A combination of Overkill and Symphony X means a number of things for the fans gathered in front of the stage prepared to display their reverence for the acts to follow. It means gold ole’ American thrash still lives, it means power metal and the theatrics of the metal keyboard still have a foothold on the audience and it means New Jersey is solidly ‘in the house’ as the kids say (do kids still say that?) Most of all though, it means that two titans of their respective genres maintain relevancy and drawing power with the addendum that no one, repeat no one, is going to tell them that they’re done.
The night began with Within the Fire, a rowdy quartet of veteran players who exhibit the fundamental grit of metal in the classic sense. No frills, no pageantry, no costumes, just jeans and boots and gritty dirt riffs styled no so different from recent releases from Attika 7. Notable in the band’s performance is the vocal styling of Scott Featherstone, who carries a tune capably but without the pomp and circumstance of post-production smoothness. His voice is authentic and loud, brazen enough to be heard in the back of the club and clear enough to be understood. For songs like “Still Burning,” his voice is buffeted by a wall of powerful chords, presenting a single, solid chunk of music that the assembled patrons reacted well to.
A heavy testing of a considerable array of bright green lights between sets could only portend one thing – Overkill was coming. The New Jersey thrash veterans, coming off the impressive chart performance of “White Devil Armory” and literally hours removed from the release of “Historikill,” their new retrospective box set, the quintet had two clear missions in mind; first, prove to all present that thrash never died and furthermore, cannot die and second, do their damndest in friendly competition with the other bands to put on the most impactful set of the night.
A quick aside – Overkill spent much of the night fighting an uphill battle against a crowd who was appreciative and cheerful, but reluctant to get physically involved in the concert experience. There were scads of perfectly capable young men and women in the offing, but a real mosh pit never broke out, which speaks to a disturbing observational trend of late: is it me, or are mosh pits starting to fade away? It’s been a while since I’ve seen a convincing launching of bodies against one another, which bodes poorly for the practice as a whole. C’mon metal fans, don’t stop doing what we do, keep this thing moving!
Back to it. As if to drive the point of their continued and recent dominance over the genre home, the incomparable Bobby Blitz ran out and rolled into his idiomatic rasp for “Armorist,” pushing the band through the top track from the band’s top-selling record. Overkill remains more than just Blitz though, as the venerable co-founder D.D. Verni stands always next to him on the stage, thumping out bass rhythms as though 1985 were just yesterday.
To that end, the set was a mix of new and old material, with the thirtieth anniversary of the band’s cardinal “Feel the Fire” release heavily represented, beginning with the classic “Hammerhead.” The old guard of Overkill’s catalog sounded just as fresh and powerful as ever from a live perspective, which is a credit to the dedication and conviction of those playing the songs. There was no favoritism from the band here; each piece was treated with the necessary respect and then pumped through hundreds of watts of amps to wash over the rejoicing crowd.
For all the joy of going through the new and old of Overkill, it was two albums in between those points which stole the show. 2010’s “Ironbound” contributed two fan favorites which have always provided the masses with instant, neck-breaking thrash rejuvenated in the new millennium. “Bring Me the Night” has been a staple of the band’s repertoire since its release and this night’s recitation was of a heavier caliber than most, accented by the strong drum cadences of Ron Lipnicki. “Ironbound,” with its cacophonous but intrinsically rhythmic breakdown, pushed the crowd into a nearly involuntary paroxysm of head-banging. It couldn’t be helped, your body simply demanded that you do it.
Yet for all that, Overkill impressed most with an all double-neck version of the timeless nail driver “Skullkrusher” from 1989’s “The Years of Decay,” and as the churning waves of irresistible force eroded the fans’ resistance, heads moved in unison and throats rang in cheer as the shambling, threatening cadence rumbled into the set’s eventual conclusion. Ever the professionals, Overkill wrapped up with “Elimination” and “Fuck You” and left the masses wanting more.
Symphony X began their set with a statement of continued support for their newest album. The first seven tracks that Russell Allen and company cranked out for fans thirsty to hear their heroes were played in order from 2015’s “Underworld,” each one played with the appropriate amount of power and grace.
Allen himself is a bone fide showman, relishing his role as the central figure and face of the band’s performance, and his talent lives up to the billing. No less an authority than Bobby Blitz says Allen has the best pipes in the business, and when encountering the sheer power and sustaining impression of the man’s voice live, it’s difficult to argue against the point. Whether carrying a longing tune for “Without You” or raising the rafters with “Nevermore,” Allen’s consistency pairs with his versatility to add dynamic layers to Symphony X’s live profile on the whole.
He is not alone, however. On this night, as it likely is on many nights, guitarist Michael Romeo was due equal billing alongside his lead singer. With each passing song, Romeo’s solos got stronger, particularly as the band started delving into their back catalog.
In truth, the finest part of Symphony X’s set was the back half of it, beginning with a melodic and galloping “Of Sins and Shadows,” and the progression only got better as the set went on, flying through an excellent “Serpent’s Kiss” and an energetic “Eve of Seduction.”
Part of the secret of Symphony X at this point in their career is that this band has more or less been unchanged since the late nineties, and the band employs that rare chemistry that can only be seen when members trust each other and have a complete understanding of their music. This was evident in throughout the entirety of the band’s performance, but never more than in the closers “Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies)” and “Iconoclast,” both high-flying songs and fan favorites that might well go very badly if a lesser band played them.
Leaving the venue, the irrefutable lesson gleaned from the remarkably adept performances of the two headline acts was this; there is no replacement for experience.