If thrash was an actual school, Slayer would sit off in the corner glaring at everyone and carving pentagrams in the desks, while Anthrax cracked jokes and drew penises on their textbooks (dick jokes, man). In this delicate metal ecosystem, there’s little doubt Overkill would play the role of school bully, gleefully dealing out wedgies, swirlies and the dreaded Rear Admiral with pugnacious glee. New Jersey’s infamous bad boys made quite the career for themselves over these long years, at varying points being classified as speed, thrash and straight-up metal, but always delivering their trademark gritty, concrete-chewing badassery. After nearly four decades in the biz, they’re still going strong, coming off an above-average outing with White Devil Armory while touring nonstop. That brings us album number 18, The Grinding Wheel. Apparently the band wanted to shake up the writing approach this time, looking back over the years for inspiration. The result is a much more diverse collection of tunes that touch on nearly all the band’s sonic eras. This makes for an interesting and often furiously exhilarating experience, but there are some problems here that even a bully can’t fix, no matter how many purple nurples and monkey haircuts get doled out.
Opener “Mean Green Killing Machine” is emblematic of these problems. It’s a classic Overkill tune full of piss, vinegar and shitty beer, and every bit the tough-guy anthem we’ve come to expect from them. However, at 7 and a half-minutes it’s way too long and takes what should be a 4-minute dose of punch-drunk metal and stretches it into a modern day Metallica-styled behemoth that’s hard-wired to….well, you get it. This issue infects nearly every song and none are better for it. “Goddamn Trouble” is a high-energy, punky throwback to chestnuts like “I Hate” and “Use Your Head,” and it’s undeniably a rowdy, fun tune, but at 6-plus minutes it runs about 3 minutes too long for the kind of punk-metal it is1. Other songs with genuine merit like “The Long Road” also drag past the obvious stopping point to become a bit tiresome.
Editing woes aside, songs like “Come Heavy” and “Red White and Blue” are classic examples of the Overkill style with the former channeling the groove of songs like “Spiritual Void” while the latter’s thrashy frenzy would sit well alongside the Ironbound material. The oddball cut is definitely “Let’s All Go to Hades” which is like an 80s punk anthem with a festive, non-serious vibe that works well. The high point is easily “Our Finest Hour,” which delivers the biggest, most satisfying chorus and the best example of the modern Overkill sound.
Less successful songs like “Shine On” would be decent enough if half the length, and the epic 8-minute closing title track just doesn’t click with me despite my long history with the band. At an hour in length the album is too long and 5 of 10 songs run 6 minutes or more, which is not ideal for the kind of music Overkill specializes in. The production was handled by the band and the mix was courtesy of Andy Sneap, so you know you get a big, loud and modern sound, but it isn’t too bad.
The revelation here is how ageless Bobby “The Blitz” Ellsworth truly is. He sounds as pissed off and berserk now as he did in the early 80s and that’s hard to comprehend. Whether he’s snarling, screaming or shouting, he still sounds like a man possessed and when he sings he can still deliver the goods. D.D. Verni’s bass remains an essential cog in the wheel and rumbles all over the place, and the guitar-tandem of Dave Linsk and Derek Tailer once again riff their little hearts out and bring the noise come solo time. The band sounds tighter than a possum’s pouch and as mean as a Jersey alley cat. If they would’ve just trimmed these beasts down, this would be a way more street-lethal slab of dumpster treasure.
Overkill is a band I’ll always love and respect, and while I’m not a guy sitting around waiting for Feel the Fire II: Electric Boogaloo, this isn’t the band operating at their best. Luckily, even sub-optimal Overkill is still entertaining music for beer drinking and bar brawling. Just lower expectations and no one will get hurt. The last thing anyone wants is Bobby showing up at their door with their name on his Titty-Twister List.