For many years now, Megadeth has been a beast of two heads. The first, basically just a dripping, cavernous maw filled with razor sharp knives, was born in 1983 and would attack anything that moved with unnatural speed, venomous aggression, and of course, biting sarcasm. Then, a few albums down the road, a second head began to form alongside it’s bitter, hateful brother. Although still not the friendliest of things, this second head possessed a more laid back personality, preferring melody, patience and a more commercial approach to music.
Since the early nineties, these two distinctly different personalities have sat, occasionally uncomfortably, side by side on the same body, one continually attempting to become the dominant force over the other. When the original, Thrashier head gains control, we get albums like Endgame (Roadrunner), but when its more easygoing counterpart takes the helm, records like Cryptic Writings (Capitol) or the much maligned Risk (Capitol) are the results. Every now and again though, the two set aside their differences and actually co-operate, working together to try and achieve great things. Other times, it all goes horrifyingly wrong and things like Super Collider (Universal/Tradecraft) happen.
On new album, Dystopia (Universal/Tradecraft), the balance between the two is as good as it’s ever been. Just pretend Super Collider didn’t happen. Scrub it from your mind because the turnaround from 2013 to 2016 is unbelievable. While people have been happily writing Megadeth off as a spent force, frontman Dave Mustaine does what he always does with his back against the wall – digs in belligerently and refuses to go down without a fight.
In a situation like this, one of the best ways to make positive steps forward is to return to the past. And while it’s sometimes difficult to know whether a band is harking back to former glories so fans can identify quicker with new material, or whether it’s just because it’s an easy option from a band out of ideas, the answer lies in the shape of a ginger frontman. Dave Mustaine may be guilty of many things, but he doesn’t do easy.
So, when opening track ‘The Threat is Real’ begins with it’s atmospheric Arabic maqam introduction, one of the first things that leaps to mind is ‘Holy Wars… The Punishment Due’ from 1990’s Rust in Peace (Capitol). Although not as good as that seasoned classic, ‘The Threat is Real’ is still a great way to start an album. Snappy lyrics, a chunky central riff and some sharp soloing courtesy of new boy Kiko Loureiro help this song become easily the best album opener since ‘Sleepwalker’ from 2007’s United Abominations (Roadrunner), even if it does sneakily try and fit an ever so slightly reworked ‘Five Magics’ riff in at the end.
The slightly downbeat, but still quite pacy title track follows next. Melodic riffs and catchy verses only let down by a slightly unimaginative chorus. However, it’s a more than worthy title track, and one with definite shades of ‘Hangar 18’ as the second half of the song becomes an entirely instrumental affair.
The already released ‘Fatal Illusion’ rumbles into view next, it’s discordant intro followed by a fast, smoothly played bassline from the always reliable David Ellefson. Some quick incisive riffing follows along with the first real signs that drummer Chris Adler, borrowed from Virginia’s Lamb of God, is seriously beginning to put his own individual stamp on the album. From then on though, it becomes a bit of a hotch-potch of other songs, with riffs and vocal patterns being casually lifted from the likes of ‘Devil’s Island’, ‘Black Friday’, and ‘Five Magics’ (again). Luckily, this is the only time the reliance on older material is so blatant, and with ‘Fatal Illusion’ being the song used to introduce people to the album in the first place, it was possibly even written that way with that in mind.
The album stalls briefly with the mid-paced and pretty forgettable ‘Death From Within’, which although isn’t awful or anything, is just sort of there. ‘Bullet to the Brain’, a song which on the face of it appears to be about a man lured into having an affair, but knowing Mustaine probably has some sort of deeper hidden political meaning, starts with a brief acoustic intro before turning on the heavy and delivering one of the catchiest choruses on the album. The brooding ‘Post-American World’ follows next, warning of future political dangers while tweaking the main riff to ‘Sweating Bullets’ to suit its purpose.
Next up is ‘Poisonous Shadows’. Somewhat similar in tone to ‘A Tout Le Monde’ (albeit with different subject matter), its gentle, recurring backing vocals and quiet piano outro (played by Loureiro) give the song a distinct personality while Adler finally becomes the star of the show, his powerful drumming pushing the song forward with precise, interesting patterns.
‘Conquer or Die!’ is one of the better instrumentals in Megadeth’s arsenal. Beginning slowly, a uniquely Mustaine riff takes over, becoming heftier as the sound of bells toll ominously behind some fantastic solo work. Instrumentals have been known to sap the interest of some listeners, but any cobwebs which may have appeared during ‘Conquer or Die!’ are instantly blown away with the ferocious intensity of ‘Lying In State’. A bludgeoning riff kicks things off, Adler adds to the carnage and Mustaine spits out the words with sneering disdain as it builds towards a frantic and extremely satisfying conclusion.
After such an explosive climax to the previous song, ‘The Emperor’, with it’s uptempo punk meets Alice Cooper vibe, feels strangely out of place. Also, it’s “The Emperor has no clothes” chorus conjures up some very unwanted images of a naked Mustaine wandering around his bedroom in just a pair of socks. Forget the themes of war, deception, murder, and political subterfuge. That image alone is scarier than all of those put together.
A cover of ‘Foreign Policy’ by California’s Fear rounds things off. Nice and straightforward, Mustaine does a better job of evoking the spirit of punk in this than he did with ‘Anarchy in the UK’ back in 1988, even if it does feature a very un punk-like guitar solo. Truth be told, these last two tracks are good but fairly unnecessary additions. Just treat them like bonus tracks and convince yourself the album finishes with ‘Lying in State’.
Varied and entertaining, ‘Dystopia’ is Megadeth’s best album in years and everything that fans who recognise Mustaine’s youthful piss and vinegar has matured into something else could hope for. Super Collider, is but a distant memory so stick it back on the shelf to gather dust, grab this one instead and smile that blacktooth grin once more.
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