So here we are for part two of the Popdose Guide to Megadeth! (If you missed part one, you can read it here.) In the first decade or so of their existence, Dave Mustaine’s brainchild had compiled a damn impressive discography. It’s largely on the strength of those albums that Megadeth (along with Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax) is included as part of the so-called Big Four of thrash metal. But as the ’90s progressed, the group continued to move further away from that sound, to the dismay of many fans.
Cryptic Writings (1997)
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As Mustaine admitted years later in the liner notes to the Cryptic Writings remaster, around this time Megadeth allowed new manager Bud Prager to influence their music and lyrics in the name of greater sales. Putting it bluntly he stated, “I figured maybe this guy (Prager) could help me get that intangible Number One record I so badly wanted.”
While Megadeth didn’t snag that #1 they did hit #10 and achieve Gold status with this record, their most subtle and least metal one yet. As a hard rock record, Cryptic Writings has some things going for it. “Trust” has a level of nuance and atmosphere heretofore unheard of on a Megadeth record, and did earn the band another Grammy nod.
Longtime fans were shocked when the band busted out acoustic guitars for “Use the Man” and synthesizers for “I’ll Get Even” which were arranged like classic Megadeth songs but hardly resembled them in reality. Even more metallic songs like “Mastermind” and “The Disintegrators” were infused with more melody than the band had ever employed.
I’ll say this for Cryptic Writings – I can relate to fans who dismiss this album because of how much lighter it is than previous Megadeth releases. But at this point in their career it’s clear that they wanted to move into a more mainstream sound, and to their credit they sound more focused and committed than they did on Youthanasia. While nothing on this album is transcendent (“Vortex” and “FFF” are contenders), it is a more consistent album than Youthanasia and doesn’t drag nearly as much.
More changes were in store for the band and their fans, as Nick Menza left Megadeth in 1998 while the group was on tour. Menza had knee surgery for what turned out to be a benign tumor, and later claimed that while in the hospital Mustaine fired him over the phone. Mustaine, for his part, accused Menza of lying to him about having cancer. Regardless of who you believe, Menza was replaced by Jimmy DeGrasso of Y&T and Suicidal Tendencies among other groups.
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The story goes that Lars Ulrich, in an interview, urged Megadeth to take more risks with their music. This is their response, and it remains a sore spot with fans to this day. The most charitable way to describe Risk is “misguided.” Mustaine tried to turn Megadeth into a heavier AOR outfit and fell flat on his face.
That’s not to say it’s all bad news. “Prince of Darkness” is an indicator that they might have had the right idea for their new direction at one point. Beyond that… OK, it’s bad news.
Let’s be clear – there are some real turds here. “Insomnia,” with its shockingly limp chorus, sounds like a rejected soundtrack from one of the Scream movies. Mainstream Rock hit single “Crush ‘Em” is the kind of dance-influenced garbage rock that sunk Mötley Crüe’s Generation Swine album, and the fact that it was appropriated as a wrestling theme song only drives that point home. The other big single, “Breadline,” is a piece of pop-metal as bland as white bread, fittingly enough.
That’s about all I can say about Risk, and about all it deserves. Marty Friedman bailed on Megadeth during the supporting tour, supposedly after Mustaine put his foot down and insisted on a return to thrash. As if he let Friedman push him around. Anyway, Friedman was replaced for the rest of the tour by prog metal stalwart Al Pitrelli.
The World Needs a Hero (2001)
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Dave Mustaine at least deserves credit for realizing how adrift Megadeth had become, and taking steps to correct course. The World Needs a Hero is an attempt to right past wrongs, and is meant to evoke the band’s glory days in a few ways. Mascot Vic Rattlehead is back on the cover, and there’s even a callback to Rust in Peace with the track “Return to Hangar.”
Musically, however, Megadeth only gets partial points for redemption. The opener, “Disconnect,” is a rather tepid reworking of the group’s early ’90s style. Things start to look up by the time the title track appears, and a string of solid but not mind-blowing songs like “Moto Psycho” and “Burning Bridges” seem to indicate that all is not lost. It comes to a screeching halt with the gentle acoustics of “Promises” and the momentum is lost until the ninth song, “Dread and the Fugitive Mind.”
So after a few (well, more like four or five) years in the desert, Megadeth started their long slog back to respectability. The World Needs a Hero is doubtlessly a flawed album but hinted at greater things to come from Mustaine and company. The next year, however, it looked like it was all over. While in rehab after a drug relapse Mustaine suffered a compressed radial nerve, later diagnosed as radial neuropathy, from a freak accident. His left hand rendered useless, he announced he was disbanding Megadeth in April 2002.
The System Has Failed (2004)
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When Mustaine finally regained the use of his left hand after nearly a year of intense physical rehab, he set about recording his first solo album. As happens so many times, that solo album became a de facto album for the artist’s main gig, and thus Megadeth returned with The System Has Failed, their second studio release for the Sanctuary label.
After a failed attempt to bring the classic early ’90s lineup back together, Megadeth forged ahead with session players. So Mustaine, the sole credited band member on the record, was supported by hired hands Jimmie Lee Sloas on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. Rounding out the temporary quarter was a real ghost from the past, the one and only Chris Poland on lead guitar (who contributed lead parts on a contract basis).
For any fans that stuck with the band for the previous decade, they were rewarded with Megadeth’s strongest album in a long damn time. “Blackmail the Universe” kicks off the rebirth in high style, with Mustaine and Poland turning in searing solos that recall the band’s heyday. Lead single “Die Dead Enough” is thoroughly modern Megadeth, with its somewhat muted, melodic chorus, but still has enough bite to be successful.
The System Has Failed is not without its flaws (I’m looking at you, “Truth Be Told”), but there’s so much to revel in here. Some real highlights are the blistering “Kick the Chair,” the epic and groovy thrash of “The Scorpion,” and the progressive, Iron Maiden-esque “Back in the Day.” At a time when a new generation of metal bands like Mastodon and Killswitch Engage were staking their claims to the metal crown (whatever that means), Megadeth showed with this record that the old guard was not to be dismissed.
Despite the positive reviews and fan reception, however, it all appeared to be over again. Mustaine announced that the supporting tour for The System Has Failed would be the band’s last, as he was ending Megadeth to focus on a solo career. Once again, the band returned for another round. Mustaine announced during an October 2005 show that Megadeth would return with the lineup of Mustaine, bassist James MacDonough, guitarist Glen Drover, and drummer Shawn Drover.
United Abominations (2007)
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With yet another new lineup in place (MacDonough out, James LoMenzo in on bass), Megadeth continued their thrash renaissance with the horribly titled United Abominations. The Drover brothers prove to be worthy additions to the Megadeth family, although they don’t necessarily bring anything new to the table.
And that’s pretty much United Abominations in a nutshell. Lots of expert performances and killer riffage, but nothing mind-blowing. You could do a lot worse for a metal album than this, but I think Mustaine has been burnt by experimentation so many times he opts to play it safer than he needed to here. The album stays on an even keel with a host of efficient thrashers like “Sleepwalker,” “Never Walk Alone… A Call to Arms” (Mustaine loves his ellipses, you have to give him that much) and “Washington Is Next!”, the best song Iron Maiden didn’t release last decade.
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And so we’re up to the present, and for those scoring at home (which can be very lonely) this makes 12 studio albums over 24 years. Man, I’m getting old. Anyway, Endgame picks up right where United Abominations left off. “Dialectic Chaos” is a two-and-a-half minute guitar clinic from Mustaine and new co-lead Chris Broderick (Another lineup change? WTF?), and segues right into the pile-driving “This Day We Fight!”
As with the last few albums, Mustaine has a lot to say about the current political scene. Notably absent, in case anyone was reading the lyrics, are the Satanic paeans that littered earlier albums. Mustaine converted to Christianity earlier in the decade, although to date there have been no attempts to turn Megadeth into a CCM outfit.
I’ll say this much for Endgame and modern-day Megadeth. They know what they want to be, and they pursue that with an unswerving sense of purpose. It’s hard to find fault with songs like “Endgame” or “Head Crusher” for certain. On their own, most of the tunes from this and the previous few albums are winners. Taken together, they tend to blur together a bit for me. Still, considering how low the group had sunk at one point I’ll take albums like this any day of the week.
As of this writing, Megadeth is in the process of putting together their 13th studio album. Early last year they embarked on a tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of Rust in Peace, and even welcomed Dave Ellefson back into the fold. In June of 2010 Megadeth took part in an historic metal moment when they performed with the other members of the Big Four of Thrash – Anthrax, Metallica, and Slayer. The four bands performed a handful of shows in Europe, and so far have one U.S. date planned for this year.