Overkill – The Atlantic Years 1986 – 1994

The Atlantic Years Album Cover Art

Overkill – The Atlantic Years 1986 – 1994
BMG
Release Date: 03/12/21
Running Time: 05:12:02
Review by Simon Black
Taking Over – 8/10
Under The Influence – 7/10
The Years Of Decay – 9/10
Horrorscope – 9/10
I Hear Black – 6/10
W.F.O. – 5/10
Overall – 8/10

Overkill are one of those Thrash acts that at the time barely registered on my radar. Even though they paid their dues in Europe (unlike a few of their peers). But the reality was they were very much part of the USA scene, particularly the East Coast and never achieved anything like the same level of success as some of their contemporaries. Like many acts who have struggled across the decades, Overkill have been plagued by line up stability issues. We can sit here and debate cause and effect if you like, but it’s a matter of personal viewpoint as to whether the lack of success caused the instability, or vice versa, however the reality is the two frequently fly together. 

That said, this box set covers the prolific period when Overkill and their ilk carved their niche, and for my money cut their best material, before the changing musical landscape of the 90’s kicked everything into touch for all but the established stadium players. It doesn’t include their Metal Blade debut ‘Feel The Fire’ but covers the three seminal (and then the three slightly less seminal) albums that followed it. My exposure to their back catalogue had been quite sparse to date, as I only really began to be aware of them with 1989’s ‘The Years of Decay’ so I was hearing most of the records in this set in full for the first time.

“Taking Over” really feels like a debut album, even though it isn’t. Like so many Thrash acts getting a major label debut at the time, it was very much done on the cheap, with studio time no doubt grabbed in graveyard shifts with huge amounts of time pressure. As is often the case when that happened, the pressure of this added no small amount of energy to proceedings and despite the relatively poor production standards compared to what follows in this edition, it has fire and energy in abundance. At this stage they are still playing as a four piece as well, but despite that, the sound has richness and depth in spite of the garage feel of production. I would argue that they still have their Speed Metal roots a little more visible here – tracks like ‘Fear His Name’ definitely fit in that more traditional Metal vein and show Bobby Blitz as being more than capable of carrying a tune in the higher register as he had yet to adopt the more Thrashy snarling style that became his trademark later on.

When we get to “Under The Influence”, that move to straight out Thrash is coming out loud and clear. The tunes sound more down tuned and heavy and the oodles of reverb on display last time out are gone for good. Equally the arrangements have that more staccato Thrash feel to them and the vocals are following suit, although Bltz can still hit a high note or two when required. This is raw and energetic Thrash of the finest order, stripped back and overflowing with aggression. Unfortunately, this is also where the line-up challenges start to bite, with founding drummer Rat Skates having parted way in between album cycles.

“Years of Decay” is probably the most definitive of the albums to date here though. Changing producers for the first time, the band manages to capture a solid mixture of the raw energy that makes them tick, and with some vastly improved production values. Not only that, but the band are starting to get a little more technical with their arrangements and time changes. There are some quite lengthy pieces on here to boot – most notably the title track, and the Sabbath infused ‘Playing With Spiders/Skullcrusher’, but then splicing two songs together that share a key and a time signature to make one big one is an old trick. The big change is that this is the first time Overkill achieve that elusive ‘whole album feel’. Thrash with its focus on Speed and energy frequently meant songs with a short sharp delivery and duration, and their early albums certainly exhibit this. This one feels like a lot more time has been taken to craft an album that is intended to be listened to end to end, with only their classic floor filler ‘Elimination’ feeling out of place here. This was certainly the point when for me Overkill stepped up beyond from the melee of acts this movement offered into the second tier, biting at the heels of the Big Four of the day.

By the time we get to “Horrorscope” (which was released fairly quickly after “Decay”) an awful lot has changed. Founding guitarist Bobby Gustafson has parted on bad terms and was replaced with not one but two six-stringers in the form of Merritt Gant and Rob Cannavino. This really adds something to the sound – with two players able to throw in the depth of sound of having dedicated rhythm and lead when required, plus the old standby of the harmonised riff, but suddenly this doesn’t quite feel like Overkill any more. Maybe it’s just the teething troubles of running in new players, or maybe it’s the more lavish production, but the polish this adds for me feels like something more immediate and dangerous has been lost. This is frustrating, as the technical delivery here is quite something else – take the razor sharp timing from the rhythm section on ‘Blood Money’ – it’s absolutely spot on and a complete contrast to the edgy chaos of “Under The Influence”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s their most polished effort yet, but in many ways as I started listening I found myself initially preferring the looseness of their early days. Vocally though Blitz seems to have successfully melded the Thrash with his considerable cleaner vocal skills in the right balance, and that’s here to stay. By the time we get to the end though, my rites of passage are over and I’m finding myself falling a little bit in love with this record.

“I Hear Black” sees yet another change in direction and unfortunately one that falls somewhat flat on its face. No doubt under major label pressure to emulate what was coming out of the Seattle scene, we see Overkill attempting to strip their delivery down to the detriment of quality. The trouble is it sounds less like Grunge and more like something a Stoner act would do and Bobby Blitz’s voice sounds completely out of place here. Although to be honest the return of producer Alex Perialas to the fold brings back some of the more immediate and energetic feel that had been polished out of their sound in the two intervening albums, but it can’t recover from the completely bum steer that the song writing has taken. It’s a massive own goal and one that the market concurred with, as at a time when evolving musical styles were creating commercial pressures, they should have stuck with their more distinctive  and pure Thrashy roots and ridden out the storm.

And to be fair that’s exactly what they did next with “W.F.O.”, which from the opening bars screams their return to their natural state, but sadly somehow this doesn’t feel like it’s going to go anywhere. The sound is flat and Blitz sounds completely off of his game, with songs that meander and fail to grab the attention. To be fair, it may show a return to the Thrashy style of yore on the surface, but it’s completely missing the energy or integrity and the songs just ain’t in the same league. 

The trouble is it’s a direction change that’s come too late and simply isn’t convincing in its delivery as the twin guitarists depart simultaneously and the label decides it’s time to drop the dead donkey. Overkill will lick their wounds, regroup and slowly regain and rebuild their credibility as the 90’s wind down and people start remembering them for their significant contribution to a style that totally revolutionised music, and swept away the old order, before ironically having the same thing happened to them with the next big new thing on the block. But these albums beautifully chart the rise and fall of a movement that literally reshaped Metal, and a band that were absolutely at the forefront of that.

TRACKLISTING:
Taking Over
01. Deny the Cross
02. Wrecking Crew
03. Fear His Name
04. Use Your Head
05. Fatal if Swallowed
06. Powersurge
07. In Union We Stand
08. Electro-Violence
09. Overkill II (The Nightmare Continues)

Under The Influence
01. Shred
02. Never Say Never
03. Hello from the Gutter
04. Mad Gone World
05. Brainfade
06. Drunken Wisdom
07. End of the Line
08. Head First
09. Overkill III (Under the Influence)

The Years Of Decay
01. Time to Kill
02. Elimination
03. I Hate
04. Nothing to Die For
05. Playing with Spiders/Skullkrusher
06. Birth of Tension
07. Who Tends the Fire
08. The Years of Decay
09. E.vil N.ever D.ies

Horrorscope
01. Coma
02. Infectious
03. Blood Money
04. Thanx for Nothin’
05. Bare Bones
06. Horrorscope
07. New Machine
08. Frankenstein” (Edgar Winter; instrumental
09. Live Young, Die Free
10. Nice Day… for a Funeral
11. Soulitude

I Hear Black
01. Dreaming in Columbian
02. I Hear Black
03. World of Hurt
04. Feed My Head
05. Shades of Grey
06. Spiritual Void
07. Ghost Dance
08. Weight of the World
09. Ignorance and Innocence
10. Undying
11. Just Like You

W.F.O.
01. Where It Hurts
02. Fast Junkie
03. The Wait/New High in Lows
04. They Eat Their Young
05. What’s Your Problem
06. Under One
07. Supersonic Hate
08. R.I.P.
09. Up to Zero
10. Bastard Nation
11. Gasoline Dream

LINE-UP:
Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth – Vocals
Bobby Gustafson – Guitars
Merritt Gant – Guitars
Rob Cannavino – Guitars
D. D. Verni – Bass
Rat Skates – Drums 
Sid Falck  – Drums
Tim Mallare – Drums

LINKS:

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