Friday, October 24, 2014

Overkill - White Devil Armory review

Right near the start of this, Overkill's 18th studio album, you just know you are in for a hell of a ride.   The ominous bleat of intro xDm creates an eerie tranquillity, which is then abruptly shattered by machine-gun double-kicks and the brutally energetic main riff of Armorist.  This is, appropriately, the opening salvo of White Devil Armory and with lines like "I'm a one man army, I'm a warring nation" the intent of the veteran New Jersey thrash outfit is clear.

What follows is one of the best albums of Overkill's career to date, spanning 30 years and four decades, and which is also largely devoid of the form slumps that plagued most of their 80's thrash contemporaries.  White Devil Armory is thrash metal through and through, but it also incorporates some of the more progressive elements that Overkill wielded on their outstanding 2010 album Ironbound, and the perceptible, raw energy that is pretty much their trademark.  

They've stuck the ideal balance here between the two, because White Devil Armory is consistently interesting and energetic without ever becoming predictable.  

The dust has barely cleared from the initial shellacking of Armory when Down to the Bone launches an equally ambitious attack.  The approach here is somewhat more methodical - there's big riffs and big climaxes but there's clearly also a measured structure to make the most of the big moments, and a certain insistence of rhythm and momentum throughout. This somewhat industrial vibe is a subtle complement to the main chorus refrain of "We're working down to the... down to the bone".

"Measured" is not a word one would use to describe Pig, a raw, punkish blast that harkens right back to Overkill's very origins and the same attitude that led to such memorably named EPs as "Fuck You... and Then Some!"

Next up is second single Bitter Pill, which seems initially like a fairly solid mid-tempo number, but unfolds with twists, turns and clever details.  There's some weird vocal layering in the chorus which makes singer Bobby Blitz sound incredibly eerie, which is neatly complemented by a similarly sinister guitar lead.  And then, just when you think that chorus is about to hit for the second time, instead the track abruptly segues into an obscenely bouncy bridge which has mosh pit mayhem written all over it.

The creepy vocal layering is also in full effect on Where There's Smoke, which sneakily marries two tricks from its two immediate predecessors - the energy and aggression of Pig and the "kickass bridge" of Bitter Pill.

Freedom Rings looks slightly further back in Overkill's catalogue for inspiration - the progressive fingerprints of Ironbound are all over its 7 minute span, and although this is a track with twists and turns and epic solos throughout, there's almost a sense of catharsis in the decision to close it with a simple, chuggy, classic riff.

Another Day to Die is probably one of the more straightforward tracks on the album but even then, there's gold to be found in some of the discordant guitar leads and a particularly venomous vocal performance from Blitz who sounds like even more of a demented gremlin than he has in the past.

Next up, King of the Rat Bastards proves to be exactly as likeable as one would expect a track with a title like that to be.  There's some classic thrash chug in the verses, which provides the ideal platform for the helter-skelter chorus to let rip, climaxing - yep, you guessed it, on that line "...of the rat bastards!!".  The fact Blitz seems to accentuate his New Jersey twang on "bassss-tards!" just makes it even more fun.

It's All Yours leans possibly a little too far towards generic Overkill at times, and doesn't offer as much as some of the other tracks but is somewhat saved by a pretty glorious solo towards the end.

However, closing track In the Name is, in a word, imperious.  A majestic intro, more creepy treatment on Blitz's vocals, more progressive influences, and a seemingly endless supply of chord barrages close out the album much the way it started - with a very large bang, albeit a far more refined and epic one than Armorist

Overkill have undergone as many line-up changes as the average 80's thrash metal band at this point in time, but the core duo of Blitz and bassist DD Verni are still front and centre, and the current iteration - including xxxxxxxx - sound exceptionally tight throughout.

In White Devil Armory they've produced an enthralling, well-paced blast of a metal album which demands to be considered alongside their best.  This is the Overkill that you (should) know and love, at the top of their game.  It's a five-star album in my books - not because it's necessarily perfect, but because it's too much bloody fun to be anything less!  

And for that same reason, it's probably going to take something pretty special from someone else for it not to be my album of the year.  In true Overkill style, they've really thrown down the gauntlet with this one.

Footnote: Some versions of the album feature a couple of bonus tracks.  I'm not always a fan of these (why put something on an album if it's not actually part of the album??), but one of these, The Fight Song, is actually an example of a bonus track done well.  It sounds too upbeat to be part of the album, but it's a pretty fun song in its own right - hence it's actually a rare example of a well-judged bonus track.

California Breed - album review

Once upon a time, there was a supergroup called Black Country Communion.  At 3 albums, their life was probably a lot longer than the average, but inevitably they had a big fight and split up, just like all good (and bad) supergroups do.  

Anyway, bassist/singer Glenn Hughes (who has played in almost every 70's-era metal band ever) and drummer Jason Bonham (son of THAT Bonham, and occasional member of recent Led Zeppelin reunions) decided they could probably still make some good music, even without blues guitar whiz Joe Bonamassa and keyboardist Derek Sherinian (ex-Dream Theater, no, not the weird bald one, the  other one from ages ago).

So they did exactly what you would expect two rock veterans to do (Bonham is 48 and Hughes is 62), and started a new band with a 23-year old guitarist by the name of Andrew Watt that no-one had ever heard of, other than Julian Lennon (yes, son of THAT Lennon) who made the introduction.

That band was called California Breed and so is their debut album.

I'll be honest, I was pretty sold after about 30 seconds of opening track The Way.  It begins with a monolithic funk-rock riff, and Hughes sounding in ridiculously powerful form on the mic - and then escalates from there.  There's this fun, insidiously catchy 'whooooa ohhh ohhh' style bridge section and then Hughes goes really, really ballistic - the line at 2:27 is delivered with unbelievably fierce power and control and never fails to send a chill down my spine.  

Seriously, the guy is 62, for goodness' sake.  And yet his vocals are an absolute highlight throughout this album.  He somehow manages to combine the power you expect from a great rock singer with the soul you'd expect from, well, a great soul singer.  As good as he sounded on the Black Country Communion - he's even better here. This is career-best form from one of rock's great vocalists.

However, what is arguably more impressive is the guitar performance of Andrew Watt.  The risk of having a young guy like him alongside two giants like Hughes and Bonham is that either he just can't foot it with them, or that he ends up overplaying to compensate.  In fact, he does neither of these things.  The solo on cruisy ballad All Falls Down is a shining example - Watt delivers it with a ton of soul, a few sneaky hints that he can shred with the best, and a closing note that gives you the same sort of chills as Hughes vocals.

The album is probably best described as hard rock with some classic influences - although there's noticeably more of a modern feel than on the BCC albums.  Think big, driving riffs, Bonham hitting the drums pretty hard, but with some nice melodic contrasts in there too as well as the funk influences that Hughes has toyed with from time to time.

It's not all quite as good as that beast of an opening track, but it is pretty consistent and balanced throughout, with other highlights including the Bonham-powered groove of Midnight Oil, the back-home boogie of Spit You Out, and the 1-2 closing punch of Scars and Breathe.

They might only be good for one album given the average longevity of supergroups, but they've certainly made that album a very worthwhile one. Although, given Bonham has recently left due to scheduling issues, and has been replaced by former Queens of the Stone Age drummer Joey Castillo, there's an argument that the supergroup tag no longer applies.  Either way, long may California Breed rock.