What’s in a name?
I guess the band name “Megadeth” is onomatopoeic in a sense, instilling fear in the minds of those who hear it while they scurry away covering their ears. However many of these same people will perk up when they hear the band name “Metallica”, fondly recalling the driving power chords of “Enter Sandman”. Yes, that one song is the difference between the two metal icons. That song is one of the major reasons why Metallica play to 20,000 people a night while Megadeth play to 2,000.
The early days
Megadeth is Dave Mustaine, essentially. The former Metallica guitarist, who was fired from the band in 1983, formed Megadeth the same year in an act of revenge on his former bandmates. “After getting fired from Metallica, all I remember is that I wanted blood. Theirs. I wanted to be faster, and heavier than them,” he said. Mustaine auditioned for a vocalist but, unable to find one he was happy with, decided to take up the dual role of guitars and vocals himself.
In the 24 years that have passed, Megadeth have had numerous line-ups with the only constant being Mustaine.
From underground to overground (1983-1989)
Their debut album “Killing is My Business…And Business is Good!” came out in 1985 with a line-up of Mustaine (vocals/guitars), Chris Poland (guitars), Dave Ellefson (bass), Gar Samuelson (drums). They had to produce the album themselves after spending half their $8000 budget on drugs and booze and were left unable to afford their producer. They moved to a major label (Capitol) for their 1986 follow-up “Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying”. The album was a critical and commercial success, selling over 1m copies in the US alone. Samuelson and Poland were fired from the band after long-time substance abuse problems became too much for the band to handle. Samuelson died in 1999 from liver failure.
Their third album “So Far So Good…So What!” saw Chuck Behler (drums) and Jeff Young (guitars) replace the departed duo but the album, while going platinum, was not well received. It did feature the classic “In My Darkest Hour”, a song inspired by the untimely accidental death of Metallica bass player Cliff Burton.
The classic years (1990-1994)
The band re-grouped in 1990, but without Young and Behler who were both fired. This is when the “classic” 90s line up of Mustaine, Dave Ellefson, Marty Friedman (guitars) and Nick Menza (drums) was established. Few could have predicted Megadeth would find the success they did but for them to achieve it with a complex, pure heavy metal record like “Rust in Peace” shocked many analysts. The album was highly political, written and released with the first Gulf War as a backdrop.
“Countdown to Extinction”, released in 1992, was an even bigger hit, debuting at #2 in the Billboard album charts and going on to sell over 2m copies. It featured less complex, more radio-friendly arrangements but still was identifiably metal. They went on to tour with Metallica as Mustaine temporarily buried the hatchet with his former bandmates and, later, Aerosmith, although they were kicked off that tour for derogatory remarks made about the headliners.
The golden era ended in 1994 when the slower, softer “Youthanasia” was released. Although it went gold in 30 minutes in Canada and was the band’s fastest-selling US album, it seemed that they were slipping further and further away from their metal roots. “Reckoning Day”, “Train of Consequences” and “Black Curtains” were thunderous tracks but undermined by the concentration on the tight, melodic production and arrangement.
On the wane (1995-1999)
A telling quote from Dave Mustaine on this whole period was in reaction to their new “creative manager” Bud Prager who suggested numerous musical and lyrical changes to the band’s work. Mustaine often acquiesced: “I figured maybe this guy could help me get that intangible ‘Number One’ record I so badly wanted” (“Countdown to Extinction” was kept off the top by Billy Ray Cyrus of all people). “Cryptic Writings” (1997) was certified gold and was quite well received. But the fact it produced four top 20 mainstream rock hits is an indication of how radio-orientated it was.
The “classic” line up started to fall apart dramatically at this point. Menza was fired after being accused by Mustaine of lying about having cancer and Friedman would later quit during a tour with Iron Maiden in 1999. The reason for Mustaine’s fall out with Friedman was over the band’s musical direction. Their eighth studio album in 1999, “Risk”, was their most commercial with elements of industrial, disco and funk employed on tracks like “Insomnia”, “Crush Em” and “Seven” (possibly one of the worst songs they’ve ever recorded). The album received mixed reviews and low sales.
The “new” Megadeth (2000-2001)
Mustaine hired Al Pitrelli to replace Friedman and Jimmy DeGrasso replaced Menza as the band attempted to return to their former sound with new record label, Sanctuary. The result was the sub-par “The World Needs a Hero” (2001) which Mustaine described as the first major turn of a huge ship at sea, trying to right itself and get back on course. It’s an apt analogy as the record is shockingly unfocused and inconsistent.
The End (2002-2003)
Mustaine disbanded Megadeth in 2002 after contracting a radial nerve condition known colloquially as Saturday Night Palsy which left him unable to make a fist with his left hand. Effectively retiring from playing music it was thought that he was set for a career in the production booth. But undeterred he underwent a year of recovery (which included physical and electric shock therapy!) after which he begun to remix and remaster Megadeth’s back catalogue. But with a more positive prognosis on his left arm, Mustaine taught himself how to play guitar again and prepared the release of his first solo album.
The Comeback (2004-)
When Sanctuary informed him that contractural obligations meant he had to release the album under the Megadeth banner, Mustaine brought back Chris Poland (guitars) and hired session musicians Jimmy Sloas (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) to record “The System Has Failed”. Mustaine decided that the record and tour would be Megadeth’s last and he decided to bury the hatchet with Friedman and Menza, inviting them to re-join the band. While Menza signed on, Friedman and Ellefson both failed to agree terms with Mustaine. Menza himself didn’t last long and was fired five days before the tour. Mustaine hired Shawn Drover in his place and Shawn’s brother Glen as the new guitarist. Bassist James MacDonough made up the foursome.
The album was a huge success, winning favour with fans and critics and becoming their sixth consecutive top 20 Billboard hit record. Reinvigorated by the critical respect that the band had re-attained and the momentum they regained, Mustaine announced that Megadeth would continue to tour and record. While the Drovers are part of that future, James MacDonough made way for James Lomenzo and it’s this line-up that have recorded Megadeth’s eleventh studio album, “United Abominations”, on new label Roadrunner Records.
United Abominations (2007)
If the foundations were laid with the excellent “The System Has Failed“, Megadeth have made a full-on return to the top of the tree with their eleventh album release. Blowing away the memory of years of melodic metal-lite, “United Abominations” has wall-to-wall solos, double bass drumming to beat the band and the trademark gravelly vocals you expect from Dave Mustaine.
Referring to an earlier analogy where the vocalist compared the laboured and unfocused “The World Needs a Hero” as the first major turn of a huge ship at sea, trying to right itself and get back on course, it’s safe to say that this ship is now sailing full steam ahead and probably heading for the UN Headquarters in Manhattan.
“United Abominations” starts with lone guitar chords over what sounds like a desolate wasteland – possibly the aftermath of a terrorist nuclear attack – before a spoken lyric damns the UN over a building instrumentation (born to prevent wars, it froze in the face of disaster and/stood silent while terrorisation took hostage the world). The chugging riff continues the attack (held hostage by oil-for-food…there’s no blood on their hands…it’s payback time at the United Abominations) and the song fades out with a list of the UN crimes including taking no action in Yugoslavia, Afghanastan and Iraq.
Of course we could say Dave is being very selective here and the UN may write their own version that includes references to how the US found no WMD in Iraq or doesn’t seem too concerned about the non-oil producing region of Darfour but we’ll let it go.
I hoped that “Amerikhastan” (from New Yorqatar to Califarabia) was keeping with Mustaine’s cynical view of war and power (“Symphony of Destruction”/”Holy Wars”) and that he hadn’t gone all right-wing on us. His description of the “ill-fated…uneducated, bankrupt souls” who have a “lust for revenge” could be a classic, contemptuous view of modern America but then he talks about how “desperation provides fertile ground for religious extremism” and “glorious brainwashing where prejudice lies/like a crouching tiger“. However, with his description of how the Statue of Liberty is “property of the USA/a subsidiary of Hailliburton” (an energy company who profited from the Iraq war and have high level ties to the US Government) he let’s us all in on the joke.
The riff on “Play for Blood” is not a million miles from the one on “Amerikhastan” but at least they changed the melody. Lyrically the song struggles and comes across as an ambiguous attempt to create a “last man standing” scenario (inside the abattoir/the cover charge is somebody’s gotta die) but whether this is a fist-fight to the death or the whole thing is a metaphor for the devil himself (I don’t play for keeps/I don’t play for your soul) is unclear.
“Washington is Next!” is a strange choice for a single as it is probably one of the least radio friendly songs on the disc – indeed it could have been lifted from any Megadeth record from their heaviest period in the late 80s/early 90s. It deals with the “quiet war” that’s being fought with “silent weapons” and asks “how can there be any logic in biological war?“. Musically it’s not as furious as something like “The Conjuring”, “Hangar 18” or even 2004’s “Kick the Chair” but it’s not a bad cut.
“Sleepwalker” – the best album opener since “Holy Wars” – is probably in fact the best song on the album. The intriguing premise is that of a man who can dish out punishment in his sleep (no one is safe when I close my eyes/I’ve come to take you alive) and takes great pleasure in the damage he does (did I give you concrete shoes/and throw you off of a bridge). While it pounds relentlessly through the verse and chorus, the song’s best moments are when Drover and Mustaine exchange classic mid-track solos.
The only track not fully credited to Dave Mustaine is “Never Walk Alone…A Call to Arms” which was co-written with Glen Drover. A more personal song, it falls down in the chorus (it’s time to reap what I have sown/never, ever let you walk alone/i know your enemy, it once was me) but the solo work from Mustaine and Drover lifts it above mediocrity. Similarly “You’re Dead” is a heavy song with promise that suffers from an insufferable chorus (till then, till when I exact my revenge/I’ll tell them ‘you’re dead to me’) but there’s enough quality musicianship on show here to keep the interest.
Album closer “Burnt Ice” is a song that is hard to make your mind up over. In one sense its unusual vocal arrangement keeps you guessing but in another sense it sounds a little awkward. The story – a re-hash of 1999s “Breadline” (sniffing up the white lines/he’s dancing on the breadline) – deals with the man who said “he’d try just a little bit” because “he didn’t want to end up like them” and how far he’d go for what he wanted (anything for a hit/any sin to pay for it).
I like “Blessed are the Dead”, Dave’s token biblical/mythological track (a white horse on the clouds of death/a red warhorse to end all wars/a pale horse and pestilence led/by a black horse with famine and scales). I like the lyrical twists in this one; “the doctrine of hatred” that creates wars and leads soldiers to wish for death (wash me in blood and let me be the first born of the dead…I hold fast to what I believe/until I see my name in stone).
One of the first tracks released on the web was “Gears of War”, a song inspired by the Xbox game of the same name. The lyrics might lean slightly to the right of metal cliché but I like the idea of the latest weapons being “a more sophisticated way to end up dead“. The mid-tempo riff throbs in that foot-tapping, head-nodding way that recalls “Symphony of Destruction” and “Psychotron”.
Leaving the best to last – and probably the biggest talking point of the album – the re-recording of the 1994 track “A Tout Le Monde”. The original track (from the album “Youthanasia”), considered one of Megadeth’s best songs, struggled to get noticed on the back of a blanket ban by MTV for what they described as a “pro-suicide song”. Mustaine decided to get the song out the way he always wanted it to be – in a duet (with Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil), faster and with a different guitar solo. And frankly it’s as amazing a song as it ever was. As to whether it was necessary or not? Well cynics would suggest that Mustaine figured it would be a good way to get a song on the radio but if you’ve written a song this good and you feel it didn’t get a fair crack of the whip then you’d probably take the opportunity too.
It’s been an upward trend since “The World Needs a Hero”. That’s mainly because Mustaine has found his focus again and realised that success is not about the #1 record. Well written, musically superior and (as always) excellently produced.
01. Sleepwalker *****
02. Washington is Next! ***
03. Never Walk Alone…A Call to Arms ***
04. United Abominations *****
05. Gears of War ****
06. Blessed are the Dead ****
07. Play for Blood ****
08. A Tout le Monde (Set Me Free) *****
09. Amerikhastan ****
10. You’re Dead ***
11. Burnt Ice ***