Monday, June 18, 2012

Nuclear Assault - Game Over (1986)

New York City. Where the bomb dropped. Nuclear Assault. Perhaps never one of my absolute favorite thrash bands in the universe, but I'm not gonna lie to you: I owned the t-shirt. I bought the records. I watched the videos. I went to the gigs. I learned the songs on my guitar. This was surely one of that group of 'essentials' in the 80s that could provoke excitement by the mere mention of the name. Their visibility, touring and lyrical matter transformed them into one of the most emblematic, idolized and oft imitated thrash acts of the period. Hell, just the logo alone. But even more than that, I feel like Nuclear Assault were the 'iconic' East Coast band in this niche. Sure, Anthrax and Overkill sold more albums in the long run. Outlived Connelly and Lilker's band of mutants. M.O.D. might have developed a comparable buzz with their goofy antics. But when you close your eyes and think back on those halcyon days of hi top sneakers, denim vests and moshing in the shadow of the Cold War, your inner child drifts towards memories of mushroom clouds, panic on the streets, and a group of ragtag New Yorkers whose dead center delivery and violent riffing might have carved out an empire had they not rendered themselves irrelevant by the dawn of the 90s.

Of course, Game Over was set to tape well in advance of that inevitable decline, and it might be better dubbed 'Game On', because it sowed the irradiated fire seeds of its influences into something that would inspire urban slammers and party thrashers everywhere. The West Coast might have been the best coast, with its incredibly advancements in aggression (Dark Angel, Slayer, etc) and what with producing the most popular metal band of the 80s, but where the Atlantic metropolitan groups like Nuclear Assault excelled was in brandishing their punk and hardcore influences more directly into the angry writing and lyrical modus operandi. It doesn't take a genius to discern bands like Discharge or Minor Threat on this album; the brilliance is how they took such youthful unrest and applied to classic NWOBHM/speed metal riff structures to produce an urgent, distinct style to themselves, producing a cross cultural aesthetic that drew even more of the marginal metal audience over from the skinheads and mohawks usually associated with 'the other side'. There's a damn good reason bands like Nuclear Assault came up alongside the Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, Leeway and Sick of It All: their sociopolitical messages and gang-like resilience were often only divided by the length of their hair. And, in some cases, not even that...

But first and foremost, Game Over is a metal album. Its clean, rapid fire licks are the stuff of Venom and Motörhead intensified to beyond the speed limit ("Live, Suffer, Die"). The thundering implementation of the double bass to punk-borne chord sequence ("Sin", "Vengeance") manifest a complexity and busyness that you simply didn't expect out of the Ramones or Sex Pistols. There was a deeper side to the band than just their street savvy, and songs like "Brain Death" or the clinical mid-paced thrasher "Nuclear War" were more cognizant of melody and traditional riffing from over the pond, to the point that the contents of an album like this one were often set at great contrasts ("Hang the Pope" vs. "Brain Death", for instance), and perhaps the band were still not quire sure of how to flesh out their identity. But, then, that's the joy of this album: it's so damned earnest and innocent that it's impossible to dislike even in lieu of its flaws, which primarily appear in the uninteresting and unfunny vignettes like "My America" or the "Mr. Softee Theme", which even made me cringe as a 13 year old.

It was pretty par for the course in the 80s for thrash, punk and hardcore groups to include these goofy shorts as if to remind the audience that they were comedians in addition to musicians (a trait that would rub off on a lot of later grindcore), but where something like "Hang the Pope" at least has some vicious fortitude due to the accelerated riffing, these other two briefs always felt painfully unnecessary to me. Otherwise, this is a damned strong album, at least 7-8 of the tracks kick ass, and there's no question that this was one of the most manic and potential-ridden blue collar groups of the scene. You always felt like Nuclear Assault were your peers, your friends, good for a beer, never snotty or inaccessible, and the character pervades the very music on this album. So what if a bit of snot ran out of Game Over's nose and wound up in a cloning vat that would later produce the party crossover throwback called Municipal Waste?

The real star of this album: the production. Man, do I love the mix of the guitar on this record. Crisp and clear, with a lighter use of distortion than you might expect. Later records like Survive and Handle With Care would take the band into a harsher environment tonally, but here they were able to perfectly capture the balance of hardcore and speed. Lilker's bass also deserves mention, pumping and throbbing and bouncing with all the puerile punk tropes, yet too fast for the ol' circle pit. Glenn Evans' drums are admittedly pretty clean, but the levels provide an excellent exhibition of his fluidity. The guy was no Gene Hoglan, granted, but you could hear how he earned his sweat and respect, whether jamming on a typical rock beat in the lurching and quickening "After the Holocaust" or blasting through "Hang the Pope".

Which leads us to John Connelly, whose vocals were one of the most distinct features of Nuclear Assault. I can't think of anyone else out there who sounded like this man. He had an almost drunken swagger to the raw timbre of his throat, and yet it carried a particular melody with all its edginess. I suppose you could compare the pitch to something like Accept or AC/DC, but despite his ability to hit shift between higher notes and a ruddy mid range, what I enjoyed most was how I could connect to it. He didn't sound like a Geoff Tate or a Bruce Dickinson, removed from the everyman by several orders of magnitude due to their natural talents, but like a really fucking pissed off dude next door freaking out over some unforeseen spike in his electric bill. Like a metal Sam Kinison in one of his fits of rage. Or, rather, an even MORE metal Sam Kinison.

Favorites? I'll have to go with the intro instrumental "Live, Suffer, Die" which could have given Dave Mustaine and Megadeth a run for their money, so fast and flurried and precise. "Sin", "Stranded in Hell" and "Radiation Sickness" all stand with the fast paced chops, and the lyrical patterns and mid-paced banging gait of "Nuclear War" would no doubt rub off on the following album, Survive. "Brain Death" might just take the cake, though, the epic finale of the album which opens with clean and atmospheric guitars and then busts into one of the more memorable vocal choruses, and even got its own EP the same year (which I've covered elsewhere). The fact that even among the more impulsive, youthful tunes that make up the bulk of this record they would include a moody departure (and not a shitty ballad) like that speaks volumes that they were something special.

Ultimately, Game Over is not my favorite of the group's full-lengths, if only because I prefer the pummeling industrial-grade abuse and stronger songwriting of the two that followed it. I don't like some of the short bits. A few of the riffs (like the punk verse in "Vengeance") just don't stick with me. But it's immediate. It's (for the most part) fun. And miraculously, it holds up to scrutiny after 25+ years of dust and rust. Well worth owning whether you're a crossover diehard, you've got NYHC stamped on your knuckles, or you believe yourself any level of urbanite thrasher. If an East Coaster from Boston down to Washington, then this applies doubly to you: neglect at your own risk.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (I've paid much for my sins)

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