There once was a thrash family hailing from the depths of New York. They bore many thrash offspring, most of which went on to be very successful in the metal world. The first child, Feel the Fire, grew up to run General Motors and release many mediocre cars to lazy Americans, while making millions of dollars. Taking Over became a Hollywood actor and starred in several movies and television shows, and also made millions of dollars. The Years of Decay, well, he won the lottery (millions upon millions of dollars), annexed part of Guam, and started his own country. Then there was…oh, I skipped one, didn’t I? Under the Influence, that’s it. With charming good looks and a quick wit, he played minor league baseball and made hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now, I would be ecstatic if that were my career, but poor Under the Influence was born in between several siblings that got more recognition than he did, and for some stupid reasons, too. I mean, come on…Guam? Seriously?
Being the runt of Overkill’s 80s discography, Under the Influence tends to get overlooked. This is understandable, since every other album Overkill released in the 80s was really, really good. However, it’s really not that bad. No, no. This album is quite good. Yes, it has its flaws that keep it from attaining the height that Taking Over or Years of Decay did (and frankly, those still didn’t get enough credit, but that’s a different story), but it’s still a great listen and, depending on how much you like thrash metal, should be a worthy addition to your collection.
If you’re new to Overkill, this is actually a great place to start. Feel the Fire and Taking Over, while stupendous, have a large speed metal influence (which is not a bad thing), whereas Under the Influence shows the band ditching most of the melody and transforming into the thrash band that went on to rule the New York metal scene for some time. And if you’re new to Overkill, there are three things on this album that would be featured on almost every Overkill album from here on out. For one, Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth’s vocals are what stick in most people’s heads after listening to the band. His voice is distinct, with both great range and attitude, screeching, howling, you name it. I, for one, find his vocals an essential part of the Overkill sound, and if you don’t like them, well…it’s thrash, right? Vocals usually aren’t a strong point in this genre anyway. D.D. Verni’s bass is loud and clear in the mix, clanging and galloping along; if you think bass should be turned up HIGH in metal, then look no further! Finally, gang shouts are an integral part of the Overkill sound, and they are in full force here. The shouts are usually used in the choruses or places where you’d look for more traditional backing vocals. They’re an acquired taste as well, but to that I say, this is thrash, damn it! Lighten up a bit! Indeed, the gang shouts give the album more of a fun, catchy feeling, balancing out the somewhat darker guitars and lyrical themes.
Like I said before, Under the Influence shows Overkill starting to play some real thrash metal, as opposed to thrash metal with speed metal elements. The new sound is defined with heavier, more aggressive guitar work, more varied song structures, and lyrics that can actually be taken half-seriously. Listen to the refrain of Drunken Wisdom and you’ll see what I mean:
“Sorry if I'm not as nice as you could be! Why don't you take the time to see? That the world does not revolve around only you And we got better things to do”
Yeah? Blitz is maaad! But seriously, although this isn’t the goofy blow-stuff-up poetry that you’ll find abundant in thrash, there’s still a carefree feeling on Under the Influence that was missed in the genre as bands started getting heavier and heavier. Here, it works pretty nicely.
As for the varied song structures, this is both good and bad. The opener, Shred, starts as you might think it would with some fast riffing, but it then slows down during the verse and chorus. This works because the song is pretty catchy, yet there are other parts of the album where the songwriting is inconsistent. Song like Mad Gone World and Never Say Never have some great riffs which are brought down by strange breaks that seem forced. Of course, you also have your traditional Overkill thrashers, like Brainfade and Head First to pick things up a bit. Hello From the Gutter is an Overkill classic, the best song on the album, with incredibly catchy and memorable riffs and vocal lines. Chances are, you’ve probably heard this if you like thrash metal at all. Finally, you have the traditional closing track named Overkill-whatever number. Overkill III (Under the Influence) wraps the album up nicely with some great Blitz vocals and the best of Bobby Gustafson’s guitar work this time around.
One thing I’d like to point out is that drummer Sid Falck really brings it on this album. His drumming is probably the number one reason why the band is able to branch out and try new things on Under the Influence. It’s surprisingly technical and varied for this era and this style of music, as Sid not only is a good fast-pace drummer, but he shows that he’s no slouch with time changes, either. The drumming here is, sadly, another aspect of this album that goes unnoticed when it shouldn’t.
The production, well, it’s mediocre. It’s not good, but it’s certainly not as bad as most people say. Yes, the guitars are a little thin. Yes, the bass sounds kind of loopy. Maybe there’s too much echo on the vocals in some parts. But it’s your standard 80s thrash production, and it suits the music just fine, thank you.
Being an album in which a band starts to find its own sound, Under the Influence has its ups and downs, but the inconsistency is not a good enough reason to overlook the album completely. There’s nothing too special or original here, but so what? It’s still a very enjoyable and fun listen, no doubt about it. In the end, yes, being the CEO of a big company and having enough money and power to buy the world might be considered “successful”, but…wouldn’t you enjoy being a baseball player just the same? Take a step back for a moment and ask yourself if you’re having fun. If you aren’t, try Under the Influence.