It almost makes sense that the most celebrated attempt to decode Judas Priest involved playing its songs backward in a court of law. Certainly playing them forward doesn't provide much explanation for the continued success of this and a dozen or more sound-alike bands, and at some point you just want to give up and turn it all over to the authorities.

The band's ability to continue -- profitably -- producing the same album over and over probably has less to do with Judas Priest than with the changed nature of the increasingly fragmented rock market. Fans used to grow up with bands -- the Beatles' journey from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "A Day in the Life" is the exemplar of this process -- but these days they just move on to a different genre, leaving their doom-metal albums for their younger brothers.

The new "Painkiller" (Columbia) finds the Priests flogging their customary vision of terrifying but charismatic doom: The title character himself, a metal-clad knight on a dragon-cycle with buzz saw wheels, rides across the sky on the album's cover, an ambiguous fusion of super-hero and super-villain -- precisely the formula that has proved so remunerative for the makers of horror-movie series whose only constants are their campily fiercesome antiheroes. The title song, which opens the album, calls the Painkiller "enraged and full of anger ... half man and half machine," but also a "savior" who "mankind resurrected/ forever to survive." Priest fans needn't worry: The rest of the album is not devoted to describing the musicians' vision of paradise. They scamper back to "Hell Patrol" on the very next song.

If such handles as "Hell Patrol," "Metal Meltdown" and "Leather Rebel" suggest a one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B approach to titling, the actual songs don't argue otherwise. The album is a predictable string of night/fight/light/might rhymes, employing the traditional opposition of pounding bottom and squealing top -- a musical tantrum, basically, though one without any discernible passion. A couple of years of this and it's on to Peter Murphy or Ministry.

AC/DC: 'The Razor's Edge' Despite its distant roots in the blues, metal is spiritually Teutonic, a kinship demonstrated by both its Wagnerian bombast and intricate Bach-like guitar runs. AC/DC's "The Razor's Edge" (Atlantic) opens with the latter, a bit of fake fugue from auteurs Angus Young and Malcolm Young, but quickly yields to the familiar squeal und drang. Indeed, this album almost seems intended as penance for its predecessor, "Blow Up Your Video," which committed the sin of being too catchy.

The younger brothers of '60s Aussie pop star George Young -- whose Easybeats hit repeatedly in England but only once here, with "Friday on My Mind" -- Angus and Malcolm have always shown more pop-craft than the average metal songwriters; such back-catalogue items as the shout-along "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" are Rosetta stones to contemporary pop-metallists. But where "Video" -- the quintet's first album in years to be produced by the elder Young and his old Easybeats songwriting partner, Harry Vanda -- showed some rhythmic liberty, the Bruce Fairbairn-produced "Edge" offers such four-square metal ready-mades as "Are You Ready" (for a good time, of course). It's solid, and stolid.

"Moneytalks" has some of the swing of "Video," but the joke of the Youngs' attempt at a song that will live past the next album, "Mistress for Christmas," is on them, not with them. For what it's worth, singer Brian Johnson, who shared songwriting credits last time around, gets none here. Could it be that Angus and Malcolm are not the band's auteurs after all? More likely that no auteur could retool this metal-fatigued chassis.

Iron Maiden: 'No Prayer for the Dying' Unlike many of his peers, Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson doesn't have a voice that's only audible to dogs, but that doesn't mean the band's "No Prayer for the Dying" (Epic) is fit for human hearing. The album features a cover-ghoul that looks like something from the long-defunct "Creepy" or "Eerie" comics, and it's creepy stuff: songs that romanticize war, death, bondage and rape, which are actually less annoying than those that pontificate on such topics as televangelists ("Holy Smoke"), the declining state of the Earth ("Public Enema Number One") and -- holy smoke! -- the fall of communism ("Mother Russia").

The product of middle-aged careerists who apparently patrol World War II books for song topics ("Tailgunner," "Run Silent Run Deep"), the album's academic carnage wouldn't seem to offer much overlap with the hormonal strife of its intended listeners. Even during such ugly moments as "Bring Your Daughter ... to the Slaughter," "Dying" seems as matter-of-factly crafted as an addition to the family garage. Oh, it has guitars -- the album ends rather than begins with a display of classical-guitar chops -- but then heavy-metal guitars can be heard almost anywhere these days. Even on Top 40.

Warrant: 'Cherry Pie' Perceived as a string of pop-metal singles on Q107, the rise of Warrant seemed as depressing a rock event as, well, as the rise of Poison the year before. Experienced all at once, however, the quintet's sophomore album, "Cherry Pie" (Columbia), is more likable -- or at least less dislikable. That's not because the album tempers the fake true-love ballads the band grooms for single release ("Blind Faith," "I Saw Red") with fake raw-sex ravers (the title track, "Love in Stereo") -- both are equally contemptible (and contemptuous). No, it's just because the album mixes up the tempos a bit.

When guitarists Joey Allen and Erik Turner take their solos, Warrant could be any goth-metal band, but it really comes from another tradition. "Cherry Pie" owes more to the Who's late mock-operatic period than to Black Sabbath; Warrant's dirty little secret is that it's a pop band even when it plays fast. Like Bon Jovi, Warrant clearly listened to pop radio in the '70s, which reveals itself in amusing ways: For all its tough-guy bluster, "You're the Only Hell Your Mother Ever Raised" has a refrain that's halfway to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer."

John, of course, would never have ended an album with "Ode to Tipper Gore," a collection of unprintable onstage witticisms from singer Jani Lane, or decorated an album cover with a slightly more oblique version of the vulval image that got the infamous Mom's Apple Pie sleeve censored almost two decades ago. In the hard-rock market, at least, these are not subtle times.