[11 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When did these guys get so great?
Overkill’s crucial role in the development of East Coast thrash metal cannot be denied, but unlike the accessibility of Anthrax and the political awareness of Nuclear Assault, as time went on Overkill did little to establish themselves as anything more than one of the genre’s progenitors. Throughout the early- to mid-1980s, the band, led by the indescribable, over-the-top vocal style of Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth yielded a strong collection of individual tracks (“Overkill”, “Rotten to the Core”, “Wrecking Crew”, the MTV hit “Hello from the Gutter”), but as far as their albums went, consistency was never one of their strengths. In addition, Atlantic Records, one the shoddiest handlers of metal acts among the major labels that decade, chose the tacky, power metal-style “In Union We Stand” to introduce the band to the MTV generation instead of the classic “Wrecking Crew”, which set the band back even further behind their more cutting-edge peers. Still, as the “Big Four” rose to worldwide fame and thrash’s second wave (Testament, Death Angel, Sepultura) gained serious momentum by the late-‘80s, Overkill continued in their own workmanlike way, excelling at a far less complex brand of thrash, never straying far from the New York hardcore sounds that influenced them in the beginning.
30 years after first forming in New Jersey, the band has stubbornly soldiered on as one of the most indefatigable bands in metal, surviving the downturn of thrash, the many trends that have come and gone, the resurgence of thrash metal, and even Ellsworth’s 2002 stroke, putting out a whopping 15 studio albums to date. When you look back at Overkill’s massive but inconsistent discography, though, you’d be hard pressed to find one career-defining album that stands head and shoulders above all the others. There are a good number of good Overkill albums, but no real great ones. Considering the lackluster material that they’ve put out in recent years as well (2005’s atrocious ReliXV, for example), it’s not as if the band was giving us any sign that they’d ever manage that one big knockout of an album.
Well, consider yours truly one of the many who have warily listened to Ironbound only to have been completely and utterly bowled over. For the first time in eons, perhaps ever, Overkill gets it, the songwriting, the production, the performances, the palpable passion creating the kind of perfect storm that every hard-working metal band strives to achieve on record. Surprisingly ambitious but never for a second abandoning those hardcore roots, it’s without a doubt the best album of their long career.
This album’s audacity is apparent from the very start, as the band serves up their longest song in 21 years, the eight-minute-plus epic “The Green and Black”. Peter Tägtgren’s clean mix has the quintet sounding fierce, the nimble riffs by Dave Linsk and Derek Tailer almost Testament-like, but the classic Overkill sound is always present: Ellsworth’s psychotic voice; founding member D.D. Verni’s trademark thick, metallic bass tone (one of the most recognizable bass tones in all of metal); the alternations from old-fashioned hardcore breakdowns and double-time speed; and those tried-and-true gang vocals. The rest of the album continues in a slightly more direct vein, whether it’s the d-beat fury of “Bring Me the Night”, the call-and-response fun of the blunt “Give a Little”, or the mosh-inducing “In Vain”. As instantly rewarding as those tracks are, though, we still get some good surprises, such as Linsk’s terrific, expressive solos on the title track, the wickedly cool fade-in after the intro on “The Goal is Your Soul”, the sly melodic vocals on “Endless War”, and the nasty, irresistible groove of “The Head and Heart”.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the inimitable Blitz. One of metal’s most enduring, unique voices, Ellsworth ranks alongside other gravel-throated growlers as Udo Dirkschneider, Steve Souza, and the late David Wayne, and the 50 year-old sounds positively ageless on Ironbound, shrieking, growling, snarling, and yes, even singing. It’s absolutely remarkable how so many veteran thrash bands are coming out with first-rate albums these days, but unlike Testament, Sacrifice, and Death Angel, there’s been no down time for Overkill, as they’ve kept on recording and performing, regardless of how in vogue thrash might be or how low their popularity might have dipped. It’s the pure, violent joy of their distinct brand of thrash that puts Ironbound over the top, something Ellsworth and company have never been short of all these years but only just now has been translated so brilliantly on record.