2016 was an odd year for Thrash Metal legends. Megadeth and Anthrax, who had released albums that were among the highest echelons of their careers in Endgame and We Have Come For You All respectively post-2000, both released albums what could arguably be counted amongst the worst in their back-catalogues. Metallica’s long-awaited opus, however, was heralded by most as the finest thing they’d done certainly since 1996’s Load and probably since The Black Album, despite it’s often meandering and slightly bloated qualities.
The important thing about Hardwired… To Self Destruct (the aforementioned Metallica record), was that it saw not only a crucial shift in editing skills, but also acknowledgement of the fact that:
Millionaires in their nearing their 60’s are probably not best placed to write conviction-drenched gutter rat filth delivered at sometimes near-impossible speed.
The so-dubbed “Motorhead of Thrash metal”, aka New Jersey’s Overkill, are deemed by many to be criminally pushed aside in a big four- dominated world, and a stream of consistently wholesome, immaculately produced and technically superior records in the decade or so have only seen the old-school fans swear by them more fervently.
The Grinding Wheel, Overkill’s 18th studio LP, still has all of those things in abundance. It’s an absolute riff-storm from start to finish.
It sounds clean and smooth while hinting at the rawness that was so imperative to thrash’s ‘80s heyday, and the precision with which it’s delivered rarely veers from blistering form. The issues, as with a lot of Thrash in recent years (both in terms of revivalism and bands clinging on desperately to their roots), comes with how much one can buy into the aesthetic of cheesiness, and on The Grinding Wheel it so often falls into the trap of being overwrought, overbearing and of course, interminably clichéd.
Titles like “Mean, Green, Killing Machine” go even further down the goofiness rabbit hole than Municipal Waste ever would.
Whereas you can’t take the rapid-fire lyrical puerility on the otherwise rollicking thrash ‘n’ roll assault of “Goddamn Trouble” seriously it’s also far too annoying and hackneyed to be fun. The staccato, machine-gun riffing of “Our Finest Hour” is rip-roaring and there is a genuinely sick humour in the idea that references to nose-picking and genocide can be lyrical bedfellows, but the full-throttle stomp and musical changeability of “Shine On” is ruined by a horribly hashed hook and the skin-peeling “come on!” vocal chants.
In the album’s later stages the boring post-apocalyptic hedonism of “Let’s All Go To Hades” and the poor man’s AC/DC swagger of “Come Heavy” keep running the same dry mill, but perhaps the record’s finest tracks are saved for last. “Red, White and Blue” is a sly punch to the gut of both American foreign policy and patriotism, showcasing a level of subtlety it was previously impossible to see coming. The furious old-school speed spills over into the similarly brilliant “The Wheel,” which sees frontman Bobby Ellsworth yelping “I’d love to sit and lick my wounds and heal, or soar around the blue moon, but I must grease the wheel” in another surprisingly verbose and effecting comment on the concept of soldiers being meat for the grinder in needless conflicts.
The Grinding Wheel is a patchy piece of work that quite often cannot pick itself up out its own absurdity.
It has been lapped up by the band’s long-time fans and metal critics universally, and just as Ellsworth said in a statement about the record, “our trademark is that we are always recognisable on every release”. Unlike both the previously mentioned Megadeth and Anthrax missteps last year however, it is a record whose merits hold true to the band’s oeuvre and, on a handful of occasions, is properly thrilling.