Armed with pioneering pure metal proposals like “Death Rider,” “The Beast Within,” and “Raise The Dead” already in 1982, New Jersey’s Overkill were a rock-solid part of the first clutch of bands forging in fire this music known as thrash metal. Along with Metallica, Exodus, Slayer and cross-town doppelgangers Anthrax, D.D. Verni and Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth were helping to create a new form of metal that is still as vibrant today as when the band’s first album, Feel the Fire was issued by Jonny Zazula’s Megaforce Records back in the spring of ’85.
Witness Overkill’s 18th album of blistering yet precise and thought-provoking thrash magic, The Grinding Wheel, a record on which thrash’s ultimate team of five machined parts shows up and executes to perfection… with a little punk thrown in for bad measure.
But a life dedicated to metal can be a grind, hence the title of this sparks-a-flyin’ record. “It just makes sense for us,” reflects D.D. “If you’ve been making metal for almost 40 years like we have, it can be a grind. But we also liked the old school metal idea of referencing “Grinder,” the Judas Priest song, which suits the album because it has classic metal parts on it as well as the thrash parts. There’s a blue collar feel to that title too, and that’s how we approach Overkill. The guitar case is basically a lunchbox and we go to work.”
“One of the principles—if not characteristics—of the band is that it’s been grinding through for long, long periods of time,” seconds Blitz. “Decades to this point. And not necessarily with huge gains with regards to popularity, but for sure, with huge gains in as much as we can earn a living while doing the kind of music that we want. And so the idea of grinding it out over the decades became a device for writing the album, whether it would be riffs or lyrics.”
Despite, as D.D. says, the album’s classic metal references (such as Black Sabbath in “Come Heavy” and Iron Maiden in “The Long Road” and the epic and cinematic title track), when the band gets up a full head of thrash steam, they bring to the party a trademark punk aesthetic, forged from trips on the train to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City to witness original punk legends such as The Damned and The Dead Boys.
“Punk is huge for Overkill,” confirms Verni. “And it’s something we very specifically brought back to the band in a sort of second wave, beginning with Ironbound in 2010 and then The Electric Age and White Devil Armory. I know from my end, it came from talking to the band and talking to fans. We had some of those metal records in the middle of our career where I wasn’t paying enough attention to the punk rock vibe of the band. But just before we started writing Ironbound, I was very specific about getting back into that mentality, picking up on that energy again. You’re not going to hear any Green Day or Ramones in us, but the energy and the attitude of punk mixed with the New York vibe… that’s what Overkill is, compared to other bands. You don’t hear any of that in Megadeth; you don’t hear any of that in Slayer. It’s more specific to what we brought to the thrash world.”
Central to that premise is the incendiary “Let’s All Go to Hades” which is sure to become a pit favourite. “This one was a hell of a lot of fun,” says Blitz. “You know, I’ve always written abstractly. I’m not the guy who says, ‘I’m going to crush your skull into dust.’ I like writing more so from an abstract point of view, putting a slew of thoughts together that create one idea, like a puzzle more than a specific black or white. And when I looked at all these lyrics when I was done, I said, oh my God, I’m 57 and I finally matured (laughs). Oh, this is gross! (laughs). But I do like tongue-in-cheek songs like ‘Hades,’ where it says, sort of let’s all go to the Bataclan, you know, stand arm in arm and sing ‘Killed by Death.’ I kind of tied in not long ago events, specifically what happened in Paris, with losing Lemmy. After that, I’m on a train from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient express, which actually existed (laughs)—it actually went from Paris to Istanbul. So that one is mapped out a bit more.”
Adds D.D., “It’s not a ‘smash your face into the wall’ kind of song. It got a little bit of fun in it. I know any time you talk to the really heavy thrash guys, they go, ‘Oh, no, no, no—no fun allowed. It’s got to be heavy and brutal every second.’ But that song definitely has a bit of fun in it. And we’ve done that before, with things like ‘Old School’ and ‘Fuck You.’ We’re not afraid to do a bit of that sometimes.”
Another favorite lyric of Blitz’, which is set to a non-nonsense old school thrash track, is “Our Finest Hour.” “It’s about the recognition of sameness,” explains Ellsworth. “I think people are comfortable when they recognize themselves in someone else. And ‘Our Finest Hour’ is kind of a detailed journey through that concept. It’s like, ‘Come on over here; I recognize you.’ I’ve always been a firm believer in the fact that it’s great to accomplish things on your own, but people are always stronger as a group—that’s the basic outline of that tune.”
At the other end of the spectrum from punk is a song like “The Long Road.” D.D. readily agrees that there was a Maiden influence as part of this one’s crafting. “Oh yeah, for sure. The opening, along with a little section in there with the vocals, definitely feels like New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
More evident in the band’s panoramic classic metal passages, but even articulated here on “Our Finest Hour,” is another storied Overkill trademark, the definition one gets in the band’s bass parts. Combine this with the Mensa-like percussive wizardry of Ron Lipnicki (laid bare for all to hear at headphone levels through the smack of his gravity-defying double bass work), and The Grinding Wheel emerges as a record with a remarkable rhythm section foundation from which to rise.
“I’ve had that kind of sound now for a long time,” says Verni. “There are a lot of bass players that say, ‘I want to feel the bass.’ And it’s like, I just couldn’t give a shit about feeling the bass. To me that’s low-end. Guitars have low-end, kick drums have low-end, bass has low-end—I want to hear the bass, not feel it. So from a long time ago, that’s what I would be doing on my EQ. I would be tweaking and turning knobs until not only could I feel it, but I can hear it separate from the guitars. And as a result, the bass just got more and more aggressive. I’m not a finesse player at all, on a bass. I bang the shit out of it, and I kind of do that to get away from the guitars and give it its own identity, its own sound, its own thing, so the bass has its own personality, not just serving as a foundation for the guitars.”
This affects the writing as well, says Blitz. “Don’t forget, D.D. is a guitarist. He’s been playing guitar probably more so than bass in his spare time since the late ‘80s. This is a guy who has two-and-a-half decades of six strings under his belt. So we get more of a unique perspective; it gives this band its unique qualities when it comes to songwriting. Because it’s a guy holding six strings who’s got plenty of experience playing those six strings, but thinking from the other perspective. So you get a punchier thing; you don’t get a lot of fluff. When you compare Overkill to some of our contemporaries, there you get a guitar player writing guitar-based songs. D.D. is writing, first and foremost, from a rhythm perspective, and that’s what drives the songs. Add Dave Linsk to the picture, once there’s a ten-note riff written, then you have the best of both worlds.”
Which brings us back to the aforementioned machine-like efficiency of the five guys that comprise Overkill, this idea that there are no weak links within this particular classic five-piece with two guitars lineup of metal warriors.
“That’s the strength of the band,” explains Blitz. “Dave is really the one that holds the guitar reigns in this band. He’s a writer at his core. You know, he’s one of these guys who brushes his teeth and hears a rhythm the way the bristles are hitting the enamel (laughs). He’s that dude. ‘Oh wait a second, I have another idea.’ He has an idea a minute, and if that’s the case, some of them are going to be great. So he holds the reins. When it comes to Derek, he’s more the opinionated thought later on. And so when it runs through the machine, being D.D. and myself, then Dave, Derek comes in and can change that song. It’s always kind of good to have, let’s say, a chief and some Indians. And it depends who’s wearing the chief hat at any particular time. But I think at the end of the day, when you’re looking for a clean perspective, it goes through Derek—that’s usually what his contribution is, more of a finalization.”
And Ron? “He’s one-of-a-kind,” says Verni. “He’s a great drummer. I’ve worked with him for a bunch of records now. This is our fifth record together and so I really understand how he plays at this point. Working with him in the studio is just a pleasure, because he’s so right on it.”
After heaping all manner of praise on legendary producer Andy Sneap (brought on only for mix given Verni’s proven acumen at the task), D.D. further clarifies the reason Overkill can be at the top of their game 18 records into their distinguished run.
“I have a studio and I did most of it at my place; I’ve been doing it that way for a while now. And now the group of guys we have in the band has been pretty consistent for a while. So we have a nice mix; everybody kind of knows their role, and is good at their role. Everybody brings a little something to the party. And I think that’s why these last couple of records… people ask, ‘How is it that your records get better after 25 years?’ And I think part of it is that everybody has a role in the band, everybody is comfortable with their role, and they’re really good at the part they have. So the records actually get better. It’s like having a team, instead of having a whole bunch of chiefs and no Indians.
But a proven people’s band like Overkill—a more personable bunch you’ll never meet—fully recognizes that part of the band’s success in being able to survive and thrive with the grind is due to the allegiance of the band’s considerable worldwide fan base.
“For sure,” says Blitz. “One of the things with regard to grind, with regard to four decades of Overkill, it’s good to be here, but it’s obviously earned, not just by us but by the people that support this in general. The fact is that it’s not just us grinding it out. I mean, maybe it is when it comes to the studio and writing and recording songs, from that selfish perspective. But the reason something exists for decades is based on group effort. Like we had talked about earlier with ‘Our Finest Hour,’ people are stronger together. In that light, this band is, let’s say, not just our project, but it’s a project by and for all those who hold it dear.”