of games.
Whether whipping through hideous hordes in Dracula’s castle or curb stomping Koopa Troopas, Painkiller offered an intensity that the OSTs of the era lacked. I defy anyone not to get a thrill playing an old side scrolling run-and-gun with “All Guns Blazing” playing in the background. “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” fingers fly to furiously button mash—a lone ninja hacking and slashing to save the world.
Alone in the basement with nothing but the light of a flickering TV screen, I listened with headphones to these glorious tracks. In a way, Judas Priest provided a sonic shell which sealed me off from the rest of the world. It’s the silence of extreme sound I think only people tuned into heavier genres tend to appreciate. Whatever their source, the cruel cutting comments of the outside world can’t be heard thanks to the roar of epic heavy metal. And then one day my Mom said something beyond unexpected. It’s because of her “Night Crawler” opened up a whole new door.
She told me I could listen to my records without headphones whenever my Dad wasn’t at home. Neither of my parents really cared for rock, let alone heavy metal music. So, I never once expected to hear this music blaze out the speakers. However, when she got diagnosed with cancer, my Mom’s views broadened. She recognized kids aren’t clones of their parents, destined to have the same tastes. Plus, I think a terminal diagnosis drove home the notion life is too short to deny anyone simple joys. So, I began listening to Painkiller through the speakers, unaware of the nightmare fuel spewing out.
There is a quality to music that does not come across in headphones. For instance, bass doesn’t vibrate the body the way it does booming out of speakers. Granted, my Mom didn’t exactly let me throw the volume knob to eleven. Yet, there is literally a feel as music fills a room. The atmosphere it seeks to conjure possesses a tangibility headphones can’t induce. It assumes a presence outside the listener’s head. Consequently, I went running down what I thought to be a familiar path straight into the jaws of “Night Crawler.”
The song opens with a lightning crack. As thunder rumbles, an ethereal drone conjures an eerie atmosphere. Faint instrumental notes build to an eruption as K. K. Downing and Glenn Tipton make their guitars chug then shriek. Like a hammering heartbeat, drummer Scott Travis follows close on the guitarists’ heels while Ian Hill’s bass is the beast stomping into view. Completing the horror show, Rob Halford’s voice summons the scene to life.
Throughout “Night Crawler” there’s a visceral portrait at play. The lyrics teeter on throwaway clichés mined from formulaic horror tropes, yet they also offer clear imagery anyone can visualize. Many lines provide atmosphere as well as menace. Meanwhile, the wicked wail of Halford’s banshee falsetto pierces the mind’s eye while memorable riffs swing the blade slicing up screams. Bass and drums emphasize not only the dark and stormy night but bring to life the thud of bodies dropping in the wake of the titular fiend; the stampede of fleeing feet that’s oddly synonymous with thunderous pursuit.
There’s a case to be made that “Night Crawler” belongs to the realm of B-movies. It sounds more kin to 80s slasher flicks than any subtle silver screen scares. Yet, that said, metal isn’t exactly a genre of subtlety. Plus, as a child, I hardly possessed the jaded glaze that prevents pretentious horror gourmands from seeing the terror in, for lack of a better term, pulp fiction frights.
The lyrics develop a vivid account of a relentless, creeping fiend who “feasts on flesh and blood.” Then the interlude arrives. The music slows. Dropping to a rough hush, Halford whispers about those “huddled in the cellar” as the inhuman fiend “descends the stairs.” Sitting in the basement, alone in the dark, such lines occasionally caused me to nervously glance over shoulder. One night, shadows stirred by the flickering TV screen for an instant seemed to be a shape moving to strike—the Night Crawler coming in for the kill!
Of course, there was nothing there. A fact revealed in an instant after the seemingly decadal second when my imagination filled the blank canvas of shadows with the horror show Judas Priest sang into mind. Anxiety mixed with relief, and for the first time ever, I understood the thrilling roller coaster ride of horror.
As a kid with an active imagination, my parents wisely made the decision to limit my exposure to any kind of horror media. Whether films, books, or comics, they understood the intense effect such material could have on me. After seeing the classic creature feature Alien (1979), for months I thought any stomach pain must be sign of a chestburster slithering through my innards, snaking into position to piston its way out. “Night Crawler”, however, provided the first realization of how enjoyable horror can be. Not just the notion there’s nothing to really be afraid of, but that it offered a means of slapping the bear, something we all need to do now and again.
Painkiller provided an entry point for metal to awaken something in my bones. To this day I can’t listen to that record without picturing a jukebox musical in the visual style of films like Mandy. The cover illustration delivered by artist Mark Wilkinson is gloriously over the top, and the lyrics easily pave the path to a heavy metal rock opera. In many ways, the album always thrills me to the core, and is everything great about the genre. Yet, “Night Crawler” stands apart from the other tracks for me because it’s one of the first songs to deliver more than a mere feeling.
Listening to Painkiller is like sticking a finger in an infernal socket and getting a dose of electric hellfire: the body can’t help convulsing in appreciative headbanging fury. Though that said, the music gained a greater depth thanks to how vividly “Night Crawler” came to life. In my opinion, it’s an excellent amalgamation of lyrical storytelling and instrumental soundscape combining into an immersive experience.
It was one of, if not the first, instance of a song affecting me so intensely that I saw the song as well as felt it. The vision it summoned was the first step on a long road into the heart of horror culture. More importantly, “Night Crawler” revealed how powerful art, whatever its form, can be. The importance of that revelation, how media can affect and evoke, has never left me, and it’s something I hope everyone experiences at some point.
Recently, Rob Halford revealed details about his fight with prostate cancer. Judas Priest also ceased their tour in-progress because guitarist Richie Faulkner needed surgery for serious heart issues. Although Halford’s cancer is in remission, and Faulkner appears to be doing well, it’s a reminder even metal gods are mortal. While it’s tempting to make some predictable metaphor about time being the real Night Crawler, I’d rather see this as motivation to say thanks for the music that made life more amazing—even when it was scary.