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Overkill – The Years of Decay (1989)

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Overkill, despite being a typically thrashy thrash metal band, has always had a touch of the melodramatic in their music. It’s not all that uncommon, really, but understanding how it waxed and waned through their careers is helpful for analyzing their discography. My initial impression of The Years of Decay many years ago lead me to believe that it was on the decline in 1989 – that Overkill was trying to become more streetwise and generally focused on the aggressive, direct aspects of their music. Was that a reasonable appraisal?

Your first impression is probably going to depend on whether the first half (with shorter songs) or the second half (more extended songwriting) sticks out on your first listen. If it’s any consolation, Overkill had become proficient enough at this point in their career to create and differentiate both types of songs, so both chunks have a good chance of being your favorite. In my experience, the first half seems to win out with most people, but that might be because the straight up doom metal experimentation of a track like “Skullcrusher” is a bit niche compared to the more accessible punky thrash metal Overkill is known for. Divergent halves aside, The Years of Decay is generally more ambitious than its predecessors, with more technical instrumentation and more musical adventures in general, and that’s something I can always support.

While The Years of Decay predates Overkill’s ability to consistently get a good production, this side of their sound has nonetheless been refined. Some people might enjoy the rough sounds of this band’s earliest recordings, but this overall roughness and low fidelity is unfortunately not matched by special aggression or intensity. To be honest, this album’s mix doesn’t have much of a power advantage (power surge?) over its predecessors. However, it’s definitely clearer and more intelligible, which is a good fit for the increased musical expertise of this lineup compared to previous ones. I don’t know that the musicians are actually pulling anything out of the ordinary compared to before, even if their approach is more advanced. The exception is likely vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, who spent the decade gradually shifting from primarily sung vocals to primarly shouted and shrieked ones. He doesn’t abandon singing entirely (and never has), and he even manages to sound heartfelt and emotional on the title track, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Ultimately, Overkill’s 4th definitely fills a niche, even if it isn’t as immediately exciting as some of their recent, revivalish efforts. It’s still an important part of their career, and you should definitely add it to your collection if you want a good introduction to why Overkill got their fanbase in the first place.

Highlights: “Elimination”, “I Hate”, “Skullcrusher”

Overkill – The Killing Kind (1996)

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Freshly coked up with members of Anvil and Liege Lord in their nostrils… Overkill releases The Killing Kind! Public opinion seems torn on this one – it either proves Overkill is better at the “groove”/hardcore inflected styles of metal of the mid-90s than average, or that those styles are worthless, depending on who you ask. But honestly, it’s not a major stylistic departure for this band, at least in context of their previous works. The previous two albums might shed some light on this since they’re notorious for introducing a lot of the changes further explored here, but I’ve never listened to them, so you can take solace in the fact that the review of this album won’t be a review of those two.

Still, since I’ve listened to a few albums by Overkill, comparative methods come in handy occasionally. On a songwriting level, The Killing Kind shares many of the velocities, structures, and instrumental techniques of its predecessors. It also has the benefit of a nice production, at least by mid-90s standards; compared to what I know of Overkill’s previous discography it’s simultaneously cleaner and more abrasive. The guitars and drums receive the lion’s share of the mix (how original!), although D. D. Verni’s basslines get some workouts, especially in the instrumental “Feeding Frenzy”, which even features some brief blastbeats. Even the occasional ballad isn’t out of place; there are antecedents even on Overkill’s 1980s work. Maybe some people thought this was a return to form or something when it first came out?

I’d have to be a fool to make these comparisons without at least giving some insight into Overkill’s signature sound. One of the big keys here is that Overkill seemingly relies on oldschool/’classic’ punk rock tropes (Ramones, the Damned, etc) more than a lot of other speed/thrash bands. The riffwriting’s usually more elaborate than that, but Overkill is neither particularly fast or complex, although they occasionally toss out a few lengthy songs. If that sounds familiar, keep in mind that Overkill was one of the founding voices in their genre, and that their formulas have been aped a million times. In terms of capturing market share, Overkill has at least two trump cards – a series of skilled guitarists with plenty of swagger in their playstyle, and main vocalist Bobby Ellsworth, whose screeches and snarls are distinctive enough that I can’t immediately think of anyone similar. A few seconds’ introspection reminded me of Marcel Schmier from Destruction, but Schmier doesn’t break out into sung melodies like the Blitz, in my experience.

My feelings about Overkill, along with most of the other semi-accessible pop thrash names of their era, are kind of complicated, but The Killing Kind earns points for upgrading the aesthetics of Overkill’s relatively consistent sound. Then again, Ironbound fourteen years later did that even better and even convinced me to see the band in concert. Good times.

Highlights: “God-Like”, “Certifiable”, “Let Me Shut That For You”, “Bold Face Pagan Stomp”

Overkill – Taking Over (1987)

Yes, it’s that band. The one that’s been plugging away for 30 years. The one that is popular in dedicated metalhead circles, but the majority of the population hasn’t heard of because they’re too busy listening to Lady Gaga. The thing about this album is that it’s a grower – in contrast to the instant appeal of something like “The Years of Decay”, this one requires some rifflust and an appreciation of the thrash style to get anything out of it.

Anyways, this is overtly NWOBHM influenced and seems to contain a few nods towards what would become power metal. It’s not a “Walls of Jericho”, much less a “Nightfall in Middle Earth”, but some of the songs (Fear His Name, Deny the Cross, Overkill Part II) stretch out a bit, write more melodic, “epic” stuff. Not in the contemporary sense where it’s used as an exclamation or compliment, because this actually sounds heroic at times. Then again, most of this album was written before 1985 or so, in a period when most of the speed/thrash stuff WAS only a step or two removed from Venom, Diamond Head, the Tygers of Pan Tang, and the rest of your favorite British bands. Many of the other songs written around the time made their way onto Overkill’s formal debut, Feel the Fire.

The “epic” tendencies on display were nothing new in thrash metal. Metallica had become popular overnight due to Master of Puppets (although the thrashiness of that album is very debatable), and founding fathers Black Sabbath and Judas Priest had experimented with extended songwriting at times. Still, mixing the high end thrash with the epic flourishes adds some character to this album, makes it stand out. I’d say that the band’s benefited from these ideas – after all, it’s relatively hard to write longer songs and keep a listener’s interest, as well as create something coherent.