Overkill is back. And although they haven’t reinvented the (grinding) wheel, the old thrash geezers still have an impressive array of riffs to offer. Although the riffs are generally pretty crushing for a bunch of nearly sexagenarian metalheads, the veteran production job is what really makes this album’s millstones turn. It might sound like a poor compliment to say that an album’s most resounding success is in its production, but it really is that effective. One can hear it as soon as the riffs of “Mean Green Killing Machine” rip through the speakers. The guitar sounds appropriately meaty and aggressive, but it’s the thrum of D.D. Verni’s bass, sonorous and yet foreboding, that sticks out as unusually excellent. It’s very rare to hear an album in which the bass is so clearly audible without detracting from the other instruments. Somehow, everything sounds loud without anything being diminished. The powerful percussion crashes and explodes a rhythmic jig, occasionally offering bursts of rapid fire double-bass to achieve peak intensity. And the caterwauling of Bobby “Blitz” Ellworth is as crazed and manic as ever. So, in sum: everything sounds great. They’re older, more silver-haired, but the veterans know how to create a thrash metal album better than almost anyone. The failing of The Grinding Wheel, then, is in the riffs and songwriting.
All of the riffs are decent. A few of them are good. Thanks to the optimal production gracing the album, the decent riffs sound good, and the good riffs sound great. The album is easy to throw on and absentmindedly headbang too — but repeated listens will reveal a lack of really killer riffs and fresh ideas on The Grinding Wheel. That’s not to say there aren’t high points on the album; “Red White and Blue” features one of the attention-demanding riffs that the legendary thrash metal albums are littered with; “The Long Road” is the best song on the album, featuring exciting and well-arranged solos, a catchy chorus, and a wee bit of plagiarism (the opening riff sounds just like Metallica’s “Fade to Black”). The title track works a little magic, too. The ending is packed with artificial elements of an “epic” sound — church bells, choirs, slowed pace, a repeated vocal refrain, an orchestral ending — but it’s a fitting end to the album, and is just spine-tingling enough to avoid reeking of artifice. Conversely, there are some disappointing troughs to the album as well. The chorus to “Shine On” screeches and grates the ear, “Come Heavy” is mostly Godsmack-sounding mediocrity, and “Red White and Blue” (besides one great riff) falls flat. Many of the songs in The Grinding Wheel stretch the bounds of typical thrash metal song lengths. Probably the most egregious example is “Mean Green Killing Machine”. There is no reason whatsoever for that song to be 7:30. A song three minutes shorter could have achieved all of the same musical goals, and would have made a fantastic single.
Perhaps they were taking a page from Metallica’s new album. Every song is about five minutes or longer, resulting in an album over one hour in length. There’s no classic 3 to 4 minute thrash metal banger like “Mean Green Killing Machine” should have been. Every song requires a commitment. The album’s fairly consistent pace and intensity bloats the full hour even further.
The Grinding Wheel grinds to a halt in some places, but the vast majority of the album possesses enough riffing clout and maniacal vocals to crush any suspicion that these old-timers can’t thrash with the new kids. They’re certainly no Vektor — but they are Overkill, and don’t you forget it, young man!
The Grinding Wheel releases on February the 18th via Nuclear Blast Records. You can pre-order it right here.