When Overkill skinsman Jason Bittner played the intro to Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” as a warm-up exercise, I knew we were about to be pummeled into oblivion. Despite having seen this grizzled band of streetwise avengers numerous times over the years, a feeling of unpreparedness overcame me. It was as if I were a teenager once more, and this was my first gig ever. The sold-out crowd that filled The Rex Theater in Pittsburgh were as battle-ready as they could be, bit it was still not enough. Over the course of a 90-minute set, Jersey Devil progeny and thrash metal survivor Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth provided proof that he is still a vital performer at age 59, his piercing, ballsy vocals driving electricity through the hearts of recent tracks like “Head of a Pin” and back catalogue bangers such as “Bastard Nation,” calling card “Hello From The Gutter,” ‘Deny The Cross,” “Feel The Fire,” and “Rotten To The Core.” Bassist D.D. Verni was a stone cold killer on the thick strings, waving around his instrument like a tommy gun. Axethrowers Dave Linsk and Derek Tailer flayed muscles and split skulls, one concussing with rhythm, the other lacerating with a rapier’s precision.
Death Angel were up second from the top, and like Overkill, have invaded Pittsburgh by way of San Francisco on enough occasions to call Steeltown another home, and the crowd responded as if they were returning heroes to songs both old and brand new, the band previewing their upcoming album Humanicide by performing the title song as well as dropping vintage bombs like “Seemingly Endless Time” and mid-years maulers like “Thrown To The Wolves,” vocalist Mark Osegueda also proving as agelessly, effortlessly effective as Blitz, his Halford screams shattering windows. Guitarists Cavestany and Aguilar wetworked in similar tenacious, terrible tandem as their counterparts in Overkill, pedigreed mercenary Will Carroll quaking the drums like Scott Travis as Damien Sisson blew the heads off of lesser bass slingers with a sniper’s accuracy
Dallas stonebreakers Mothership may have seemed out of place with their bluesy, Sabbathy, Clutchy brew, but the audience didn’t mind. Joyous, rowdy, and in love with old hard rock, these tres hombres were akin to Molly Hatchet jamming with The Sword in the desert, the brothers Juett capturing regional tag-team gold with their guitar and bass double dropkick as Judge Smith finished off opponents with his drumstick powerslam.
With their 18th studio album, The Wings of War, out since February, Overkill are obviously still on their earnest mission to melt down the lame and wreck venues with no signs of weariness to be seen. I remember the days when they and Death Angel were upstart groups with chips on shoulders and a desire to prove that the second tier of American thrash deserved attention and respect. Now both bands are the cagey veterans that younger acts look up to and follow into combat. It is to make a metal heart swell and grow warm.