Overkill – The Wings of War

No band have waved the flag for traditional thrash metal harder and higher than Overkill. Whether they invented the genre or not is debatable, but the New Yorkers appear assured in their position its single greatest producers. The band have steadily been putting out records every two-to-three years since 1985, with The Wings of War being the nineteenth (twentieth if you count 1999’s Coverkill). Moreover, as with many supposedly lesser thrash acts, their recent material has also generally been released to greater and more consistent critical acclaim than that of the “Big 4” (see also: Testament, Exodus, Kreator). Yet, in the face of such such a prolific output it’s perhaps worth considering just how much is a good thing is still a good thing?

The Wings of War puts Overkill firmly ahead of their competitors in terms of sheer statistics. As mentioned in the introduction, the band’s original output is sitting at just shy of twenty albums —well ahead of the next-most prolific of all the classic thrash metal acts, Annihilator, who have sixteen studio records to their name. Megadeth have been the most productive of the “Big 4” having put out fifteen albums, with one on the way. Teutonic mainstays Sodom also have fifteen albums on the board, while Slayer Anthrax and Metallica trail well behind at twelve, eleven and ten records respectively. In fact, the only legitimate challenger to their impressive output comes via the collective works of Max Cavalera, who counts an impressive twenty-three major releases across his many projects (Sepultura themselves sit at fourteen)—though their thrash qualifications are open to interpretation, which is something you can’t say for Overkill. No one is questioning their dedication to the thrash cause. The problem is, only about half of all Overkill’s albums are actually any good (and I, personally, only actively like about half that number again). Add to that a seemingly-endless stream of impressive, though largely unnecessary live releases and you start to see where the problem lies.

Call it “Overkill overkill”, but it often seems like the band’s preceding record has barely stopped playing before the next one is on the way. Furthermore, the foundational thrashers aren’t exactly known for their variety. Minus some minor experiments with groovier tempos during the 1990s and early 2000s (that’s nine albums worth of minor experimentation for those of you keeping count), the band’s sound hasn’t changed all that much since their debut. Somewhere along the line the instrumentation became more involved and the production improved with the times, but—bar maybe one or two releases—Overkill have essentially put out the same record nineteen times over at this point. Also, while their output since 2010’s Ironbound has been hailed among most thrash circles as some sort of second-coming, for me, only 2014’s White Devil Armory has really met its mark.

…Which is why I’m really quite surprised by how taken I am by The Wings of War. Maybe it’s just the lowered expectations embedded by their most recent offering—2017’s The Grinding Wheel, which really did come off like a tired impression of its predecessors—but Overkill’s nineteenth record easily earns its spot in the upper half of the band’s discography. Again, perhaps that’s simply a reflection of the relatively low quality of the bulk of the band’s output. We’re not talking The Years of Decay (1989), Horrorscope (1991) or even Taking Over (1987) levels of quality here. Nor is The Wings of War the kind of definitive stylistic release that Ironbound and Necroshine (1999) were before it. Yet, as far as impressive and compelling songwriting goes, the album far outshines the majority of the eighteen records that precede it.

Although still very much in line with the band’s prior output, The Wings of War brings some slight—yet very welcome—variation to its canvas. Even lesser Overkill outings usually come packed with a fairly lethal opener and “Last Man Standing” is right up there with the best of them. It’s ominous opening build recalls the helicopter blades and delay pedals of “Necroshine”, though what follows is far more in line with the band’s more recent output. “Believe in the Fight” is another instant classic, built around an infectious, anthemic chorus, “Bat Shit Crazy” is as frantic a pit-starter as they’ve ever recorded, which amps up the intensity before “Distortion” offers a welcome change of pace. “Head of a Pin,” similarly, recalls the more subdued moments of late ’80s Megadeth and Metallica, while “Where Few Dare to Walk” does its best to invoke the latter’s “The Thing that Should Not Be”. Although the quality dips slightly in the later half, the band manage to maintain a much more consistent level of quality across The Wings of War than they do on a lot of their other albums, which can often be a case of “one-and-done.”

It’s not an entirely faultless record, however. Although the dip in quality is not as drastic as on a lot of Overkill albums, The Wings of War is still certainly front-loaded, with only “Where Few Dare to Walk” really recapturing the spark of its earlier moments. The later moments are also where we find the album’s one true stinker. “Welcome to the Garden State”—which the band have unfortunately chosen to center much of the album’s advertising campaign around—is a cringy clunker in the tradition of The Grinding Wheel‘s “Mean Green Killing Machine” and without the kinetic justification of arguably just as daft fare like “Electric Rattlesnake” from 2012’s The Electric Age. When trying to inject some youthful exuberance into their sound is when Overkill really show their age and, while the song might have made for a fun, lighthearted climax to the record—with three tracks to go—it does more to disrupt the album’s flow than it does to solidify it

I’m aware that this review (more so than most) is quite specific to my own point of view, but the fact is: if you’ve enjoyed Overkill’s last eighteen albums then you’ll probably enjoy their nineteenth as well. The band have spent over three decades honing their craft and appear content to continue churning out records that are sure to please themselves and their fans. What makes their latest offering more impressive is that it appears to have something to offer those, such as myself, who have been less enthralled by their recent output as well. The Wings of War stands alongside White Devil Armory as one of the best albums Overkill have put out over the last decade and is definitely worth checking out if you’ve found yourself sitting on the fence about them in recent years. For everyone else, it’s just business as usual.

The Wings of War comes out February 22, through Nuclear Blast.

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