One of the incredible things about being a fan of music — if not the actual most incredible thing about it — comes in the nearly magical connection between the listener and the song. A song can capture the spirit, capture the mind, capture the heart, and in doing so, it becomes inextricably linked with the captive, forever and for always, one moment and one sound fused together in memory.
I was twelve or thirteen years old the first time I heard Overkill in the summer of 1990. Like so much of my youthful exploration of metal, our introduction was facilitated by Headbanger’s Ball. One Saturday night, alone in my den after everyone else had long retired, the video for “Hello From The Gutter” came on, and I remember being completely caught, the band’s manic intensity and undeniable exuberence was just so… damned… fun. From there, it was a straight shot to the record store for Under The Influence… and then back for The Years Of Decay… When others sang the praises of The Big Four, I nodded and went back to Horrorscope. Along with other bands, of course, Overkill provided the soundtrack to a large part of my life, and even now I can’t hear “Who Tends The Fire” and not be reminded of listening to my Walkman and mowing my grandmother’s yard, and I can’t not go back to seventh grade lunches with the same Walkman and the rollicking “Coma” or “Infectious.”
I’ve been following these New Jersey devils for a quarter century now, through some ups and downs, and I’m happy as hell that they’re still here, still ripping it up with all that same intensity and exuberence. They came to shred, and they did, and they do. In honor of Overkill’s upcoming eighteenth album, The Grinding Wheel (due on February 10), we’ve given the Devil’s Dozen treatment to one of my all-time favorites…
Long live the Green & Black.
THE BIRTH OF TENSION
[The Years of Decay, 1989]
Given the brutal task of following a ten-minute plus mega song (“Playing With Spiders / Skullcrusher”), “Birth of Tension” rises to the challenge with groove-tastic riffs, a cavalcade of vocal attacks and an intoxicating amount of catchiness. Lyrically, it’s an inspirational track urging the listener to never succumb to the constant tension that surrounds us. The combination of fiery music, groove rhythms and inspirational lyrical themes combined with Blitz’s nearly unparalleled ability as a front man makes “Birth of Tension” a classic example of 1980s Overkill.
BRING ME THE NIGHT
I’ve never left the Overkill fan camp – even in the lean years, I stood beside them. But even I didn’t expect this blistering rager to come charging forth as the lead single from Ironbound. New drummer Ron Lipnicki brings a renewed spark, and DD’s riffing is spot-on – that main riff is the NWOBHM-inspired ball-breaker that Hetfield has been seeking for decades. Blitz sounds great, his unhinged wail still strong after all he’s been through. Ironbound showed a rejuvenated Overkill, but it’s this one that hit first, masterfully balancing a shout-along chorus with razor-sharp riffs and pure energy to thrash perfection.
Overkill can thrash as hard as any thrash band on the planet, but they also absolutely crush when they slow it down to a crawl. The title track from what’s often (incorrectly) identified as their best album (it’s The Years Of Decay, people; Horrorscope is #2), “Horrorscope” is an absolute knockout punch of mid-tempo heaviness. Led by DD’s reverb-drenched 8-string bass, the track trudges through a chunky palm-muted chug before Blitz’s inimitable growl comes in, his gnarled scream-croak sounding like it literally was baptized in fields of fire. “Horrorscope”: One of the last great songs of the classic thrash era.
KING OF THE RAT BASTARDS
[White Devil Armory, 2010]
A few things about Overkill’s “King of the Rat Bastards,” from 2014’s massive White Devil Armory. First, it uses the term “rat bastards,” which in and of itself is cause for celebration. Second, it is Bobby Ellsworth using the term “rat bastards,” which is pretty high on the all-time rankings of insult/insulter combinations. Finally, at times it shows Overkill sounding an awful lot like… Anthrax? It’s pretty easy to picture Scott Ian doing The Scott Stomp during both the pre-chorus (underneath Blitz’ great wail-rants) and the bridge (accompanying the solo); so it bounces, and devastatingly so. But by far the biggest moments of the song – all within the chorus – are pure Overkill attitude. After some more standard thrashing sets up the climax, the whole band forms as one huge hammer while Blitz delivers the song’s title. It’s a moment so perfectly designed in every way – drums, riffs, vocal anger, lyrics – that there is no choice but to repeat it over and over for the finale. Impossible to overstate the fun of this one.
HELLO FROM THE GUTTER
[Under the Influence, 1988]
By 1988, Overkill’s high tops were shinier and puffier than ever, and so was their hair. But for every ounce of filth that was cut away from the darker vibe of 1987’s fantastic Taking Over, the band still managed to keep fans happy by making damn sure their brand of “feel good” thrash still delivered the high-energy intensity people were now familiar with after seeing them play live during any one of the countless tours the band took part in throughout the mid-to-late 80s. The only thing Overkill seemed to work harder at than touring was partying, and “Hello from the Gutter” became the sort of calling card young heshers across the globe loved to hum as they bustled home at the crack of dawn after sleeping off a case of Blatz in the bushes somewhere. There’s a brightness and pinch of Hollywood sleaze in the heart of this beast that could’ve pulled a Poison fan in from the streets to see what was going down, but ol’ Chaly would’ve mowed, moshed and stomped them into the ditch, make no mistake. Hair metal for thrashing heshers?? Hello from the gutter.
It’s a testament to Overkill’s thrashing prowess that all the swagger and bluesy riffs and attitude-drenched vocals don’t overwhelm the pure metal factor of “Blood Money.” If anything, those two sides of the Overkill coin (metal, and you know, personality) only elevate each other over these four irresistible minutes. From the low-but-fast, circular main riff and Blitz’ constant expression of pure antagonistic confrontation (the pre-chorus is iconic) to that one perfect blues hook, “Blood Money” is Overkill at their “making it look easy” best. After all, nothing here is particularly complex, and so many of the vocal lines are so natural that you might think you could write them yourself. And maybe you could, but let’s face it, you’d probably make it suck. That’s what separates the men from the boys: turning the seemingly simple into pure rockroll gold.
Without tracks like “Ironbound” this Devil’s Dozen may never have happened. It’s the impressive nature of their later catalog that really pushes Overkill to the top of the heap when discussing thrash bands. And the title track off Ironbound is a perfect example of their supremacy. It absolutely rips. Tearing the gate off it’s hinges with double bass rolls, killer drum fills and a lead riff that will bring even the toughest of metalheads to tears, “Ironbound” perfectly highlights the resurgence of a band slowed not at all by age. Led by their charismatic frontman Blitz, “Ironbound” is an absolute classic. With a runtime that nears seven minutes, there is plenty of laid back soloing All hail the return of true thrash.
[Taking Over, 1987]
One of my old radio colleagues co-opted this for the name of his show, unbeknownst to me, of course. I was late to the Overkill party and still working my way through the band’s catalog at the time. Hell, when I first heard it, I didn’t even recognize it as Overkill. Bobby’s vocals during the verses leaned more towards power metal than thrash, like he was actually trying to SING. In time, I began to see what he was going for there. The pounding main riff lays the perfect foundation to the chorus where everything comes together to recreate the feeling of an actual power surge. Coincidence? Maybe. Magic? Definitely.
PLAYING WITH SPIDERS / SKULLKRUSHER
[The Years of Decay, 1989]
Throughout most of thrashtory, the vocal has always felt like the final ingredient, even when it is a great vocal. Not so for Overkill, who have been able to shape their songs around the voice more than any other band largely due to Blitz having probably the most range and charisma in the entire genre (pretty high on the list of all metal, too). No song in Overkill’s vast catalog makes that point more than the absolutely devastating “Playing with Spiders/Skullkrusher.” Equal parts thrash, blues, Ellsworth Soul ©, and dirge-doom, the spends much of its 10 minutes riding Blitz’ expressive and mean-spirited croon as he delivers metal-updated lyrics about the classic crossroads myth. When it finally hits some serious thrash, it is only a punctuation on the song’s great down-in-the-dumps, workingman underdog story. Fitting, as Overkill is one of metal’s ultimate blue collar bands. “Playing with Spiders/Skullkrusher” isn’t just the perfect showcase of Overkill’s unique skills and dynamic range, and it isn’t just the centerpiece of the classic The Years of Decay. It might be the centerpiece of an entire career. You’re krushed.
ROTTEN TO THE CORE
[Feel the Fire, 1985]
Overkill, unlike nearly every thrash band that launched releases in the 80’s, was never guilty of taking itself too seriously. To say the now-legendary New Jersey thrash outfit is the Sam Raimi of metal isn’t at all far from the truth, and “Rotten to the Core” is living proof of that. From the easily recognizable giant green logo that jumps out at you like a highway billboard to the morbid yet playful hilariousness of the lyrical content, Feel the Fire is filled with hits that are more unique in style than in technique. What is perhaps even more special about “Rotten to the Core” it demonstrates that, unlike most instances where these two nouns are used in diametric opposition to one another, Overkill’s substance comes from its style. And let’s face it, the debut album from these thrash-o-holics if full of hits, but “Rotten to the Core’s” steady groove makes it quite possibly the album’s most infectious track.
FEEL THE FIRE
[Feel the Fire, 1985]
The two best thrash albums ever recorded came out in 1985, and Feel the Fire warn’t one of ‘em. Bonded By Blood and Hell Awaits aside, however, this record did one HELL of a job to get a little Joisey crew that formed from the slag of a punk band noticed during a year that also happened to include Seven Churches, Power and Pain, Emperor’s Return/To Mega Therion, Endless Pain, Marching Out, Spectre Within, The Last Command, Sacred Heart, Live After Death, Hallow’s Victim, The Skull AND the formation of King Diamond. But Overkill was driven to stand out directly from the gate, and the title track from this particularly dirty opus showcased every reason why they hit the target dead-center: the tune is pompous, peculiar and infectious, and the band’s punk roots helped to push the boundaries of aggression while still maintaining a firm grip on the traditional progenitors that pulled the foursome into metal in the first place. D.D.’s bass lays down the rollicking understructure to Gustafson and Rat Skates’ scootin’ gallop, and Blitz belts out a distinctively bronzed croon that comes across like Eric Adams if he’d spent less time posing on a horse in fake fur and more time hweerfing Colombian marching powder off a toilet lid in a dirty NY club. Glorious, glorious magic.
[The Years of Decay, 1989]
The Years of Decay was one of the first classic-era albums I was drawn to after Bloodletting made me a fan. “Elimination” was at the center of a formidable opening trifecta that set the tone for a neck-wrecking thrashterpiece. For a guy working his way backwards, the thinner tones and higher-pitched vocals were a bit of a surprise, but it was easy to tell that the essence of the band had not changed. Bobby Ellsworth wasn’t just another shrill thrash screamer, underlying his delivery with a seething urgency, and punctuating it with vocal lines as infectious as the blistering riffs of Bobby Gustafson. ELIMINATE! ELIMINATE!
[Taking Over, 1987]
Sometimes, there’s a song, well, it’s the song for its time and place. It doesn’t particularly need to have the subtle intricacies that writers tend to look for in exercises like this. Hell, sometimes there’s just a song that rules. “Wrecking Crew”, which might as well be the primary self-applied moniker Overkill gave itself two albums in, is just as fun as it gets. With practically non-stop chugging, clever sing-alongs and some clever guitar work, “Wrecking Crew” is quite possibly the only song you’ll see on an Overkill setlist one hundred percent of the time. I only mention it because sometimes there’s a song… I won’t say it’s the best song, ’cause, what’s a best song? But sometimes, there’s a song. And I’m talkin’ about “Wrecking Crew” here. It fits right in to every setlist. And even if it’s a simple-as-shit song – and “Wrecking Crew” is most certainly that. Quite possibly one of the most accessible tracks in Overkill’s early works, which would place it high in the runnin’ for most accessible in all of thrash metal. But sometimes there’s a song, sometimes, there’s a song. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced it enough.