Wednesday, 24 November 2021

ALBUM REVIEW: Overkill, "The Atlantic Years 1986 - 1994"

By: Richard Maw
Album Type: Boxset
Date Released: 03/12/2021
Label: BMG

The Review:
There are no less than six albums by Overkill collected in this lavish package. Vinyl, download or CD; the choice is yours... I've actually forked out for the vinyl release, but as it is not due for delivery until December these MP3 files serve as a nice taster of what I'm getting. These six albums represent the start of Overkill's career- and cover what many would assume to be the band's golden years through the peak of thrash metal and beyond. However, it does NOT include the Megaforce classic debut, “Feel The Fire”. That album is readily available in multiple re-issue vinyl versions, but it does feel like an opportunity missed... even if the title does specify their major label days only.
For fans and collectors, this box set is still a must. It has several vinyl re-presses which are very hard to get hold of; “Years of Decay”, “Horrorscope”, “I Hear Black” and “W.F.O.” The fact that many fans may own one or more of these and probably have some kind of copy of “Taking Over” andUnder The Influence” is neither here nor there, really. If you want the rest of the albums you are missing, then you buy the lot. It is also interesting to note that CD issues of Taking Over” are like hens teeth- and expensive. So... there are pros for both the vinyl and CD sets.
I cannot comment on the presentation here; I only have the MP3s, but I HOPE that the vinyl reissues come with original sleeves in a box set; only time will tell. Of the music, well, it's no secret to regular readers of my reviews that I rate Overkill highly. Very highly. As in, I think they are the best thrash band EVER. At the least, they are certainly the most consistent and have had the most longevity. Their extensive and impressive catalogue knocks all other band's efforts into a neatly cocked hat. Yes, yes, Overkill may not have a “Reign In Blood” or a “Master of Puppets” to their name, but both those bands had less than a decade at the top of their game. Overkill have been consistently good (and even great) since 1985.
Of the albums, there is a great deal that can be said. “Taking Over” is a firm fan favourite, features ludicrous cover art (guns aimed at the camera, biceps bulging, lurid colours jumping out at you...) and a solid collection of songs; including a few Overkill classics. Strangely it is not one of my favourite albums of theirs. Yes, it has “Deny The Cross”, “Wrecking Crew”, “Fatal If Swallowed”, “Power Surge” and “In Union We Stand” but it doesn't quite reach the heights of the debut for me. It's a powerful thrash album from the genre's golden era, but it is not their best. The remastering here is good- it sounds a little clearer, a little sharper but it still, of course, sounds like an 80s thrash album done on not much of a budget.
“Under The Influence” has “Hell From The Gutter” and a consistent set of songs but for me is the weakest of their early albums. The production is a little weak, the drums a little too large and indistinct, the band a little subdued. It's like Overkill with the teeth and fangs filed down. From there, though, things REALLY take off.
“The Years of Decay”. “THE YEARS OF DECAY”. It's immense!! It had the production and the songs- the remaster makes it sound even more powerful. Terry Date produced and the sound is a dead ringer for his work, a year later, with Pantera. It's tight, muscular and clinical and it simply rips. The songs are superb. The first three tracks are simply metal perfection; “Time To Kill”, “Elimination”, “I Hate”. It's a hell of an opening. The record also contains a really doomy track- “Playing With Spiders/Skullkrusher”- that is immensely heavy and dark. You get
Evil Never Dies” at the end as well... and the title track and so on. It's a metal classic and is widely regarded as one of the band's best. Its way underrated by those who don't know the band and it remains a high point of the golden thrash era.
Evil Never Dies” at the end as well... and the title track and so on. It's a metal classic and is widely regarded as one of the band's best. Its way underrated by those who don't know the band and it remains a high point of the golden thrash era.
Incredibly, the band kept things going with 1990's “Horrorscope”. It's another classic and even if the original guitar player, Bobby Gustafson, parted ways with the band (fans still talk about this) Bobby Blitz Ellsworth and DD Verni simply recruited two guitar players to replace him and wrote a superb set of songs. Sid Falck plays his best drumming on this one. The whole album is great; clinical production (probably a little influenced by … “And Justice For All”, but with the bass left in) and a strong set of songs and overriding evil vibe make a winning combination. “Coma”, “Blood Money”, “Thanx For Nothing”, “Infectious...” all killers. Even the Edgar Winter cover (Frankenstein) rules. It's such a strong record and my favourite (even above, gasp, “Years of Decay”) of their earlier work.
The band thus entered the 1990s on a high and seemed to be on an unstoppable roll. However... grunge happened, the bottom fell out of the thrash market and Overkill found themselves frozen out of the Big Four and playing second fiddle to (kind of) new upstarts like Pantera. Metallica and then Megadeth simply went commercial. Testament pretty much went MIA after “Souls of Black”. Exodus were nowhere, Anthrax got buried under record company indifference. Overkill, incredibly, didn't go grunge but they did make their most leftfield album: “I Hear Black”.
It's the one oddity in their catalogue, but rest assured it is still metal to the core.... just with a little more Sabbath flavour. The band slowed down and introduced new drummer Tim Mallare to the fray. For me, it's one of their best albums. I've listened to it probably as much as any of their others. Some of the writing is a little undercooked- that's even admitted by the band- while the production and mix probably sounded INCREDIBLE on the studio speakers... it sounds tinny and underpowered on a regular stereo. The separation of instruments is great, the individual sounds are good, but the bass (on all instruments; guitars, drums and bass) weight is just not there. Even the remaster- which has improved it a little- can't save it. What it really needs is a full re-mix.
Strangely, this makes me love the album a little more; it's imperfect and the sound of a band trying to survive. “Dreaming In Colombian” is ace. The title track is heavy. “Spiritual Void” is a Sabbath style groove machine, “Weight of the World” is speedy and good quality and the album finishes strongly as well. I'm prepared to forgive misfires like “Shades of Grey” and “Undying” because the overall vibe of the albums is great. For me, “TYOD”, “Horrorscope” and “I Hear Black” represent three different aspects of the band's sound- with a common theme of dark and unsettling compositions at their core.
After that, only “W.F.O.” remains of their major label tenure. Again, it's quirkily produced; tinny and overly bassy (!) but it brings back the speed that “IHB” lacked. The opener “Where It Hurts” proves that thrash is back, “Fast Junkie” rams that point down your throat and from there the albums is absolutely solid. The songs are good and often really catchy. Inevitably, it sounds a little too influenced by what was big in metal at the time- in terms of production and the backing vocals- but it stands as a strong exclamation point to the band's years in the music biz big leagues.
I'd score all of these albums four stars or above (with the possible exception of “Under The Influence” which is a strong three for me) and a couple of them reach the full marks score level. With that being the case, why did Overkill not get much bigger?! Well, Blitz's voice is an acquired taste- shrieky and gravelly is an odd combination and it seems to me that they never got the press support that some other band's were gifted (or paid for). On the plus side, it meant that the band kept going as a relatively underground proposition with their integrity intact.
From here, the band weathered the turbulent mid 90s by simply going independent; indie labels, booking their own tours and keeping going. It's that blue collar work ethic that endears them to so many of their fans- me included. They'd go on to make even better albums (“IRONBOUND”!!!) and worse ones (“ReliXIV”, “Necroshine”) but they have never slipped below that three star standard. As an average, the band are running at four stars and these six albums represent a rock-solid chunk of their discography. I implore you, if you've never bothered, to check out all six records or at the very least “Years of Decay” and “Horrorscope”. This is superlative metal and utterly essential.

Band info: facebook