Despite not being included in the four pillars of American thrash metal — Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth — Overkill, who rose to prominence at around the same time as these bands, were not simply riding on the coattails of their success. The New Jersey band, along with Anthrax, were pivotal in advancing the scene throughout the US’s East Coast, and created a name for themselves that distinguished them from other up-and-coming thrash acts at the time as a result of their bad boy image that seemed to draw significantly from punk, with the band starting out covering songs by Ramones, The Subhumans, The Dead Boys and other punk favourites. In the three decades that have past since the release of their first album, 1985’s Feel the Fire, Overkill’s image has remained, even in spite of their numerous line-up changes and slight detours into different stylings of metal. The usual mischievous, leather-clad, free spirited aesthetic appears on their latest studio effort, The Grinding Wheel, and is as present as ever. This eighteenth album from Overkill comes across as somewhat of a milestone for the band. I don’t mean that as a comment on the quality of the music on here necessarily, rather an acknowledgement of the fact that this album comes across as somewhat of a reflection on the band’s previous work, with the musical stylings on The Grinding Wheel encompassing most of the band’s sonic formations to have appeared throughout their career. What’s more, The Grinding Wheel is also one of Overkill’s more explorative and ambitious records to have been released in quite some time, however the record’s most potent shortcomings arise from its bolder undertakings.
Many a track on The Grinding Wheel evoke a lot of Overkill’s thoroughly-established sensibilities, with a handful of songs capturing an authentic and classic sound for the band in their current state, but these tracks often convey a slightly revamped Overkill, although not always for the best reasons. The album opens with the suitably thrashy Mean, Green, Killing Machine, a track that has Overkill written all over it, even down to the almost-corny title. The booming drumming is accompanied by chugging axe riffage and founding bassist D.D. Verni’s usual biting bass. Across the verses, a distinct influence from heavy metal can be heard, reminiscent of that which appeared on much of the band’s material throughout the 90s, with Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth’s staple, snarling sung vocals coming across as exaggerated and almost melodramatic at times. Indeed, it must be said that Blitz’s voice has aged very well, with his crazed hollers, to some extent, being aided by the roughness of his performances nowadays. Blitz and Verni are, of course, Overkill’s only members to have been with the band since its conception, but the musical prowess displayed by the other band members is also to a high standard. Guitarists Dave Linsk and Derek “The Skull” Tailer are a very accommodating and disciplined pair, doing a great job of holding down the fort when necessary and with Linsk providing a dynamic and memorable solo on Mean, Green, Killing Machine and a handful of other tracks on The Grinding Wheel. Despite its seven and a half minute duration, I feel that this length, whilst certainly very indulgent for an Overkill track, is used rather well, with the inclusion of an Anthrax-esque bridge that leads into a great groove metal section being a largely fruitful addition the song. However, although Mean, Green, Killing Machine gets a pass from me in spite of its length, there are a significant amount of other tracks boasting similar runtimes that conversely end up sounding forced and at odds with Overkill’s usual to-the-point approach to busting out fist-pumping thrash anthems that would go over equally well in a tiny pub or a large mosh pit.
Many cuts on The Grinding Wheel are, at their core, just as good as Mean, Green, Killing Machine, however many of these songs make much less satisfying use of the time they have on the record. Goddamn Trouble features a fast-paced punk influence that Overkill really know how to work, with Blitz’s blazing rock ‘n roll vocals pumping the track full of energy, whilst the rest of the band keep up with him sufficiently. However, this song, if anything, feels like it should be one of the shorter tracks on the record, as this is much more in keeping with the hasty urgency of its aesthetic. Instead, the band decide to drag it out for over six minutes, with little in the way of obvious pay-off for such a decision. Goddamn Trouble is most definitely a song that would benefit from a shorter two-to-three minute runtime, as the infectious energy conveyed by Blitz and co. would be concentrated in a smaller area and unleashed to better effect. Contrarily, this cut’s bloated runtime merely leaves the track feeling tired and, ultimately, underdeveloped, which really didn’t need to be the case. Unfortunately, a handful of Goddamn Trouble‘s succeeding songs, most notably Shine On and The Long Road, suffer from the same ills, with the obvious remedy being to cut these tracks down to a more palatable size that would enhance their high-octane intensity.
Thankfully, around the middle of the tracklisting, Overkill come through with some cuts that convey the approach to songwriting that is much more suited to the band and generally goes down far more successfully. Come Heavy brandishes a fierce groove played with some lovely harmonies from the guitars, before breaking down into a much more bare-faced heavy metal riff that helps explain to those new to the band why they are often referred to as “the Motörhead of thrash metal”, particularly with Verni’s meaty bass lines fortifying this comparison. Additionally, the fluid rhythmic changes on Come Heavy also demonstrate how tight Overkill can be when they are at the top of their game, and Verni’s short bass passage that leads into a shredding solo from Linsk is unashamedly satisfying. Quite a few other tracks could be picked apart as I have done for Come Heavy, such as Our Finest Hour, Let’s All Go to Hades and Red White and Blue, but I would ultimately being saying the same thing about all of them; they all capture and convey what has made Overkill such a consistently prominent force in American thrash metal over the last three decades and are, quite simply, solid thrash tunes.
Overkill are a band who can certainly be forgiven for staying within their comfort zone, as this is where they work best. The Grinding Wheel is by no means a complete reinvention for the outfit, but it does feature some slight tweaks to the band’s approach to structuring and writings songs that, ultimately, is unnecessary, as shown by the fact that the best tracks on this record are the ones that sound the most like Overkill’s usual work. The track lengths are often far too liberal and, given that this album features a standard 11-song tracklisting but is spread across 64 minutes, the clear remedy to this record’s most notable ills is cropping the cuts that end up feeling tired as a result of their bloated lengths. I would potentially even argue that every track on here is a perfectly solid thrash song at its core, and can perhaps be enjoyed more if the listener’s attention isn’t entirely dedicated to the album, as then the unnecessary song lengths would be a lot less noticeable and, for the most part, the listener would be hearing some great metal grooves and thrash riffage. However, when the focus of one’s attention, The Grinding Wheel‘s unfortunate flaws are most definitely apparent, but, at the very least, the better tracks on here can very much be enjoyed outside the context of the record.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10