What’s left to say about Overkill that hasn’t already been said a thousand times during the course of their near forty years of existence. The synopsis: they roared out of the gate with a five album run worthy of Thrash Hall of Fame status, spent their middle years hawking a shifted style of sludgy thrash-groove that left a number of old-school fans lost, then thundered back into the thrash limelight with one HELL of a return to form via the one-two punch of 2010’s Ironbound and 2012’s subsequent The Electric Age.
Alongside Exodus and Testament, the band represents one of the most significant addendums to the U.S. Big Four, and out of all seven, Overkill might even beat out the mighty Slayer for going above and beyond with regard to consistently (emphasis on that last word) delivering the most entertaining and energizing live show. That last point may be debatable, depending on personal taste and common “time & place” factors, but seeing Overkill play live in the mid / late 80s was a religious experience for anyone rabid for circle pits, atomic elbows and skanking. On any given night in any city across the U.S. circa 1988, an Overkill show could allow a person the glorious convenience of crowdsurfing all the way back to their car without ever having to set foot on the ground.
Thankfully, the Overkill of the last decade has spent 100% of its time in pursuit of ways to sustain their ancient prescription for old-timey U.S. thrash, all while the bulk of their Stateside root peers find new ways to challenge the law of diminishing returns. And honestly, these old dogs haven’t released a bad record in well over ten years. Not bad for a crew of rotted Jersey boys whose musical goals pretty much begin and end with one principal covenant: wreck necks.
One could point to any number of factors contributing to such longevity, but two of the more crucial factors have always been:
• Punk roots
• Bobby Blitz Ellsworth
Yes, Overkill has obviously been a thrash band right from the jump, but the punk roots that led to their formation not only serviced them by attaching an extra level of insurgency to the songs and allowing the bass its proper spotlight, it also instilled a life-long appreciation for “staying true” and not expecting abrasive music to land the band members in Hollywood manors. Overkill plays with the same intensity for 30 people as they would 3000, and they’ve endured the years admirably because of it.
In reference to Bobby Blitz, he is undoubtedly one of the more galvanizing and engaging vocalists in metal. He uses a robust sense of humor to his advantage, he’s always quick to laugh, and he has an innate ability to connect with an audience. Most importantly, though, his voice appears to be ageless—a truth made even more implausible due to its enduring grittiness. Blitz’s gnarled rasp is as lethal in 2019 as it was over thirty years ago, and Overkill would absolutely cease to exist without that big personality behind the mic.
As for Overkill in the modern age, the necessity of each subsequent release mostly swings on two principal factors: 1) just how big a fan you are / how many Overkill records do you need to own (we’ll call this The Motörhead Effect: it’s good to know they’re still kicking, and it’ll get ‘em out on the road), and 2) just how close does the material measure up to the new Overkill standard: Ironbound.
The biggest difference compared to the rest of band’s modern output deals mostly with personnel changes. Long-time drummer Ron Lipnicki stepped away and is replaced by Jason Bittner (Shadows Fall), but the drumming is every bit as “Overkill” in 2019 as it’s ever been: punchy and mechanical (i.e. triggered) / extremely precise and impactful.
There’s another shift in the mixing and mastering department as well. This time it’s Christopher “Zeuss” Harris, a fellow responsible for as much hardcore and metalcore as he is traditional heavy metal, and his touch does indeed deliver a little more BOOM to the bottom end without sacrificing any of the band’s characteristic sharpness in the riffing. Smart move, that.
Like all Overkill records, The Wings of War commands to be cranked. Put it on in the car on the way to the grocery store and people in the parking lot are going to hear it. Period. The band has become so good at crafting belting thrash tunes that inspire sedition and/or motivation that they could probably do it in their sleep, and the record is front-heavy with examples to corroborate that point, particularly the opening “Last Man Standing” and “Believe in the Fight.”
The rest of the fare isn’t quite as aggro / instigating, but it’s still very combustible in a very Olderkill “let’s put aside our differences and kick the shit out of each other in a pit and then chat about our vintage Forbidden shirts while waiting for a beer at the bar” kind of way that’s packed with steely leads, crunching riffs, varying degrees of groove (“Distortion” has a distinct Dimebag strut) and plenty of moments that make you wonder just what the hell Bobby does to keep those cords in shape.
Having lived with the record for several weeks, I can say that the back end that seems a bit more thin at first blush is actually not, as whatever steam is vented via “Welcome to the Garden State” and the passable “Where Few Dare to Walk” gets picked up again with the closing combo of “Out On the Road-Kill” and “Hole In My Soul.” All in all, the ragers continue to greatly outweigh the soft spots, which is goddamn remarkable for a thrash band now hitting their 40-year mark.
Ironic that this review kicked off asking what could possibly be left to say about Overkill and then immediately began shoveling 1200 words into the aether. Turns out there’s as much left to say about Overkill as there is for Overkill to say to us, and The Wings of War once again confirms the latter. Will you reach for it as often as you do their classic early run? Depends on how big a curmudgeon you are, I suppose. If you appreciate what the band’s been doing for the last decade, though, you will absolutely find plenty here to get that old blood pumping.