By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
OVERKILL – THE YEARS OF DECAY (1989)
Even the most casual of heavy metal fans have heard the term “The Big Four”. The term is used to signify the four big bands of thrash metal, being Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer. You can put them in any order you want depending on your preference, but those are the names that are commonly associated with “The Big Four”. Of course, then there are those people who just have to come up with “The Next Four” and that is where Overkill is pretty well situated by most fans.
But for me this is an issue. You see I regularly commit metal heresy by not really caring all that much for Slayer or Megadeth. Each of the bands have some good songs but they’ve never truly done it for me as a whole.
Meanwhile, when it comes to Overkill they have been far more interesting if not quite as commercially succesful as any of those other bands. Admittedly, there has been times when my fandom for the band has waxed and waned. But it you really can handle the truth as I see it, Overkill produced one of the single best thrash records of all time, better than anything I’ve heard from “The Big Four” save perhaps a couple of Metallica albums.
And that’s the album I’m writing about this week. The Years Of Decay is the band’s fourth album and for my money, their unmatched masterpiece. In recent years, Overkill has released a succession of outstanding albums but even those fail to dent the love I have for this album. Put it this way, if thrash metal had made the Top 40 singles chart, Overkill would’ve had four monster hits from The Years of Decay at the very least!
My first exposure to Overkill was from their previous album Under The Influence. I don’t remember too much about the whole release but I loved the song “Hello From The Gutter”, which I was pretty well exposed to via the band’s video that got played on Headbanger’s Ball.
But when I heard the song “Elimination” on the radio (The Metal Zone on 94 HJY in Providence, RI) I was well and truly hooked. There’s a feel to the music that gets deep into your head, bones and ears. The band is usually going all guns blazing with a rapid fire series of shredding guitars and relentlessly pounding drums. With Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth’s machine gun of a voice spitting out lyrics over the top, what you get is seamlessly blended brutal heavy FN metal.
But what makes this album for me is that even with all that driving metallic brutality, there is still a sense of melody to the music. It’s not pounding rhythms and spitfire lyrics with no rhyme or reason. The band builds each song into a standout performance, each track building a complete picture of where the band was at this particular time.
While most of the songs are sincerely over the top with the furiously relentless pacing, when the band slows things down for a bit on songs like “Playing With Spiders / Skullcrusher”, the title track or “Who Tends The Fire”, their ability to still stay almost oppressively heavy is fine tuned to the point of perfection. Even then, there’s still spots in each of those songs where the tempo gets the pedal pushed to the metal. This gives the songs a little extra charge of adrenaline. At times, I felt that there was a cinematic feel to the musical score on these songs.
But let’s get back to the non-stop fury songs on this album. The album opens with “A Time To Kill” and right from the start, you can also see that the band is also pretty handy with a turn of lyrical phrase to the point where I think their lyrics get a bit overlooked.
The title “I Hate” might conjure up ideas of what the song is about, but you’d likely be wrong with your first impression. Instead, you’ve got another brilliantly executed rip your throat out track that is kind of incisive lyrically as well.
I’ve listened to this album a number of times over the years, the cassette I bought when the album was first released is still the one I own and listened to for this article. I was able to finally track down an affordable CD copy as well since I’ve been paranoid about the cassette breaking down and being without any copy of The Years of Decay. To coincide with having listened to the album so often, the album’s closing song is called “E.vil N.ever D.ies”. And as fast as all the other songs are, they are incapable of touching what the band does on this number. It’s pure metallic shred with nary a let up on the gas. And Ellsworth’s straight from the depths of hell vocal performance has continually left my pathetic attempts to sing along with the light speed delivery he employs for the lyrics. It’s been 30 years since its release and yet I still trip over my tongue trying to keep up with this song. I find it hard to specify my favorite track on the album but this is definitely one of them for sure.
If you’ve read this series for any length of time, you know that I prefer the more melodic driven side of metal. The endless shrieking caterwauling of the more extreme side of the genre doesn’t usually appeal that much to me. I’d say that Overkill would be the dividing line band for me. They are uniformly thrashing from one moment to the next but they are also driven by an underlying sense of rhythmic melody (at least to my ears). And that is on full display with The Years of Decay. I’ll say it again, this album is their masterpiece and I have no problem touting this as one of the best thrash albums of all time, PERIOD!
NOTES OF INTEREST: The album was produced by Terry Date who also worked with Metal Church, Fifth Angel, Chastain and Pantera amongst a host of other acts.
The Years of Decay was the last album featuring guitarist Bobby Gustafson.
The band is still active today having released the album The Wings of War in February 2019.