(Nuclear Blast Records, 2017)
Some iconic bands are not about surprises and cheap gimmicks. They don't care much about making daring artistic statements or pushing the boundaries of their music to the edge of experimentation – and perhaps the listener's sanity. Diehard AC/DC fans, for example, would never expect more than meat'n'potatoes, bluesy hard rock from their beloved Aussie boys. Lemmy, rest his iron-fisted soul, never released a Motörhead album full of love ballads or cheesy prog-rock wankery. Motörhead was just Motörhead, not unlike the New Jersey band named after their classic second album. Overkill are like the Teamsters of thrash, bringing their yeoman work ethic to the stage as well as the studio.
Not that many are complaining. Arguably the most consistent producers among the old guard of thrash, Overkill have been releasing album after album of exuberant, powerful, and – this is key, folks – fun East-Coast thrash. Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, their inimitable and maniacally-smiling frontman, remains the focal point of the Wrecking Crew pizza (thrash) party. But, most importantly, it's about the songs, and Overkill has been unleashing some of the best music of their three-decade career as of late. Their newest CD, 2017’s appropriately-titled The Grinding Wheel, delivers more of the same ferocious and catchy thrash that fans expect and appreciate. It may not be as consistently inspired-sounding as 2010's fantastic Ironbound or 2014's relentless White Devil Armory, but it is still mightily worthy of the Overkill brand.
As reliable as Overkill has remained over the decades, let's not deign to conflate their consistency with predictability. Sure, the performances of the veteran band members are as muscular as expected. Blitz still spits venom and fury, and sings the smooth melodies with equal aplomb. D.D. Verni, bassist and founder, remains Overkill's fast picking, hard-driving engine; drummer Jason Bittner provides the requisite percussive speed and double-bass piston power. Guitarists Dave Linsk and Derek “The Skull” Tailer deliver the crunchy-and-catchy riffs and tasty, economical solos. Yes, they still meld their patented blistering thrash with punk, hard rock, and NWOBHM influences. Stylistically, though, The Grinding Wheel keeps the listener guessing with enough subtle diversity to raise a few eyebrows.
Take, for instance, opening track and an album highlight, “Mean Green Killing Machine.” This mid-tempo grinder (if you will) features a slow, melodic breakdown in the interlude, followed by a brisk shuffle riff that wouldn't sound out of place on a ZZ Top record. The opening riff to the catchy single “Goddamn Trouble” recalls the moderately-bluesy vibe of Sabbath or Budgie, albeit played at a hardcore-punk frenzy. On “Shine On,” the stuttering gallops and nifty syndication of the verse riff perhaps could be replaced with horn charts and morph into a ‘70s Parliament Funkadelic tune. That analogy sounds extreme, yes, but I think you get the picture.
Of course, it's about the songs, and The Grinding Wheel delivers in spades on that front. “Our Finest Hour,” a ferocious speed fest, features irresistible vocal hooks at every nook and cranny: “I'll be the conscious/I'll be your guide/I'll be the black-hand/that stops your genocide/I'll be the understanding/undisputed power/I'll hold your hand/in this, our finest hour.” The epic “The Long Road” starts in a brooding fashion before unleashing its fast, palm-muted and winding riff workouts. But its Blitz' infectious vocal melodies that make “The Long Road” a standout cut. The fun “Come Heavy,” by contrast, is a shuffling stomp of a tune that would sound right at home on a stoner doom album.
There are other highlights too, such as the eviscerating speed metal of “Red, White and Blue,” and the deliberate, Accept-esque swagger and dramatic grand finale of the title track. As a whole (or half), though, the second half of the album does feel a bit by-the-numbers. That's the point where extreme consistency can become a bit of a detriment for any band. Maybe it would behoove Overkill to vary the mood more by including a great melancholy ballad, ala “Soulitude.” Just a thought.
But to quote the legendary Nigel Tufnel, “That's nitpicking, isn't it?” Overkill rules, as always. Add bonus points for their ripping cover of Thin Lizzy's “Emerald.” Philo would have been proud.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot
--Tracklisting: 1). Mean, Green, Killing Machine 2). Goddamn Trouble 3). Our Finest Hour 4). Shine On 5). The Long Road 6). Let's All Go to Hades 7). Come Heavy 8). Red, White and Blue 9). The Wheel 10). The Grinding Wheel 11). Emerald (Bonus)