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There was a reason I held out so long on reviewing Overkill's oft-abhorred 1997 release From the Underground and Below. To my ears, it has always been one of the most difficult to categorize, right up there with Necroshine. However unlike it's successor, it wasn't so cut and dry whether or not the album was a mess or an overlooked masterwork. Is it either? Not really.
Right off the bat, as usual, I have to address the production. However, this time I'm not bitching. This may be the best produced Overkill release since Horrorscope and until Ironbound; ironic that it came at a time when interest and the band's resources were probably at a record low. These guitars are massive and the drums rumble your core, just listen to the beginning of "It Lives", when the distortion kicks in, or during the groovy breakdown later on. DD Verni is scaled back more than normal, he is still audible, but it isn't much of a loss because his performances during the '90s were lackluster at best anyway. Comeau gets perhaps his biggest chance to shine alongside Blitz on this album, and the vocals are mixed so masterfully sometimes it is difficult to tell the two apart. Knowing the accolades both individuals have as vocalists, this is a huge compliment to both of them.
This is definitely the grooviest Overkill release, so that will probably turn most off at first blush. The way I see it, at least in this case they totally devoted themselves to the sound, instead of trying to please everybody. This is commendable, but doesn't necessarily mean the material is all searing or memorable. Blitz's voice on here is just...inhuman. His performance falls most in line with Necroshine, which isn't a bad thing at all. His voice sounds monstrous and the sense of rotten evil pervades every single vocal line save for the really out-of-character ballad "Promises". Comeau and Marino honestly never had much to work with during their tenure with the group due to factors mostly out of their control, but the riffs are passable. There are moments of overt thrashing, but they mostly settle into a mid-paced chug that still carries the day fairly well. There are even some great solos, like on the aforementioned "Promises". Finally, while I constantly bash Tim Mallare, I have to admit that he delivers a commendable performance on the kit here, with enough variety to keep things from getting stale. Definitely one of his best performances during his twelve-year tenure.
Despite all of these positives, many of the tracks in the middle of the album tend to blur together in trademark Overkill fashion. Ironically, just like on The Years of Decay, the first three tracks are the best of the bunch. "Half Past Dead" and "Little Bit o' Murder" are both worth a spin as well. "The Rip n' Tear" is pretty fun, albeit uncharacteristic for even someone like Blitz who is just full of surprises. Don't miss that one. Now don't misunderstand me, From the Underground and Below is still very much an acquired taste, but for '97 this kicks plenty of ass and shouldn't be disregarded by any fan of The 'Kill.
It’s a foregone conclusion that classic 80s Overkill is superior to it’s modern 90s counterpart, but what is often missed by those who dismiss the latter era is that modern 90s Overkill is superior to about 80% of what flies under the modern groove moniker. Even when at their most groovy, overly polished, slowed down extreme, this New York outfit can’t help but keep their heads above the raw sewage that is radio oriented music. Of their various offerings from this era, save perhaps “I Hear Black”, “From The Underground And Below” flirts the heaviest with Zakk Wylde territory, but still manages to possess a charm that its late 90s contemporaries largely lacked.
From the first thudding note of “It Lives”, which is among the more thrashing grooves to be found on here, it is clear that Blitz, D.D. and company are taking a set of ideas from recent works out of Ozzy, Metallica, Machine Head and a few others and attaching some metallic balls to them. Some of the chugging riffs that filter in and out sound somewhat akin to riffs heard on “Load” or “Ozzmosis”, minus the muddiness and plus a whole lot of punch. “Save Me” takes a few notes from Ozzy’s “Miracle Man” both lyrically and musically, but removing the 80s elements in favor of a Pantera-like feel. Sometimes things get bluesy like in the case of “Long Time Dyin’”, while at others there’s a strong intercession of hardcore into the mix such as in “F.U.C.T.”, but the overall attitude of every song tends to stick to the classic middle finger approach common to the time period.
Generally this approach to metal, at best, is worthy of a lukewarm reception, but a few elements at play here making this a fairly praiseworthy release. Blitz has not forgotten how to carry a tune the way Phil Anselmo did, and delivers solid performance on every song found on here. The guitar solo has not been fully discarded to make nice with radio-friendly maggots that were eating up “Stomp 442” and “The More Things Change”. Further still, much as with the previous album and the follow up “Necroshine”, the presence of famed Liege Lord and Annihilator vocalist Jon Comeau ads a unique flavor to the mix. Being one of the more versatile vocalists occupying the power/speed/thrash styles, when not emulating Rob Halford or Harry Conklin, Jon does a solid job going in similar vocal circles to Blitz. His contribution to “F.U.C.T.”, which is a de facto duet between the two, delivers twice the garbled sleaze and anger with little accounting for subtlety.
With perhaps the exception of the extremely lame power ballad “Promises”, which sounds almost sappy enough have been on an early 90s Annihilator album or maybe even a more recent Motley Crue release, this is a consistent collection of songs. It’s not the sort of thing that should be broken out every day or even every week to complement one’s daily intake of metal, unless it’s to bring credibility to a sorry day of gobbling up groove metal; but it is a good token groove album for fans of purer forms of thrash metal. There’s bound to be a bargain bin somewhere in every major locality with a copy of this in need of rescuing, so why not blow 7-9 bucks on something that’s decent enough.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on July 12, 2010.
I consider the climax of Overkill's career to be their first four albums (Feel the Fire through The Years of Decay), each a solid effort with more than its share of classic live staples; and Taking Over being the very best of those. However, the band has continued for 20 years past that period, producing a large body of work, most of which is average and acceptable to fans. Many of their albums tend to have 2-3 catchy tracks and then a lot of filler which is easy to forget in favor of the early records. In the case of 1997's From the Underground and Below, their 9th, the material starts off with a bang, and then slowly fizzles out, leaving only a few moments of excitement for the later tracks.
In order to keep themselves relevant to the era, Overkill injected a lot heavier groove into their sound during the 90s, and also (wisely) upped the ante on the production standards of their albums. From the Underground and Below is massive sounding, though it successfully retains that raw, gutter crunch that made albums like Taking Over and Under the Influence legendary. "It Lives" is an intense opening track: after the percussion builds and the thrashing guitars blaze into a big ol' groove, they inject the perfect sample: Looks like you've been up to the devil's business!
And thus the thrashing commences, huge neck breaking grooves as Bobby Blitz spews infectious layered vocals (I like it when he uses this style). The song is quite tight throughout, with some nice further grooves and breakdowns to open up the pit. "Save Me" repeats a vocal sample of miracle man, you're a miracle man over a big Prong-like thrash groove, and the song's thick bass, chugging guitars and wild multi-tiered vocals kick some more ass, as does the murky, bluesy bridge where Blitz busts out a quiet, brief falsetto.
After these two tracks...the album more or less staggers. "Long Time Dyin'" is ballsy and bluesy, imagine Black Label Society fronted by Blitz and you'll get the idea. This isn't a bad song, but the bruising "Genocya" and the mellow "Half Past Dead" are not quite catchy, nor are the punky "F.U.C.T." and the rock & roll anthems "I'm Alright" and "The Rip'n Tear", the last of which is like Southern bar metal with a part for the ladies to dosado:
'Everybody movin from the right to the left
Everybody movin from the life to the death
Everybody movin from the good to the bad
Everybody movin from the happy to the sad
Everybody churnin and life ain't fair
Everybody movin to the rip n' tear'
This is followed by "Promises", which is Overkill's rather awful attempt at a cheesy ballad. It succeeds in breaking up the momentum of the album for a breather, and then things end on a decent note with the rager, "Little Bit O'Murder", which is the best song since the first two, with some nice grooves and great thick bass playing courtesy of D.D. Verni.
From the Underground and Below is not a total waste...and if I were to make a sampler of the band's career I would probably include "It Lives" and "Save Me", more than I can say for a few of the band's previous 90s albums. But the band was capable of far better in the past, and have even produced some superior work since this.
Highlights: It Lives, Save Me, Little Bit O'Murder