By now the story is well known, how angry young singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Mustaine formed Megadeth to get "revenge" on his former band Metallica after they unceremoniously dumped him due to his hostile personality. Enlisting David "Junior" Ellefson on bass, Gar Samuelson on drums, and Chris Poland on lead guitar (along with Mustaine), the second most famous Megadeth lineup released Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good!, the band's rawest, fastest, shortest, thrashiest album ever. True, Mustaine's snarling vocals are unique but certainly not for everybody's taste (I like 'em), the low budget production is definitely a weak link, and some of these songs could use some more hooks and/or memorable melodies (like on the more melodic groover "Chosen Ones"), but the tremendous energy of these performances and the technical precision of these talented musicians easily enables them to overcome whatever shortcomings the album may have (besides, their sound and songwriting would get even better soon enough). The classical piano intro "Last Rites" immediately lets listeners know that Megadeth were more diverse and sophisticated than your typical thrash metal band, though of course it's the band's furious soloing (like on "Loved To Death" and "Skull Beneath The Skin," for example) and relentlessly impressive drumming ("Rattlehead") that most stand out. It's hard to really single out individual song highlights, as the whole album is very good (such as the title track and "Looking Down The Cross") even if perhaps it's lacking in all-time great Megadeth anthems, plus let's face it "The Mechanix" pales when compared to "The Four Horsemen" by Metallica (which was basically "The Mechanix" rewritten and improved). Note: Most versions of this album include their cover of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" (i.e. "These Boots"). Though inessential, I sorta like the original Megadeth version, but the different reissued version (i.e. the one on the album where the replaced cover art isn't embarrassingly terrible) released after complaints from original writer Lee Hazelwood is a bleeping joke that I always skip over.
Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? (Capitol ’86) Rating: A
With much better production and superior songs, Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? was a significant step up in class, and it's widely considered the best early Megadeth album. The clever album cover featuring the band's Eddie-like mascot Vic Rattlehead is top-notch, as are the majority of these dark, violent songs, which feature interesting lyrics and lots of blistering solos. The band would get better at crafting hooks and memorable melodies later on (causing some early fans to call them sellouts, naturally) but as far as pure, speedy thrash metal goes, this one is tough to top. Among the highlights are "Wake Up Dead," which is largely instrumental and lyrically is about the perils of infidelity, "The Conjuring," with its outstanding twin guitar attack, "Good Mourning/Black Friday," whose slow, haunting intro morphs into a fast, hard-hitting thrash gem, and "My Last Words," a superb finale, this one about playing Russian Roulette. Actually, I like every original song here, though the Willie Dixon cover "I Ain't Superstitious" is a weak link (unlike Metallica, Megadeth simply aren't a very good cover band), while the album's most justifiably famous song is "Peace Sells," and not only because for a decade its bassline was used as the intro theme for MTV News (way back when people actually, you know, gave a shit about MTV). I've seen Megadeth live numerous times, and this is one of a handful of songs that gets played every time, and it's always a sing along concert favorite, and this studio version does it justice as well. It's certainly the albums catchiest tune, even if the chorus doesn't arrive until the last third of the song, and it's an early example of Megadeth being "political," which would happen with increasing frequency as their career went on, sometimes to their detriment. As with Killing this album is more about its fantastic playing than its songwriting, but this time out the songs are mostly stellar as well.
So Far, So Good... So What! (Capitol ‘88) Rating: A-
Samuelson and Poland’s drug habits and resulting unreliable behavior resulted in their ouster from the band; Samuelson would sadly die from liver failure in 1999, while Poland would only briefly reappear with Megadeth on 2004’s The System Has Failed. Replacing such talented musicians was a tall task, but unfortunately membership turnover would be an ongoing storyline throughout Megadeth’s history. The new lineup consisting of drummer Chuck Behler and guitarist Jeff Young (the guitar teacher of original replacement Jay Reynolds who couldn’t cut it) would also prove short-lived, and So Far, So Good... So What! can be seen as a transitional album created by a transitional band lineup. Impressively, it’s still a very good album; it’s just not as good as the two bookending albums, either from a songwriting, performance, or production standpoint. The album gets off to a fine start with “Into The Lungs Of Hell,” a melodic but heavy instrumental, and “Set The World Afire” continues the high quality, with a long intro (so Dave doesn’t actually sing until about five and a half minutes into the album) and appropriately dark lyrics about a nuclear holocaust. Of course, Dave’s strangled cat vocals still aren’t for everybody, and the electro-vocals are sorta cheesy, but the impressive soloing wins out. Unfortunately, I’ve said before that Megadeth were a lousy cover band, and I dislike their version of the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.,” even with Steve Jones playing on it, while “Mary Jane” is a rather nondescript album track, despite its twisted lyrics. Fortunately, side two is much better, beginning with “502,” whose galloping groove is fitting for a song about being chased by the cops, and the album’s highlight then commences with “In My Darkest Hour,” one of the band’s best songs ever. Famously written by Mustaine in one sitting after hearing about Metallica bassist Cliff Burton’s death, the song is inspired by if not necessarily about Cliff, and musically it slows down the pace (though it picks up towards the end) and ratchets up the emotion. Just a great song that also adds some needed variety, and “Liar” is notable for its rapid fire vocals spitting out vitriolic lyrics about Poland (who allegedly sold the band’s equipment to feed his drug habit and wouldn’t fess up to it). Finally, “Hook In Mouth,” about censorship in general and the P.M.R.C. in particular, is a fine finale that’s Mustaine’s favorite Megadeth song (so it’s gotta be really good, right? Well yeah, pretty much). Anyway, like I said, this is a very good album that’s unfortunately overlooked because it's sandwiched between what are generally regarded as the band’s best albums. The two new guys do just fine, and Mustaine writes a strong batch of intelligently crafted (musically and lyrically) songs, making So Far, So Good... So What! an underrated entry that’s well worth the time of any Megadeth fan.
Rust In Peace (Capitol ‘90) Rating: A+
With the addition of powerhouse drummer Nick Menza and virtuoso guitarist Marty Friedman (even Dave was in awe of his chops), Megadeth had their most celebrated lineup in place (indeed this is the one generally considered their "classic lineup"), setting the stage for the best album of their career. Excellently produced by Mike Clink (best known for his work with Guns n' Roses) and featuring another vintage album cover, Rust In Peace starts with arguably Megadeth's two greatest songs ever. "Holy Wars...The Punishment Due" is a phenomenal religion-themed track with a galloping groove, multiple sections and memorable moments (like the exotic Spanish guitar interlude and the "first mistake, last mistake" lyrics), and several jaw dropping solos. Although not quite as epic, if anything "Hangar 18" is even better, beginning with one of the best beginning's ever and rarely letting up thereafter, with unforgettable dual riffs and more incredible guitar solos. The other all-time great track here that Megadeth plays at every concert (I should know as I've seen 'em several times) is "Tornado Of Souls," which has the album's most memorable chorus and another amazing solo from Friedman. Still, this is far from a hits-plus-filler affair, as the album tracks are of an extremely high quality as well, as the songwriting is consistently strong and the musicianship consistently astounding. I could name additional highlights or things I like about the album, such as the way Mustaine reverses the famous JFK quote in "Take No Prisoners" or how even the most obvious filler-ish track "Dawn Patrol" works as a groovy change of pace, but really this is an album where you can just press play and enjoy the whole thing. In addition to the great music, Mustaine's increasingly political lyrics make you think as well, as Megadeth were earning their reputation as a "thinking man's metal band." Of course, if you just want to headbang without thinking too much this album works perfectly well that way too, as Megadeth entered the ‘90s by bashing down the doors and absolutely wrecking the place. It helped that they had their steadiest and best lineup to date, and as a result they were fully charged and ready to challenge Metallica for the title of "world's best metal band." They never quite got there in terms of popularity, but with Rust In Peace they did manage to deliver one of heavy metal's greatest albums.
Countdown To Extinction (Capitol ‘92) Rating: A
Newly clean and sober, a clear head has done Dave Mustaine’s muse good, yielding another superb set of increasingly melodic metal. At times atmospherically slowing down the tempo and containing highly personal (i.e. Mustaine’s constant battles against his inner demons) and intelligently political and/or socially conscious lyrics, this is another pristine example of powerhouse ‘90s metal, expertly produced by Mustaine and Max Norman. Again Megadeth show off their mastery of the heavy metal riff while also demonstrating that they’re one of the best groove bands in the business. It’s hard to find too many faults, really, other than some cheesy moments, more acquired taste vocals, and the fact that the second half of the album, while perfectly solid and at times inspired (title track, "Ashes In Your Mouth"), isn't as good as the first half, perhaps because the album contains 11 songs instead of their usual 8 or 9. Sure, due to the more commercial direction some longtime fans cried "sell out!," much like what Metallica had faced with The Black Album, but I think it's more the fact that the songwriting (still mostly Dave but more of a group effort this time) continues to improve and Dave has learned the value of vocal hooks and even harmony vocals. Among the obvious highlights are the albums two most famous songs, "Symphony Of Destruction" (with its unforgettable "da da da, da da da" riffs) and "Sweating Bullets," which is a tad cartoonish (Dave's vocals deliberately irritating but in a fun way) but whose creeping rhythms absolutely rule. Also first-rate is the catchy "Skin O' My Teeth" (which gets the album off and running and which does not advocate suicide), the atmospheric and emotionally charged "Foreclosure Of A Dream" (probably the best example of how Megadeth write about real world issues), and the aforementioned two tunes (let's face it Megadeth's title tracks are always great and the epic "Ashes In Your Mouth," like "Symphony" a post-war indictment, is an excellent album closer). Again, some of the other songs, like "This Was My Life," "Psychotron," and "Captive Honour," are also quite good and hooky, and as per usual each band member excels on their respective instrument. In short, with everything finally going their way at long last (Countdown remains the band's best-selling album), Megadeth seemed to be riding an unstoppable wave of creative momentum.
Youthanasia (Capitol ‘94) Rating: A-
Less crunchy and even more commercial (bye bye thrash metal), Youthanasia finds the band slightly compromised, with an over-reliance on mid-tempo melodies and simplified verse-chorus-verse song structures, as Mustaine and company obviously and openly courted commercial success. The result is that when the hooks don’t connect or are overly cheesy we’re left with a few mediocre moments ("Family Tree" and "Black Curtains" come immediately to mind). Fortunately this doesn’t happen too often, as this album delivers plenty of catchy choruses, plus Dave's singing continues to improve and the band can still hit like a ton of bricks when the song calls for it. "Reckoning Day" is certainly a powerful album opener, with its good chugging groove and one of my favorite Mustaine vocals, and minor hit "Train Of Consequences" is a very good song as well, though many fans complained that the catchy tune was too commercial. "A Tout Le Monde" also garnered some radio airplay despite its chorus being sung in French, and for my money this "power ballad" is not only the best song on the album but one of the best Megadeth songs, period. Dave likely agrees, too, because this is the lone song from the album that they always play live. Those three songs are the album's primary highlights to me, but I like quite a few others as well, pretty much all of the others I haven't mentioned come to think of it, though I'm hard pressed to remember details about some of them simply by looking at the track listing ("Elysian Fields" sticks out due to its almost poppy harmonized chorus, "I Thought I Knew It All" because it's mellower and more melodic than usual, and "Victory" because it quotes many prior Megadeth lyrics in a way that's not overly forced). Maybe the album is a bit too calculated in its commercial ambitions (producer Max Norman helped steer them in this direction as well), and as a result these songs are less adventurous and feature less soloing than in the past. That's not to say that the band's playing isn't impressive or that there aren't some great solos (most often played by Friedman, as per usual), but this time it's mostly about the songs, most of which are quite good, thank you very much. Sure, many old time thrash fans were disappointed by this album, and I'd be lying if I said that Youthanasia (which has another cool and controversial album cover) excited me as much as their prior two releases (it's easy to draw parallels here with The Black Album versus Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets), but it's hard to argue with success. Although not quite scaling the commercial heights of Countdown (#2 U.S. and double platinum), Youthanasia (#4 U.S. and platinum) continued to broaden the band's fan base to a more non-metal audience, making it an effective trade-off that allowed the band to sneer at any dissenters with their pride fully intact.
Cryptic Writings (Capitol ‘97) Rating: B+
Those who were expecting a return to thrash metal with this album were sorely disappointed, as Cryptic Writings was an even safer, more mainstream record as Mustaine continued to court commercial success. Then again, though streamlined hooks, slower tempos ("The Disintegrators" and "FFF" are rare exceptions), and harmonized choruses might make Megadeth sound more mainstream, screaming guitars and anguished lyrics also remain calling cards, while Menza pummels his poor drum kit throughout. With Dan Huff producing with Mustaine this time rather than Max Norman, Cryptic Writings is merely a good album that's a definite drop-down in quality from the prior few releases. That said, it has some clear highlights, beginning with "Trust," the band's highest charting single ever, and for good reason, as this one really grooves and has a good harmonized chorus. "Almost Honest" is definitely unexpected, with its techno-metal flourishes making me somewhat uncomfortably think of Def Leppard, but fortunately the song is quite catchy, making it one of the better tunes here. Granted, there are several songs here that don't do all that much for me, and a couple that I find annoying ("Mastermind," "Sin"), but "I'll Get Even" (about his old foes in Metallica - get over it already Dave!) is also easily singable, "A Secret Place" is another winningly experimental effort with a mystical Middle Eastern vibe, and "She-Wolf" is another standout track whose galloping grooves and harmonized guitars suggest power metal more than thrash. I don't have that much more to say about this album, like I said before it's another quality release but it's not one that I listen to often. Note: After Cryptic Writings came the even more commercial and quite confused Risk, recorded without Menza (whose ouster from the band was a strange story, as he might or might not have faked having cancer in order to take a break from the band, which Mustaine decided to make permanent). "Crush 'Em" is surely the most embarrassing of all Megadeth songs, and Friedman, who had helped steer the band in a more commercial direction, left afterwards (by most accounts he simply lost interest in playing heavy metal), at which point I have to admit that I too largely lost interest in Megadeth, at least with regards to their studio albums. Granted, I could be wrong since I haven't paid as much attention to them, but from a distance I'd say that the band has since suffered from too many interchangeable band members (even Ellefson left from 2003-2009, going so far as to sue Mustaine in the process!) and too many songs where empty sloganeering has masqueraded as socially relevant lyrics. Of course, Mustaine's recovery from a strange medical condition called radial neuropathy that threatened his career was impressive if not outright heroic, and they're still a great live band who have released some studio albums that are worthy of comparison to their prime period (from what I've heard 2009's Endgame is the best of their recent albums, keeping in mind that it’s 2014 as I write these reviews). But when all is said and done Megadeth's prime period is the albums that have been reviewed here.
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