Some thrash metal bands reach that perfect storm where the drums and bass pound on the galloping riff like a hammer-wielding maniac, rattling brains one bludgeoning hit at a time. It’s a pretty killer finishing move, satisfying like that final Captain Falcon’s final blow on Super Smash Bros. Melee. And like that Falcon Knee, it’s not at all surprising to anybody familiar with the battleground. So when Overkill starts off the best song on The Wings of War—“Bat Shit Crazy”—with that same move, I definitely mosh, but I won’t applaud.
Overkill is like AC/DC or Motörhead: old and faithful. There’s never really a question of whether the band’s new releases will be good—of course it’ll be awesome thrash—but fans also know that nothing new will be brought to the table. If you were to throw a dart at a board covered in songs from their last four albums, you would not be able to tell which one it came from. Still, they’d all be killer songs. There’s never really new Overkill, just more Overkill. It’s a problem for some, but for others that consistency makes Overkill the best old-school thrash band.
When these New Jersey thrashers break out “Believe in the Fight” on their upcoming shows, they’ll hold the room hostage with those big, meaty hooks. It’ll simply be too much fun circle-dancing in the mosh pit to care about where this album stands in the meta-narrative of their career or metal as a whole. It’s only when you’re listening to the same song in your car that you’ll remember that it sounds just like 2010’s Ironbound or 2012’s The Electric Age.
In some ways, Overkill is better than ever. A lifetime of stirring slam dance anthems have made enhanced their knack for turning up the heat. Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth’s indestructible vocal cords drive songs just as much as Dave Linsk and Derek Tailer’s crunchy guitars. Songs like “Last Man Standing” and “Where Few Dare to Walk” reveal the band’s true skill in pacing the frenzy with impeccable songwriting.
Overkill doesn’t necessarily need to change. The band knows what its best at, and continues doing it much better than its descendants, contemporaries and acolytes alike. One aspect that could stand a switch-up on the band’s next album is the production. While the sound on The Wings of War is sonically superior to their recent albums, it ends up becoming too big and too clean. Its heaviness relies mainly on the grit of their guitar tones, not the grit of an analog tape. It’s sinful that this wasn’t recorded on a four-track, a medium that would’ve preserved Overkill’s forgotten ties to hardcore punk.
There’s something cathartic and heartening about the knowledge that Overkill is still strong after almost 40 years. A myriad of things have changed since 1980, but these guys never have. Toward the end of “Welcome to the Garden State,” there’s a tasteful little nod to Bruce Springsteen, incorporating the concluding melodic line of “Born to Run” into the cut’s final moments. It’s a fitting addition for a band with heavy metal in its blood—born to thrash.
Truthfully, Overkill and the Boss have more in common than just New Jersey—they’re both great songwriters. In the end, it doesn’t matter how extreme a band is; people connect with good songs… and Overkill still writes those in spades.
Follow reporter Josh Rosen at Twitter.com/tweetjoshrosen.