For years, on these pages and in myriad (often one-sided) conversations, I’ve opined that Overkill’s 90s and early 2000s forays into the then-modern trend of groove weren’t as embarrassingly off-base as those of most of their peers. Now that we’ve tackled Overkill’s best works as part of our recurrent Devil’s Dozen series – and of course, their thirteen strongest tracks come from the first five classics and the last three resurgent rippers — I figured it was time for me to back up that oft-offered / seldom-asked-for opinion with some actual discussion as to why I think that, even at their worst, Overkill is still one of the best there ever was.
So here it is, from the underground and below, a breakdown of – and some of the best tracks from – the years of a slight, but far from complete, decay…
[Note: For the purposes of space, I’ve omitted the live albums and the covers compilation Coverkill. As you’d expect, none of them are essential, though all are of respectable quality.]
• • • • •
I HEAR BLACK (1993)
Coming directly after Horrorscope, which was a huge album for a much younger me, I remember distinctly the release of I Hear Black. I remember a review in Guitar World that blamed Black’s spotty performance upon a hypothetical curse that made every third Overkill album suck. (Said curse would also account for Under The Influence’s downward dip compared to the albums before and after.)
In truth, it’s not that I Hear Black is bad, although it is uneven. Mostly, it’s just that it’s a marked departure from what the band had already established. (Even the logo is the wrong neon color.) Thrash’s initial heyday was waning, and most every major thrasher was moving off in some other direction, so Overkill’s forays into Sabbath-leaning doom and post-thrash grooves were a sign of the changing times as much as they were of a lack of clarity. Songs like the title track or the melodic mediocrity of “Shades Of Grey” just don’t work, but later entries like the awkward “Undying” or the lightly industrialized “Just Like You” at least almost succeed in ways that Overkill hadn’t yet perfected. In all the twists, it’s the doomy swing of single “Spiritual Void” that looms largest, and though it’s almost no one’s favorite Overkill moment, it remains a strong track in a style they would never fully embrace.
After catching flak for I Hear Black, Overkill returned most of the way to balls-out thrash for W.F.O., which takes its acronymic title from the biker slang for “wide fuckin’ open.” While it wasn’t as strong as their classic era, W.F.O. at least lives up to its name by shredding handily through some blue-collar ragers like “Where It Hurts” and the punk-ish “Supersonic Hate.” Though creatively it leans back toward the fast and furious, W.F.O.’s biggest flaw is its production, and particularly the prominence of DD Verni’s treble-on-ten bass tone. He’s always had that pinging ring, but here it’s louder, pushed up in the mix, and where W.F.O. should’ve been stouter, punchier to reflect the heavier, post-Metallica metal sounds, it feels drier, thinner. Take that phased bass tone down a few db, and the biker thrash of “Gasoline Dream” would be as good as any song Overkill would release in the next fifteen years.
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THE KILLING KIND (1996)
Leaving their long-time label, Overkill signed with indie CMC International, and got a new guitar duo to boot. Gone was the Gant-Cannavino tandem that had riffed through the previous three discs, and in their place were ex-Liege Lord-er Joe Comeau and ex-Anvil man Sebastian Marino. Killing Kind may well be the bottom point of the band’s catalog, but that’s more because it’s less even than even ReliXIV or I Hear Black. For each of the album’s winners, such as the moody “Burn You Down / To Ashes” or the instrumental “Feeding Frenzy,” there’s a dud like “Certifiable” or the one-two dumb grooves of “Let Me Shut That For You” and “Bold Face Pagan Stomp.”
Lyrically, Killing Kind introduces themes of religion and redemption that would bubble up in subsequent albums – a tale of spiritual reconnection, “The Cleansing” closes on an almost hymn-like round directly asking Jesus for absolution. It’s The Killing Kind’s most powerful moment, and a surprising one. In the end, The Killing Kind isn’t a great album, but when it works, it manages to do so by adding in some new elements, ones the band would improve upon in subsequent and better efforts.
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FROM THE UNDERGROUND AND BELOW (1997)
After the creative mixed bag of The Killing Kind, From The Underground comes raging through the gate with the industrial-tinted “It Lives,” and for the first few songs, it stays up swinging. “Save Me” makes the most of a simple riff, its repeated robotic “you’re a miracle man” refrain sliding through the choruses and sticking in the brain. The redemption tale of “Long Time Dyin’” just simply rocks, with another catchy and charismatic performance from Blitz and a cool, if simplistic, stuttering intro – that one most directly furthers the personal struggle lyrics that crept in on the last record, but tinges of that poke into many of the tunes on From The Underground. When Underground clicks, it’s remarkably solid, but when it doesn’t, it’s as bad as Overkill has ever been. Most notably, there’s a curious over-reliance upon backing vocals, often featured enough to count as a second lead. I’m no creative genius, but when you have one of the most charismatic and distinctive vocalists in all of metal, maybe you shouldn’t let the other guys sing so much… Also notable: The power ballad “Promises,” which is one of the only truly cringe-worthy moments in the band’s entire career.
• • • • •
The final offering from the Comeau-Marino guitar team, Necroshine outshines its weak album art by opening with the title track, one of their strongest songs of the era and a fixture in their live show from then on. Necroshine still relies heavily on the groovy, simplified thrash that they’ve been pushing for four albums now, but it’s more focused. “How low can you go?” Blitz asks in “80 Cycles” – we’ve seen how low Overkill could go, and Necroshine is well above that. Other albums had songs just as strong as most of these here, but as a whole, Necroshine feels more cohesive, evened out. Tracks like “Forked Tongue Kiss” and “Black Line” and “I Am Fear” show them coming back around, finally feeling some kind of fire again. Necroshine is the best balance so far of the groove and the thrash that they’d achieved since fully committing to their 90s aesthetic; most importantly, it sees the band’s trajectory pointing upward again…
• • • • •
…Or at least, it was pointing upward. Now, for Bloodletting, Marino and Comeau are gone, making this one the first album recorded with Dave Linsk on guitar, and also the first Overkill album done as a quartet since The Years Of Decay. It’s not so much that Bloodletting derailed Necroshine’s upward trend as it is that it stalled it briefly – it’s more of the same, a holding pattern. “Thunderhead” opens the proceedings with a re-cap of Necroshine’s groove – it’s not brilliant, but it’s simple and fun, and though the affected (and effected) “I’m coming home” does wear thin quickly, the song still works. The sprightly “What I’m Missin’” is the album’s best, the band energized and Blitz’ chorus memorable and strong, although here as everywhere on Bloodletting, his vocals are even more shrill than usual. Still, for all the merits of those, Bloodletting also offers overlong filler like “Left Hand Man” to contend with, so we’re left waiting just a bit longer for the arduous rebirth of tension.
• • • • •
KILLBOX 13 (2003)
To be precise, we were waiting three years. When this one came out, I stumbled across it in the record store without even knowing it had been released, and I remember being excited for a new Overkill, but also I distinctly remember that excitement being somewhat tempered against expectations now fully blunted from a decade of different degrees of decency. So, when I got Killbox home and threw it in the player, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the best album that Overkill had released since Horrorscope, and the best that they would until the stellar neck-wrecking of Ironbound almost another decade after. Not every song is a total knockout, but tracks like “Damned,” the melodic “No Light,” and “I Rise” were about as good as Overkill had been in many a moon.
• • • • •
Prior to this chronological Overkill binge, I’d have told you that ReliXIV was more of a holding pattern after Killbox 13’s forward motion, but now, listening back, compared directly to Killbox, Relix is a definite step back, even further down than Bloodletting. Some of the energy remains from Killbox, but the songs aren’t as strong, and though a chorus here or a riff there pokes above, nothing quite comes together into anything more than average, none of it dreadful and almost all of it forgettable. With one notable exception: The straight-out punk rock of “Old School,” which is like nothing the band has recorded before or since, a throwback to their earliest roots as a Ramones– and Dead Boys-covering NY punk act, and lyrically detailing the glory days of the band’s reign at Brooklyn club L’Amours and all the camaraderie and attitude that came with it. It’s the least Overkill song in all their vast discography, and it’s not their best by a long shot, but for a band that tends to operate within a set of defined parameters, it’s an unexpected left turn that gets a nod for its effort if not entirely for the execution.
• • • • •
Immortalis provided a bit of a shot in the arm, but it wasn’t quite full enough. (That was yet to come – just one album away.) The addition of drummer Ron Lipnicki gave Overkill the burst of adrenaline that they needed. With tracks like “Devils In The Mist” and the AC/DC-ish “Walk Through Fire,” Immortalis is already better than ReliXIV, but its two most interesting moments are its two most disparate, one pointed toward new territory and one backward to the most distant past. The duet with Randy Blythe on “Skull And Bones” is arguably Overkill’s most extreme moment (although “Skullkrusher” remains actually heavier), and the return to the band’s multi-part eponymous tune with “Overkill V… The Brand.” (Though uncredited as such, “E.Vil N.Ever D.Ies” from 1989’s The Years Of Decay serves as “Overkill IV.”) Immortalis has aged better than I thought it would then, and it set the stage admirably for the full-power(surge) reinvigoration that was soon to come…
• • • • •
Up, down, and in between, Overkill was — and is — always Overkill, always thrashing along behind Blitz’s inimitable wail, ever strong, ever true. They may not be the biggest thrash band of all, but that’s not for a lack of trying — anyone that’s ever seen them live can attest to that. Thirty years of the green and black, and here’s to many more…