Sure, we weren’t exactly charitable toward the last two Megadeth albums, but who among us hasn’t been rooting for Dave Mustaine to get his shit together and give us another Rust in Peace or at least another Endgame. For my part, I’d pretty much given up on seeing that day, especially after the dumpster fire that was Super Collider. With major line up changes (Kiko Loureiro in for guitar god Chris Broderick and Chris Adler in for Shawn Drover), blood was in the water and it seemed Dystopia might end up an ironic statement on the state of Megadeth‘s health. But something funny happened on the way to burying Mustaine and his band; they simply refused to go quietly into that good night. Instead they hit back with their best album in years, leaning heavily on the sound of their Youthanasia era fortified with the maniacal fret-board pyrotechnics of Endgame. Dystopia isn’t as good as either of those albums, but it’s close and definitely the best thing Dave and Co. have managed in a long time. They say the hardest punch is the one you didn’t see coming and yeah, this one hit at least one long-suffering fan extra hard.
The seriousness of this album is immediately apparent on the scorching opener “The Threat is Real” which harkens back to those salad days of Rust in Peace killers like “Holy Wars…the Punishment Due.” It’s fast, furious, acerbic and ugly, like we all want Megadeth to be, and the guitar exchanges between Dave and Kiko are nothing short of amazing. If you were ever a fan of the band, this will put a big smile on your face and it ends at exactly the right moment leaving you wanting more (take note, Metallica). The title track is even better and easily one of the best songs Dave’s ever written. The superb riffing sucks you in immediately and the sheer hookiness of the whole song is shocking. You’ll love it immediately and wonder where the fuck this kind of quality has been hiding the past 10 years.
The cynic in me feared the rest of the album would undercut this stellar beginning, but to my surprise, the quality kept running along on throwback tracks like the nasty “Fatal Illusion” and the Countdown to Extinction escapee “Death From Within.” There is a minor dip at the album’s midpoint with tunes like “Bullet to the Brain” and “Post American World” feeling more tame, but both feature enough guitar heroics and proggy twists to keep the average listener on board (especially the Symphony X-like fireworks during the former). “Poisonous Shadows” benefits from Kiko’s power metal background and feels like a bit of a departure for the band, featuring a slight Middle Eastern flair and nods to Euro-power conventions in the female chanting. It’s still a Deth song through and through though and a nifty one.
Things close out strong with the aggressively heavy “Lying in State” and the rocking “The Emperor.” Toss in a decent instrumental number, a throwaway cover of Fear‘s “Foreign Policy” and a few respectable bonus tracks and there you have it, a highly respectable Megadeth album, just when you didn’t expect it! And at a tight 46 minutes it’s exactly the right length and isn’t burdened by B-grade cuts (get that, Metallica?). The production is better than the DR5 might suggest, but yes, it’s on the loud side. Luckily the wild and wooly guitar wizardry is clear and easy to follow.
And speaking of that wizardry, wow, Dave and Kiko really lower the noodle boom this time out. Every song features wicked guitar duels and catchy harmonies that’ll make long-time fans and air guitar aficionados sit up and salivate. Kiko is the real deal and dare I say it, plays with more feeling than Chris Broderick ever did. His solos are slippery and fluid and don’t feel as showy and he has a real ear for what fits the song. He even drops a few nods to the days of Chris Poland and Marty Friedman. Vocally Dave sounds a bit rejuvenated here and his sneer feels particularly potent at times. Dave Ellefson is rock solid as always on bass and Chris Adler puts in a powerful performance behind the kit, even if it sometimes feels less dynamic and innovative than past Deth drummers. All in all, the band sounds great and tight as a cast iron chastity belt made 2 sizes too small.
Maybe those group therapy sessions with Lars are paying dividends after all. Dave’s clearly not ready for the glue factory just yet and if like me, you’ve gotten into the habit of writing off Megadeth, it’s time to admit you were wrong. The man and the band are back to kick your ass like it’s 1986 all over again. Color me stunned, pummeled and pleased.
Double Review Courtesy of Alex-Fi
“What’s your favorite band?” A question that I’m sure all of you have been invariably asked at least once in your life. The fact is over my illustrious metal listening career, my tastes have evolved and become so varied that I don’t have just one “favorite band” anymore. To make matters worse, most of the time when I’m asked this question, it’s posed by someone who isn’t exactly a metal cognoscenti. So even though I could easily rattle off a few acceptable answers, I almost always deflect the conversation into some high-level talk about metal as a genre instead. Putting it another way, it’s been a long time since my metal collection consisted of just half of dozen bands who all played some flavor of thrash. I’m way past that now, and I’m fairly confident that if you are reading this blog, so are you.
But if you must know, the answer to this inane question is Megadeth. The album, Countdown to Extinction. That’s the record that started it all for me. After Countdown, I immediately bought Rust, then Peace, and by the time 1994’s Youthanasia was released, I was a full-fledged fanboy. In fact, one morning right before class, I heard on the radio that if you donated food to the Red Cross you would get a free backstage pass to that day’s Megadeth show and get a chance to meet the band in person. So like a dedicated droogie, I cut class, hopped on a train, and donated this ginormous can of tomato sauce to receive my backstage pass. That night I met Dave Mustaine, who proceeded to refuse to give me an autograph or shake my hand. He just stood there and nodded at me. I was so pissed. I mean I spent a good chunk of my pubescent years worshiping this guy and he didn’t even have the decency to speak to me. However, after recently reading his autobiography (of course!), I’m fairly certain now looking back that he was probably high as a kite and fighting just to stand upright that night. Don’t worry Dave, I forgive you!
Anyway, as AMG reminded us in his wonderful and passionately written Iron Maiden retrospective, when you listen and follow a band for a good chunk of your life, you develop a certain kind of personal relationship with them and their music. So as you can imagine, the last two decades haven’t exactly been kind to this recovering Vic addict. In this fanboy’s opinion, the last great Megadeth record from soups to nuts is Youth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite cognizant of the fact that after 1990’s seminal Rust In Peace, Mustaine and Co. had begun their slow creative decent into radio friendly mediocrity, culminating in 1999’s Risk, one of 20th Century’s last recorded natural disasters. But to my ears, Youth is still at its core a thrash metal record, and remains to this day one of my all-time personal favorites. Since then however, Mustaine has really struggled to regain thrash metal supremacy, releasing a string of barely passable to just outright awful records in the process.
Arguably the band’s last solid outing was 2009’s Endgame, which to be honest, I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as many of my fellow droogies did [I regret nothing! – AMG]. However, the record was fast, aggressive, and had enough inklings of classic era Megadeth that I can see why a lot of fans were so enamored with it. At the very least, it showed that Mustaine’s riff well hadn’t completely dried up yet. Of course just when things were finally looking up for the band, Mustaine went off and released two of the worst Megadeth records of the last decade, 2011’s Th1rt3en and 2013’s Super Collider. The latter of which was panned by critics and fans alike, and for all intents and purposes was DOA. To make matters worse, soon after its release, drummer Shawn Drover and guitarist Chris Broderick announced their exodus from the band within hours of each other. It seemed like Megadeth had finally hit rock bottom.
Yet Mustaine and “Junior” (bassist David Ellefson) persevered on, and recruited drummer Chris Adler of Lamb of God and lead guitarist Kiko Loureiro of Angra to the cause. And after completing those acquisitions, the band then announced they were crowdsourcing their next yet to be titled 15th full length release. Of course I pledged. Like I told you, when you’re vested, you’re, well… vested [This ain’t vest metal, you wanker! – Steel Druhm]. Here’s the thing though: I knew if Mustaine had to resort to crowdsourcing his next record he really was in deep. But the upside to crowdsourcing is that he has to answer to the fans directly. No more bullshit excuses about how producer Dann Huff or some evil label executive are forcing him to write shitty rock tunes. Finally, he was going to have full creative control and would have to take full responsibility for its musical outcome.
Truth be told, when I finally received my official download link for Dystopia, I was still somewhat cautiously optimistic. Despite featuring all the key ingredients of a great thrash tune, the first single off the album, “Fatal Illusion,” takes an awfully long time to really deliver the goods. Ironically, it’s only when the hospitalized patient Mustaine is singing about actually flatlines does the song finally shift into high gear, with Loureiro laying down one blistering lead after the next. On the other hand, the other two singles released, the opener, “The Threat is Real,” and the title track, “Dystopia,” offer instant gratification, with the former introducing a hypnotic Middle Eastern melody before settling into this killer groove while the latter containing a number of massive hooks interspersed with more of Kiko’s magic noodling between refrains.
But after now listening to this record non-stop since its release, my expectations have not only been met, but surprisingly, far surpassed. Dystopia in many respects is Countdown’s true spiritual successor, with Mustaine opting to once again implement the prototypical Bay Area thrash formula, one that he himself helped pioneer back in the mid-80s, within the confines of more formulaic rock. However, unlike previous outings, he finally gets the rock to thrash ratio right, relying on the latter much more heavily as the primary means of progression. The net result are songs that always retain their riff-driven aggression despite the heavy dosage of accessible melody that supplements them.
Highlights include “Death from Within,” which like “The Threat Is Real,” is basically another chug fest that features an extremely catchy melodic refrain before Loureiro finally closes it out with some more obligatory pyrotechnics. And then there’s “Post-American World,” which has the band firing on all cylinders for its mid-flight breakdown. Perhaps the crown jewel of the record however, is the instrumental “Conquer or Die,” which is three minutes and thirty-seconds of pure unadulterated headbanging fun. It serves as the introduction to the track “Lying in State,” which is probably the most Rust-like tune on the album in its aggressive buzz-filled rhythm section and sense of urgency. Again, like Countdown, there is something here for everyone, as Mustaine does an impeccable job of crafting riffs that engage almost on contact, drawing you in and allowing you to immediately rock out – a trademark of all great Bay Area thrash.
It’s clear that the addition of Loureiro and Adler had an extremely positive effect on the record’s overall writing process, with Loureiro credited as a co-author of several of the record’s highlights, including “Poisonous Shadows,” “Post-American World,” and “Conquer or Die.” In retrospective, I see now that hiring Loureiro was the right move on Mustaine’s part as he not only provides the technical virtuosity of say a Broderick, but also has that jazzy flare to his playing like a Friedman or Poland, making him a perfect stand-in for the job. Adler on the other hand offers his almost robotic like precision despite his unorthodox technique. Both sound like they have been playing with the Dave’s for years, and on Dystopia it shows.
Despite my affinity for this record, production-wise, this record suffers from a clear case of Loudness War style mastering. Josh Wilbur’s fairly well-balanced mix is fine enough, but Ted Jensen’s “volume first, fidelity second” master is pushed way past the point of no return, with every track slammed against digital full-scale (0dbFS). Victims include Adler’s cymbals, which have that tinny sound to them when they reverberate, as well as the entire bottom-end of the frequency spectrum, which though audible, lacks depth. Guitars in general also sound very muddy at times. On the bright side, if previous records are any indication on how Mustaine operates, then most likely the vinyl master is a lot more dynamic. Hopefully, like the last two, Megadeth will also offer up a FDR high-res version of Dystopia as well.
I’ve been living with Dave Mustaine and his merry band of thrash misfits for over 20 years. Too fucking damn long if you ask me. But Dystopia may very well be the best Megadeth album of the post-Risk era, and certainly a record that has rekindled my enthusiasm for my “favorite band.” Obviously, if you’re still in the “Rust or bust“ club, Dystopia is clearly not the Megadeth record you are looking for. But for those of you who can still recite the lyrics to “Sweating Bullets” and “Foreclosure of a Dream” by heart, I can’t imagine you walking away from this album without a huge smile on your face. Megadeth are back, and this time the threat is most definitely very real.
Score: “Fuck Me Running!” This is great!