For all the success and acclaim Megadeth’s 1992 album, Countdown to Extinction, has accumulated over the years, it’s still a polarizing release for many a metal fan. Depending on how you look at it, the band’s fifth full-length was either an exemplary illustration of nimble-fingered thrash metal that introduced Megadeth to a legion of new fans, or it was an unimaginative, artistically cynical stab at arena-baiting commercial success – unapologetically chasing Metallica’s coat tails in vying for upper-echelon, chart-topping triumph. Of course, this is Megadeth, the band founded and fronted by Dave Mustaine, an artist with a notable history of provocative sermonizing, so it’s really no surprise that the album’s virtues are disputed. Every Megadeth release has its fervent fans and equally fervent detractors, and that’s always been one of the best aspects of the band – it evokes passion, one way or another.
There’s certainly no doubting the album’s importance for fans who were introduced to Megadeth or metal in general via Countdown to Extinction. Much like Metallica’s self-titled 1991 album, its status as a gateway metal album is indisputable. Countdown to Extinction‘s popularity speaks volumes about its significance in the metal canon. It remains Megadeth’s biggest-selling release, reaching No. 2 in the US charts, eventually going double platinum, and selling by the truckload around the globe. It produced numerous hit singles, was nominated for Best Metal Performance at the 1993 Grammy Awards, and in the mind of many fans and critics represents a creative highpoint for the band.
Reissued for its 20th anniversary, this new double-disc box-set CD edition omits the bonus tracks from Countdown to Extinction‘s 2004 re-release, but is remastered by Tom Baker – who adds plenty of brawn. Baker’s clear-cut, punchy mix is a breath of fresh air after the confusing array of dubious remixes on Megadeth’s previous reissues. Accompanying the album is a visceral concert recorded at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1992 (also with remixed audio for extra heft), extensive liner notes from Revolver magazine’s Kory Grow, as well as a few extras in the shape of postcards and a gigantic poster. It’s a great looking package.
Countdown to Extinction was the second album to feature the famed lineup of vocalist and guitarist Mustaine along with Marty Friedman on guitar, David Ellefson on bass and Nick Menza on drums. The technical skills of the band’s members were unquestionable, and all contributed to songwriting on the album. Mustaine snarled and sneered his way through Countdown to Extinction with all his fire-spitting and curmudgeonly charm. Drawing inspiration from simmering political and social tensions, the album tackled themes such as the senselessness of war (“Architecture of Aggression”), psychological woes (“Sweating Bullets”), animal cruelty (“Countdown to Extinction”), and the perils of taxation and economic collapse (“Foreclosure of a Dream”).
Countdown to Extinction started well with “Skin o’ My Teeth” and “Symphony of Destruction”. Both tracks, along with “Sweating Bullets”, have since become fan favorites and live staples, and they’re all certainly rousing and worthy of the kudos. However, for a great many fans who followed Megadeth from its early days, thereby witnessing the birth of two thrash metal masterpieces (1986’s Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying? and 1990’s Rust in Peace) the rest of Countdown to Extinction came as a rude shock.
Before the album’s release, Megadeth had been a scrappy streetwise survivor. Mustaine’s ejection from Metallica early in its career fuelled his desire to push harder and faster than his former bandmates. He never achieved his goal of equaling Metallica’s commercial success, but Countdown to Extinction was the closest Megadeth came to a similar level of mainstream recognition. That situation sits at the heart of the album’s debatable status. Respect for Megadeth’s volatile compositions was secured in the band’s early days, as its contributions to popularizing thrash metal along with the rest of the ‘Big Four’ thrash titans (Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax) were superb. However, Countdown to Extinction favored generic rock shadings directly aimed at MTV and radio play, and its pop-friendly accessibility gave rise to plenty of ructions and grumblings from long-term fans.
Megadeth wasn’t the first metal band to soften its edges in seeking wider appeal in the ‘90s, and any concerns about appeasing trenchant metal fans or artistic credibility weren’t on the radar for Mustaine. He had seen Metallica top the charts with its 1991 gazillion-selling self-titled album, and in keeping with his obsessive desire to not be outdone he coveted a slice of that lucrative pie. (Mustaine admitted his frustrations at being held off from hitting the No. 1 spot by Billy Ray Cyrus in the liner notes to the 2004 reissue of Countdown to Extinction.) The pressure was also on Mustaine and the band to follow up the widely acclaimed Rust in Peace, but instead of producing something as technically dazzling as that album’s shred-frenzies, the band chose to reduce the thrashing momentum and utilize more streamlined, hard rock hooks and choruses –a path further explored on subsequent albums (Youthanasia, Cryptic Writings and Risk) to ever-diminishing returns.
Megadeth’s decision to forgo much of its guttersnipe attack wouldn’t have been such an issue if it had matched its slicker ideas with imaginative songs instead of concentrating on thrash-lite formulaic stylings with interchangeable riffs and melodies – marking the album as more pedestrian than its previously powerful work. Countdown to Extinction was simply let down by mediocre tracks such as “Architecture of Aggression” and the cloying “Foreclosure of a Dream”, and in Mustaine’s case, a lack of baritone depth and gravitas to his voice meant he was never going to be able to lift “This Was My Life” out of the realm of kitschy pulp. The technical riff-orgies of the past were eschewed for the straightforward and chugging stroll of “Captive Honor”, and “Pyschotron”, and while Freidman and Mustaine were both easily capable of matching skilful fluidity with heads-down aggression, there were few opportunities for them to shine.
That said, there’s no doubt a yearning for the past also plays a role in finding fault with Countdown to Extinction. For many fans, criticisms of the album come from the bitter perspective of having followed Megadeth from its beginnings only to watch it take a blatant stride into the mainstream. That’s an understandable position to hold. Metal was shaken in the 90s, and a lessening of any might from any thrash band was a cause for nervousness – Metallica having already wandered off the pure thrash path. But that still doesn’t make the album any better. Even if you put the bellyaching aside, and acknowledge the album brought Megadeth a significantly larger audience, you can’t deny that came at the cost of a great deal of its credibility. And let’s be clear, before Countdown to Extinction, this was a band whose artistry was highly respected, for good reason.
Thankfully, this 20th anniversary edition of Countdown to Extinction remedies any concerns about Megadeth waning in the bruising stakes by including the Cow Palace live show from 1992 – and the live recording is this edition’s true selling point. The band rips through a best-of set, with classic tracks such as “Holy Wars … The Punishment Due”, “The Conjuring”, “Peace Sells”, “Wake up Dead” and “Hangar 18” all delivered in a blistering fashion. Mustaine snipes, carouses, growls and grunts throughout the set, and all the band’s complex arrangements are presented via a raw but not too muddy mix. The show serves as a strong reminder of the golden days of Megadeth’s prowling prowess and is worth the price of the box-set alone.
Countdown to Extinction was the beginning of the end for Megadeth, at least for its first era. As much as it brought the band mainstream recognition, it also signaled some truly dire work ahead –although, in recent years, Megadeth has made an extremely strong comeback with albums such as 2007’s United Abominations and 2009’s Endgame. There’s no getting past the fact that Countdown to Extinction is adored by millions, and admittedly, it’s easy to hear why. It is accessible, catchy, and full of vigor, and label EMI has done a great job of honoring those attributes. This anniversary edition looks great, and the album definitely sounds a lot better than it did two decades ago.
Ultimately, although all that polishing and buffing ensures a nice finish, it doesn’t alter the reality that Countdown to Extinction marks the point at which the band’s career was cleaved in two for many fans. The album may well have been important because its huge success allowed Megadeth to gather hordes of new fans to fill arenas, but for many other metal fans it is important because it marks the exact point at which they lost respect for Megadeth and waved the band goodbye.