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While often rightly seen as Motörhead’s turning point away from 70s rock towards heavy metal, the true nature of “Overkill” should not be jaded by overstating the contrast between this and the previous album (or albums if you count “On Parole” as it was recorded earlier, though released later). This is first and foremost a rock album, played with a rock guitarist who very seldom ventures outside of the blues box even during his wildest solos, and largely asserts its aggression by presenting the style in its hardest, nastiest way possible. The punk element has definitely crept its way into the mix and has given the band some broader dimensions in lyrical subject matter, though the line of succession back to the 50s and 60s format is still quite clear, in contrast to most 70s punk bands where the commonalities with Chuck Berry, Elvis, The Beatles, Cream, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin were falling away.
The major evolutionary jump that is seen here is manifest in the auspiciously fast and long title song. It doesn’t really cook any faster than a few other proto-speed metal classics such as Riot’s “Warrior”, Rainbow’s “Kill The King” or Judas Priest’s “Exciter”, but the combination of the fast paced riffing and dirty shouts definitely show an alternative template that was picked up a bit more by thrash metal bands than the others, which were a bit more consonantly tinged and power metal-like. It’s more of a slowly progressing riff machine in the style of the early 80s speed outfits, and isn’t quite as informed by the dark Toni Iommi sound that would later play a determining role in shaping thrash’s riff character. But beyond anything else, this is a timeless song that still manages to communicate that aggravated sense of angst with a dated, 3 decades old production.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this album, and one that would set a precedent for a number of bands, is that Lemmy and company let the cat out of the bag right at the beginning of the album. No matter how good the songs are on here, and there are many solid fits of rock on here, they can’t measure up to the sheer speed and intensity of what can be summed up as an amazing experiment in pushing the limits of present day practices. The infectiously catchy “No Class”, apart from sounding pretty damn similar to ZZ Top’s “Tush” in several parts, rocks pretty hard and showcases a pure 70s rock sound with a gravely as hell vocal display. Things get toned down a little bit and show Lemmy’s somewhat more sensitive and complex side in “I’ll Be Your Sister”, which doesn’t get quite as emotionally charged as “Only Women Bleed”, nor does it venture out of the up tempo pentatonic rock dogmas of the time, but is moving nonetheless.
Nevertheless, there some other signs of progression out of the prototypical 70s sound, manifesting primarily in how Lemmy’s bass sound has evolved. While the title song is an obvious example of him showing the instrument in a more prominent function than simply supporting the drums, the really interesting stuff comes into play a little later on. Most notably on “Stay Clean” and “Limb From Limb”, which generally stay relatively close to a rock format, showcase a raunchy, distorted bass sound that takes a few cues from Geezer Butler, but ups the ante as well. Bearing in mind that this was before the grand days of Joey Demaio and Cliff Burton really exploring the bass as a solo instrument, historically the contributions at work on these songs are of particular note, especially given that they occur in songs that are compact and easy to sing along to, rather than jam out epics typical to Sabbath’s earlier material.
At the end of the day, the historical significance of this album is undeniable, though the staying power of some of these songs is less so. Like any album that functions in a transitional way, there is a general inconsistency that develops, and a few songs seem unwilling to conform themselves to the new approach and come off as filler. In truth, despite being one of the greatest contributors to heavy metal’s glorious history, Motörhead has always had an issue with a few fifth wheel songs finding their way onto their studio releases, such is the case with “Damage Case” and “(I Won’t) Pay Your Price”, which don’t really distinguish themselves from a number of songs by Deep Purple or UFO, save the vocals. But whether treating this as a musical revolution or just another rock album with a few surprises, “Overkill” is definitely an essential album for the vintage metal fanatic.