Megadeth are touring the US with Amon Amarth and a host of other mainstream metal acts this fall. The band tends to turn Dave Mustaine’s vocals way down in the mix so you don’t have to hear how awful he sounds nowadays so this might be worth going to if you really love Megadeth.
Metal journalists are yet again falling into to the trap that of believing that the differences in their political opinions and those of the bands they cover are somehow a valid criterion for judging the overall merit of the music they’re listening to. It happens every day when a prospective metalhead first learns about Burzum, and it more recently has permeated how we interact with the horde of propaganda bands out there who never let a good song get in the way of a good slogan. Megadeth’s latest full-length (Dystopia) wasn’t quite that heavy handed as a mouthpiece for Dave Mustaine’s politics (and indeed, I found it to be a banal and sterile experience compared to the band’s more ambitious early work on its musical elements alone), but it expresses enough of an opinion through its lyrics that it stung a few dissenters.
Illustrating this neurosis today are two reviews of Megadeth’s latest that are more concerned with David Mustaine’s politics than his musical efforts. First, a writer for the AV Club had to stress that even though they enjoyed the music, they were also certain that “…there’s simply no room in our already fear-laden culture for any more xenophobia”. Another review hosted on Cisternyard Media is more critical of the music, but is otherwise similar in its condemnation. Interestingly, they explicitly mention a similar level of political fervor in Megadeth’s earlier works, which doesn’t exactly attract their vitriol, and therefore helps to illustrate the writers’ specific beef with their positions.
These reviewers’ criticisms read like a poorly written tutorial on how to be the perfect social justice warrior, railing against the injustices that are clearly inherent in Dystopia‘s lyrics that therefore requiring immediate shaming and censorship, and then making lasting friends with other like-minded people in the process. The other major problem with these reviews is that they discuss the actual sound and execution of the music in an exceedingly shallow manner at best, instead choosing to be seduced by Megadeth’s technical wizardry. Given that they’ve already rejected Dystopia for not being politically kosher, I’m not expecting them to attempt more advanced topics, such as “Does Dystopia‘s songwriting effectively complement the themes Dave Mustaine is trying to convey?”, but that is a venial sin at best, given that your average metal critic cares little for musical analysis. If they continue to pursue their political vendettas, though, the odds of them writing anything significant on these subjects is nil.
Megadeth has cycled between obvious mainstream rock pandering and careful imitation of their best appreciated works at an ever accelerating rate since their reformation in 2004. If this trend keeps up, they’ll be changing styles with every strum of their guitars in a few years. Dystopia isn’t quite as quick to alter its own sounds as that rather implausible hypothetical peak, but it’s still obviously colored by two colliding trends; Dave Mustaine’s desire to outsell Metallica, and the fact that even relatively extreme metal can sell enormous volumes in 2016. This makes what would be yet another comeback album into a surprisingly disjointed experience at times.
In general, Dystopia provides its potential listeners with several varieties of vintage Megadeth to peruse at their leisure, ranging from the technical wizardry of the ’80s and Rust in Peace (arguably the musical peak of this band) to the streamlined pop metal that immediately followed such, and even hints of recent albums through conceptual and musical continuity. Beyond the vocals of Dave Mustaine and the frequent guitar leads, though, there’s little that distinguishes this from other poppy speed metal of the mid 2010s, especially since this is one of those dime-a-dozen studio perfect recordings with perfectly appropriate production and instrumentation. One definite problem, however is that Dave Mustaine’s vocal and lyrical contributions have decayed in quality in recent years. Megadeth’s always been political at the best of times, but more often than not the lyrics devolve into political sloganeering that might be appropriate if he actually ran for president of the USA. In song format, though, all they do is annoy, irritate, and pander. Mustaine also relies increasingly on digital processing to mask the age-related decay of his voice, most notably on “Fatal Illusion“. This isn’t an innately bad thing, and you could theoretically make a case for the chorusing and harmonies opening new ideas for Megadeth to explore, but it pushes unneeded emphasis on the vocals, so even the average listener that decides that the technique sounds kind of cool might find it grating regardless. Perhaps I shouldn’t be focusing on the vox too much, but when the rest of the album is competent and yet unremarkable, it’s sometimes the only option.
In short, Dystopia is kind of disposable; most metal albums that try to approximate known classics are. It’s still better than Repentless, but the “Big Four” have all since run out of momentum, which makes Dystopia‘s slick technical competence marred by excessive streamlining even more unremarkable than it would otherwise be. The last time Megadeth tried their hands at this, they cranked out Endgame, which was well received at the time of its release and generally similar in approach, but has since faded from the public eye. Do you still have space in your listening rotation for Endgame? If you don’t, you won’t have time for Dystopia either.
I mentioned Megadeth’s upcoming studio album a while back, and Dystopia is still on track to be released some time in 2016. The buildup continues, as Megadeth just released a music video for “The Threat Is Real”, a single that they admittedly pushed out about a month ago. This track reinforces my hypothesis that the upcoming album will be an “adequate facsimile” of previous Megadeth; it’s certainly appropriate given the band’s legacy, although the band would have to bust their collective asses (and brains) to displace their older works from your mind for more than a few months. The actual visual content of the video could be interesting as well, at least if you’re not put off by the odd style of animation employed.
In their glory days, Megadeth was always commercially #2 to Metallica – more technically proficient by far, structurally simpler, and literally #2 on the American Billboard 200 when they made their own dumbed down Black Album equivalent in Countdown to Extinction. Post-reformation Megadeth has been somewhat inconsistent about what part of their career they want to evoke, but if “Fatal Illusion” is any indication, Dystopia may very well be full of ’80s self-worship. There are some new aesthetic tweaks, like heavily processed, harmonized vocals from Dave Mustaine, but the overall structure of the song is an adequate facsimile of previous Megadeth and ’80s speed metal for commercial purposes. The current lineup of Megadeth notably features Kiko Loureiro (of Angra) and Chris Adler (from Lamb of God) in addition to its two founding Daves (Mustaine and Ellefson), although this track in isolation doesn’t really offer enough information on what their contributions to the band will sound like.
Speed metal tyrant Dave Mustaine (Metallica, Megadeth) takes to the stage with the San Diego Symphony to play guitar solos in place of violin leads.
He will play along with “Summer” and “Winter” from Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air,” Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.” Mustaine described these pieces as shredding, fast and melodic.
In addition, the guitarist revealed some surprising background to his own music:
Mustaine also talked about Megadeth’s classical influence since its formation.
“On the very first song on our very first record, I actually played piano … Funny thing was, it was a very, very, hacked up version of Beethoven’s Fugue in D Minor and going back and listening to the actual performance of Beethoven, it’s kind of like, ‘Nice try Dave’ because it was close to it, but I mean, I was a gutter kid that grew up on the street and was playing from memory. I was surprised I could even play the piano.”
Many of those who are involved with music have spoken praise for the 1980s speed metal explosion, which offered a form of music with both intensity and integrity. Until the great wave of commercialization, it simply refused to join the social impulse to all get along and behave like everyone else.
But a recent interview with Dominic West, who accompanied the UK’s Prince Harry to the North Pole, confirms that speed metal may have more going for it than simply being aloof to the great herding instinct. It is the music not only of Royals, but of soldiers:
The royal is addicted to the music of bands including Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax, according to actor Dominic West.
Dominic, 44, said it was the only music that Harry, 29, would listen to on their recent Walking With The Wounded expedition to the South Pole.
He said: “Harry has a terrible selection on his iPod. It is the sort of thing soldiers listen to. Hardcore thrash metal.”
While none of us want to be stuck in the 1980s, and retro-nostalgia is both embarrassing and makes us hate the future, perhaps it is time for metal to look back at what made speed metal so popular.
First, it did not behave. When the teacher said, “Everyone sit down,” it ran around its desk. When the teacher wanted everyone to play nice with each other, it did not. When someone said “Give peace a chance,” speed metal gave them the finger. It was disobedient, lawless, wild and uncontrolled.
Second, it had musical integrity. Please just say no to either (a) droning three-chord “trve kvlt” retro-metal and (b) droning three-chord “innovative and open-minded” post-metal. It’s musical simplisticism. No one seems against minimalism per se, but when it becomes an excuse to dumb it down, it’s time to leave the hall.
Third, it had a sense of imagination and vision — and abandoning those things crushed it. When Metallica were writing songs about Cthulhu, they were interesting; when they turned to social topics, they got less so. Similarly Slayer was awesome when writing about Satan and vampires but faded out when they started writing about serial killers and politics. (All of Anthrax’s best material is about comic books, and Megadeth is best when either full-on into drugs or full-on into Christ.)
Death metal and black metal at least initially carried on these values but over time got closer to the punk rock that had sold-out, standardized itself and caved in before them. When death metal was 300 intricate but occult nihilist riffs per song, it piqued our attention; when it became three riffs in verse-chorus form it made itself into a parody.
Perhaps our new watchword in metal should be to make music that belongs on Prince Harry’s iPod. As a cultural barometer, he provides a better sense of how metal is doing than most other sources we could consult.
Megadeth has been a major influence on my journey through metal. I remember that when I first heard the opening riff to “Holy Wars”, I realized that this music was different. In contrast to the verse-chorus structure of the music I was listening to at the time; it was narrative based, similar to classical music.
It took the listener on a journey of apocalyptic visions of a society shot to pieces — where humanity had ceased to think and would rather delude itself into oblivion than deal with its problems. This was something that I could relate to, far easier than any of the forgettable faux-agression bands that the unwise me was enduring at the time. This eventually led me to discover death metal and then black metal, after realizing that both of these genres took this style of writing to new heights and did it more thoroughly and deeply, yet I still retain a soft spot for speed metal.
Over a month ago, this site previewed the first single from the band’s now released album, Supercollider. The track was rather off-putting as essentially a hard rock track, but I held out hope for an overall metal tone to the album…unfortunately, this was not the case. On the whole, Supercollider is a collection of songs that challenge no commercial norms and they are structured for mass radio appeal. Any superficial stylings of speed metal in a rare moment are quickly exposed for what they really are: metal in an aesthetic sense only.
Supercollider features riffs designed to fit into a verse-chorus structure rather than shaping the song around the riffs, as the band used to do. Solos and the drumming are entirely forgettable, in their highest moments their impact is merely of acknowledgment – they achieve their prescribed role in the song, but offer nothing to stick in your memory after they’re over – which is a fitting description of the album as a whole.
Yet, even in this wasteland, there are a few signs of life. In spots, the album has some impactful melodies — moments of brightness — before the waves of drudgery crash back down on the listener. Synths soar about crunchy guitar riffs, which are held together by Dave Mustaine’s unique vocal style, and as a folksy acoustic guitar adds a foreboding element to an otherwise unremarkable track. Astute readers may be noticing a pattern here — the album’s better points arise when the riffs are not the main focus of the song, which seems a bit backwards for a speed metal band. Vocals come in varying quality – some fans will cringe as Mustaine declares “Burn baby, burn!” in a style reminiscent of any ’80s stadium rock band, yet his piercing social criticism still surfaces and is as unabashed as ever.
Comparisons will inevitably be made with Risk, but I don’t think this is very accurate. Rather than a fake attempt at making the band more marketable, I think this is a more honest endeavor; it is the product of a band that has aged. Seemingly, at a certain point in time, the young provocateur grows up and realizes that he has spent decades of his life struggling against society – then wakes up one morning and notices that he has carved a pretty good life out for himself. He may not embrace it fully, but he no longer wishes to agitate either. The allure of riding out into the sunset eventually becomes greater than the misery of dissatisfaction and thus he decides to create a safe work that challenges no boundaries.