Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Overkill - The Years of Decay

It's a long way to the top if you wanna sausage roll

I promise I'll stop.  I promise this is the last negative Overkill review.  It's for my sake as much as yours, but their bad albums really got away with murder for the better part of a decade in terms of internet reviewing, and I simply aimed to right that wrong.

But BH! The Years of Decay is one of the good albums!  You say so yourself that it's within the window of good music they made!

While yes, it's true that the rule of thumb that "every thrash band that was good in the 80s got shitty in the 90s" is just as applicable with Overkill, it's worth noting that they did have a stinker in the middle of their streak of classics.  I know, I know, The Years of Decay is often considered one of their best, if not their unequivocal apex, but I just can't get behind it, and it's for reasons that didn't make full sense until the 00s rolled around.  I've said it before, but thrash was never great because of Overkill, Overkill was great because of thrash, and it shows here.  They were never blazing trails, they were never ahead of their time (because you and I know damn well they weren't playing "Rotten to the Core" back in 1979), the main reasons I ever felt like they stood out was because of DD's trebly bass tone, Blitz's wild haired shrieking, and the fact that they were (and still are) the most overtly punk influenced of all the classic thrash bands.  Overkill's good albums are so good that it's easy to forget that they were always following trends.

Don't believe me?  That's okay, you don't have to, but did you notice that their first two albums had heaps of influence from the NWOBHM scene?  All the rough speed metal and overt melody was quite reminiscent of another classic thrash album from a few years prior (I'll give you a hint: it starts with "S" and ends with "how No Mercy").  Granted, that's sorta indicative of every early American thrash band excepting Exodus it seems, but did you notice that their groove phase started around the same time that Metallica had their famous sellout and Anthrax started focusing on hard groove instead of rollicking speed metal?  Did you notice that coincidentally around the same time Megadeth stopped pandering to radio play so blatantly and started playing thrash-lite again, Overkill just so happened to do the exact same thing?  Did you notice how they started playing full on thrash again only after Death Magnetic and Endgame came out and rethrash was in full swing and seemed to be at its apex?

The Years of Decay fits into this whole spiel because it's the exact same thing.  They've been doing this for their entire career.  Wherever American thrash was going, Overkill was following.  Feel the Fire and Horrorscope are phenomenal albums so we tend to give them a pass, but I've always had something of a bone to pick with The Years of Decay.  This?  This is Metallica worship of the highest order, and it's hilarious because the venn diagram of "people who worship the ground Overkill walks on" and "people who do the same to Metallica" are damn near in separate countries, but it's true.  Overkill's fourth album is loaded with Metallica-isms, from the structuring of the album, to the sudden inclusion of longer, slower, doomier songs with extended acoustic passages, to the production, to the actual riffs themselves, almost every note of this album carries the unmistakable scent of Metallica's trebuchet to fame.

Now I'm not gonna sit here and say that they're a bunch of unimaginative riff thieves, but I will say that it's probably not a coincidence that "Time to Kill" opens up almost exactly like "Battery" if it skipped the first two acoustic repeats and started right when the distortion started to follow the melody, and that "Evil Never Dies" starts with and extended intro of swelling strings nigh indistinguishable to those of "Damage Inc.", and that "Elimination" uses the exact same riff as "Master of Puppets", and et cetera et cetera ad infinitum.  Overkill wasn't trying to "steal" anything, but they were clearly trying to replicate the success of Master of Puppets and And Justice for All with this one.  I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the similarities to Justice since it came out only a year prior to this one, but the parallels are there regardless.  That's not to say this is a bad album because of these things, it's almost a bad album in spite of them, to be honest, but it's a bugaboo that's been driving me ape for years now.

I've always hated Overkill's attempts at gloominess, and the three 8+ minute songs are all stellar examples as to why.  Either they just plod along for what feels like hours with nothing cool happening, or they hide a really god damned good riff or two in the middle of a weepingly agonizing snorefest.  "Who Tends the Fire" rides on a simple groove that could work if it wasn't so repetitive and incessant, but near the four and half minute mark, the song just throws its gloves down and starting swinging for the fences.  What the hell man?  That part rules, that riff totally smokes, it's a great burst of thrash intensity burrowed in the middle of an otherwise mediocre and overlong groove song.  "Playing With Spiders / Skullkrusher" drones on and on and on for ten torturous minutes, riding on a goddamn funeral thrash chug with absolutely no energy or power behind it, until over five minutes go by and it suddenly morphs into "Beyond the Black" by Metal Church.  It's frustrating to sit through full song lengths of bland non-riffs before being treated to one incredible one in the bridge before the coda comes by to stink things up again, especially when there are song scattered around that prove the band's ability to keep things fresh and fun.

Yeah, the album isn't full of losers, there are plenty of things I like to be found here.  "Evil Never Dies", despite being an east coast reimagining of "Damage Inc.", is one of the all time great Overkill songs.  The main riffs are blisteringly fast and precise, with aggression pouring out of every riff with reckless abandon.  The chorus just throws caution to the wind and blows everything away in a furious cyclone of vitriol, with Blitz bringing home one of his greatest performances with the stop start madness of "AS IT COMES! AWAKEN ME! IS IT DONE!".  It sounds like his lungs are going to burst and his corneas are going to detach themselves, and I love every second of it.  The bridge features one of the most crushing riffs the band would ever write, and the slow crescendo of malice with Blitz raining down a litany of abuse upon the subject of the song, climaxing with a near orgiastic release of venom, stands as my all time favorite moment in Overkill's entire discography (and that's keeping in mind that Feel the Fire is one of my all time favorite albums and every song on that one is a flawless classic).  "I Hate" is a fantastic burst of punk energy, and "Elimination" is a thrash classic and live staple for a reason, with instantly memorable riffs and lyrics delivered with a malicious sneer.  There are classic riffs and leads abound, and in a bubble there is a perfectly great six song EP hidden in here with three painfully overlong trainwrecks.

The problem is that, just as I said, it sorta needs to be viewed in a bubble, because the instant you apply the context of where thrash metal was in 1989, a lot of the genius starts to unravel.  "Elimination", for as great of an anthem as it is, is just far too blatant with its influences.  Yes, the main riff is the "Master of Puppets" riff.  No, it's not different because it's slightly faster and two of the sixteen notes are different, that's the same fucking excuse Vanilla Ice used when he jacked the beat from "Under Pressure", don't give me that shit.  Even the leads take liberal cues from the genre originators, with bits of the solos being lifted almost note for note from "Battery" and "Jump in the Fire".  It's a nice touch to have a short burst of punk fueled aggression in the third track slot, but I mean, that's kinda what "Motorbreath" did.  Sure, that could just be a coincidence, but when you consider that the first and last tracks are introduced and structured so similarly to their counterparts on Master of Puppets, AND the second track on each album starts with the same fucking riff, you start to look for the other similarities between the two records.  "The Thing That Should Not Be" is replaced with "Skullkrusher", "Welcome Home" is replaced with "Who Tends the Fire", "Disposable Heroes" is shortened and replaced with "Birth of Tension", basically the only song that I never immediately drew a parallel back to the Bay Area stalwarts is "Nothing to Die For", and apart from a funky bass break that song stands as the clear filler track in terms of the six fast songs.  Even little things like the precision in the sharp downstrokes that sound like Gustafson's right arm was replaced with a forty ton sewing machine just scream Hetfield to me.  At this point maybe I'm just looking for things, but it's noticeable once you enter extreme nitpick mode and they're hard to ignore afterwards.

I know it probably seems like I'm calling this a copy of the legendary 1986 release, but I honestly don't think that's the case entirely.  It's less like Overkill traced over a picture that Metallica drew, and more like them plugging in Overkill brand components into a template that Metallica originally drew up before switching some parts around and running with it.  The riffs are like 90% Overkill, with only one glaring "homage" that stretches the definition to dangerous territory, the attitude is the inimitable Jersey swagger that Overkill always had, the vocals are worlds apart considering Blitz is probably the most instantly recognizable frontman in all of thrash, Sid Falck is obviously leagues ahead of Lars Ulrich in terms of percussion, it's a lot simpler and less ambitious, et cetera.  There are plenty of differences, but the similarities are very strong, and it only reinforces my theory that wherever thrash was heading, Overkill was never the conductor.  They were always a few cars back, usually being extremely good at whatever they're doing (the other four albums out of the first five illustrate this quite well), but always emulating what the bigger names in American thrash were up to.  This in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, since there are plenty of bands who take more than a little bit of influence from the classics and end up being great themselves, and Overkill really always had their own identity despite them always leisurely floating down the current.  But The Years of Decay is living in the shadow of a much larger classic record, and it shows in the songs that sound like Overkill trying to do what Metallica did, instead of Overkill doing what they do best, like they did on Feel the Fire, Taking Over, and Horrorscope.

RATING - 42%

PS - Despite the fact that this nestles neatly in the niche of "Classic album that I'm being overly negative towards" that makes up the Jerking the Circle series, I decided against counting it as part of the series because despite me overall not liking the album, there are a lot of good things here that just get lost in execution, and as such it doesn't quite fit the template of I HATE WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE LIKES.