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.