The lights in the Troc barely have a chance to dim before Overkill attacks the stage on a Friday night. Immediately, they begin to pound out the initial notes to “Come and Get It”, the first track on their new album The Electric Age. Like all proper opening tracks, the song is as heavy as it is menacing. As soon as the sound begins to trample through the P.A., blood rushes into the collective biceps of the crowd. The audience is whipped into a frenzy. Welcome to life at a true thrash concert. Old-School. Badass. Thrash Metal.
Metal shows are famous for being on the edge of brutal because a few constants exist across the entire genre: There’s always a mosh pit. The decibels are off the charts. The diehard fans wake up the following day feeling as if they’ve spent the better part of their night in a movie-esque bar brawl. While these traits define a glimpse of heavy metal, the energy shared during an old-school thrash set is absolutely unparalleled. There’s no psuedo kung fu in these pits, no animosity, no egos. It’s all love, really. There’s an energy shared within the collective mindset at a thrash metal concert that is incomparable. However, you’ll still need to keep your head on a swivel. It’s loud, fast, and at times, painful.
Overkill is more than familiar with the power generated by a thrash metal event. Since the early 80’s, they’ve been considered among the original blacksmiths that helped forge the genre into what it was, what it is, and what it should be. They are part of an elite group of musicians that can claim responsibility as being the orginal purveyors of thrash metal along with the likes of Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica, Testament and Exodus.
It’s also no surprise that the bands who spearheaded the genre are still the ones manning the big guns, so to speak. Most of the groups (sometimes sharing the same rotating pools of musicians) are still touring and recording albums at the top of their game. There’s something to be said for having decades of experience in this aggressive genre of music.
And the experience shows. The East Coast juggernauts from New Jersey continually find the ammo they need to sonically assault a venue. In addition to classic favorites like “Hello from the Gutter”, “Elimination”, and “Wrecking Crew”, they plowed through a number of tracks off of 2009’s metal-clinic, Ironbound, as well as a few off of their most recent release, The Electric Age. (Which at the the Philadelphia show, was the first time the songs from their new album had been played in front of an audience; one of the perks of being on the east coast when guys from Jersey kick off a major tour.)
With a track record that is personified by their stage presence, the “Green and Black” remain among legend. Their lineup is air-tight, the tone is impeccable and their energy blisters across the stage. With the final song of the encore being their infamous (and subtle) cover, “Fuck You”, they exemplify exactly what their name suggests in extreme fashion. Safe to say, it’s difficult to catch your breath at any point during the heavy metal gauntlet that is Overkill. True fans of thrash wouldn’t have it any other way.
I managed to catch up with frontman Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth a few days after the show to hear his take on the live set, playing in Philly, the road ahead, and the history/state of thrash metal in today’s music scene.
RS: There’s something to be said about the longevity of heavy metal music. Did you ever think thrash metal would take it this far? Also, have you noticed that after three decades, people continue to look to the veterans like you guys, Anthrax and Testament among others, to keep making the music that they want to hear?
BB:- I think we never could have forecast the fact that this music would have value down the road, but I think there’s something to said about…there’s a purity in thrash. There’s an honesty with thrash. There is an underlying feeling of connection with the community and people that listen to it. There’s also new bands around that are waving the flag. So I think that it’s actually expanded over time. I have some people ask me if I remember the good ol’ days and I tell them, “You know, these days are pretty good too!” So, I never could have forecast it, but in hindsight, I know why it lasted. The reason that it did last…was because of that purity, that honesty and that value.
RS: It seems obvious over the past few albums that your current lineup easily clicks on all things that are heavy. The drums, bass, guitars and vocals; the overall tone across the board, it’s all crystal clear and it just keeps getting stronger. What I’m getting at is: it’s 2012 and you east coast juggernauts are still pumping out some of the most rock-solid, hard ‘n aggressive music that I’ve ever heard… and the fans are proud to call Thrash Metal. How do you guys continuously find that much heavy material to lay down on the tracks?
BB:- You know, somebody recently asked me about recording some of our old records with regards to the newer technology available and I said, “Hey man, we still have stuff to offer today!” I’m not going to go back about into what we were about. I mean, this is about what we ARE. And there’s this really killer chemistry we have with the guys. Like you said, we’re all East Coast guys, we’re right across the river from the PA boys, and I think there’s a certain work-ethic there. There’s a competitiveness.
If we’re doing a record like Ironbound for instance in 2010, by the time we get to The Electric Age, I’m competing against myself for what we did on the last record. So I think if you have that kind of a work-ethic, you always want to learn, you always want to do better, you always want to make it a little heavier; then the formula is correct with the chemistry of the band. So I think that’s why it’s working. Great chemistry…and even competition with oneself can be motivational.
RS: Speaking of Electric Age, as a fellow musician, I have to ask this:
The breakdown in the middle of “Electric Rattlesnake”. The first time I heard it, I almost put myself through a wall. It was just that heavy. The first time you guys jammed that one out, what kinds of faces did you all make? Did you look around at each other and utter, “Oh-h, fuck yeah!”…because it’s just one of those riffs that seems to make your balls heavier?
BB:- (after bursting into laughter)….I guess that’s a compliment! …..(more laughing). Hey listen man, let me tell you, when I first heard that song, there was something about it that was so special. When we got to the riff in the breadown, I said, “We’ve gone from break-neck to break-down…and then another breakdown into quarter-time.” This is six minutes and fifteen seconds that contains every element that Overkill has done over a 25-year period. It was a really unique thing to see everything that we’re about in one song. It was Overkill personified. And I agree 100%; when that breakdown riff came, there was some head-banging going on in that rehearsal studio.
RS: Well there was definitely some headbanging going on when you guys played it at the Philly show.
BB:- A Flyers fan I hear on the other end? Those guys…I got t-shirts from somebody connected with the Flyers because they do pre-skates to one of our songs, “Wrecking Crew”; which I thought was cool. I’m a Devils fan myself, believe me, but I like knowing it’s easy for any hockey team to pick up on our stuff.
RS: After all these years and the famously enormous catalogue that Overkill has, does it become difficult to choose the setlist for a show?
BB:- It does, but basically, there’s three segments to our setlist. There’s the new material, which we’d always rather play…because it’s new. It’s fun to get out there having never done this song before. The first time we ever did “Electric Rattlesnake” live was actually at this last show in Philadelphia. The first time it was ever performed in front of people was when you saw it. So that’s always really fun to be able to do that. You feel like you’re taking a risk because the excitement is a live-or-die excitement when you’re able to pull it off. Then, you know, we always throw in some classics. We also keep a portion of the set where we slide in and out some of the different tunes from throughout our career. Recently, like “It Lives” off of From the Underground and Below. So with those three segments, that’s basically how we put together our setlists.
RS: How has life on the road changed since you first started touring the country/world…from back in the 80’s up until now?
BB:- I’ve told people that I used to walk into a venue with a beer in each hand and a hard-on. Now I have a cup of coffee. It’s all about the shows and that’s what is most important. Any growth we can accomplish after this many years of playing is an outstanding feeling. I’ve always loved the road. I’m cut for it…it’s something that I really live for. Even back home, my wife will tell me that I’m getting antsy and I need to wait just a few more days before touring. She can tell when the energy starts happening. It’s just something that is special to me. My philosophy is that the biggest show of my life is always the show I’m doing that night. If I think that, then usually I’ll succeed. I never take it for granted …because every show matters and it has to be done correctly. So, in terms of the shows, life has stayed the same….but I think now I sleep later and drink less.
RS: So what is next on the agenda for Overkill following the Killfest tour?
BB: We’re stacked! Probably stacked with shows until February 2013. Not continuously of course; we have to keep other lives in balance. But we’ll finish this tour and go home. Then it’s a few weeks and we’re down in Mexico. Then we have a few 5-6 day pops over in Europe. Then a full European tour in September. We just got asked to support one of the “big guys” out there in November. Then the Japanese came in wanting shows, so did the Austrailians, the Indonesians before Christmas, then a second U.S. run starting in January.
RS: That IS stacked.
BB:- Yeah, we like it like that though. We keep it going in little 3-week pops to keep everybody fresh and happy.
RS: Ok, last one. I’ve done a little of my own research into the subject, but I wanted to hear it from you- how did you earn the nickname “Blitz”?
BB: Well, everybody had nicknames back then, you know? They used to call me “Oh my god he’s blitzed again” back when we were just playing cover tunes. I was actually kicked out of the band for about three months because of my over-the-top lifestyle, I guess. That was back before we were even signed. But from there, I kind of cleaned up my act and realized the value of what this is all about. It has impact, it has power and I want to make it right. So, eventually it became shortened to just “Blitz”. It’s a neat thing that actually changed my life …if you want to put it that way.
Written by: Ryan Sullivan
Photos by: James Kelly and Ryan Sullivan