[28 July 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Just when you think he’s down for the count, destined to spend the rest of his days an aging, irrelevant rocker, Dave Mustaine picks himself off the mat, shakes out the cobwebs, and comes back more resilient than ever. Mustaine and his band Megadeth, one of the most influential American metal bands to emerge from the ‘80s thrash underground, suffered through a real dry spell between 1995 and 2003, with each subsequent album sounding exponentially weaker, as if the band was simply going through the motions, bottoming out with 2003’s The World Needs a Hero.
In 2004, however, things got wild and very wacky, with more ups and downs than the stock market. After Mustaine embraced Christian fundamentalism, longtime bass player Dave Ellefson bolted from the band. Mustaine underwent the massive task of completely remastering the Megadeth discography, and the improvements to the early albums were astonishing, thrilling longtime fans. Then, after coming off as a bitter grump in the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, he lashed out angrily at Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, accusing Ulrich of manipulating him in front of the cameras. If that wasn’t enough, Ellefson sued Mustaine for millions over merchandising and publishing royalties. Then, after recording with a bunch of unknown session musicians, Mustaine shocked the metal world by releasing the superb The System Has Failed, far and away the best Megadeth album in well over a decade. With his credibility restored overnight, the legions of old fans won back, a successful tour completed, and Ellefson’s lawsuit thrown out of court, Mustaine went into 2005 back on top.
So, to keep the momentum going, without having to record new material, Mustaine has decided it’s compilation time again, but unlike the 1995 rarities collection Hidden Treasures, and 2000’s Capitol Punishment: The Megadeth years, which is now out of print, Greatest Hits: Back to the Start has a lot going for it. First, Mustaine was able to include tracks from his newly remastered back catalog. Also, he was able to include material from the band’s 1985 debut Killing is My Business… and Business is Good for the first time. And most interestingly, he let the fans decide the tracklisting.
Looking at the tracklisting for Greatest Hits, it’s impossible not to raise an eyebrow when reading the liner notes, which state, “The tracklist for this collection is largely the result of a poll at forums.megadeth.com.” Metal fans are a cantankerous bunch who cling to the past like Linus clings to his blanket, something I personally know firsthand, being a cantankerous old metal fan myself, so it’s very hard to believe that Megadeth fans would favor such average latter-day songs like “She-Wolf” and “Prince of Darkness” over classic tunes like “Set the World Afire”, “My Last Words”, and “Tornado of Souls”, but Mustaine vehemently contends that, save for his own “personal vote” for the late ‘90s rarity “Kill the King”, the disc is completely fan-chosen. So, we’ll take his word for it.
Much of what is on Greatest Hits is of very high quality, as the CD is loaded with all the band’s essential tracks, including classics from the ‘80s era. The acerbic “Peace Sells” galvanized a generation of teen metalheads in late 1986, brilliantly segueing from a menacing stomp to full-on thrash, Mustaine combining political commentary with a wickedly catchy hook. “Wake Up Dead” showcases the band’s talented early lineup, as the song launches into a lurching, jazz-infused prog metal jam that sounded completely from left field when it first came out, and still does today. 1988’s ornate, impassioned “In My Darkest Hour” remains one of the strongest songs Mustaine has ever written, and while the inclusion of the Killing is My Business track “Mechanix” is interesting (it was originally a Metallica song until the band slowed it down and re-named it “The Four Horsemen” soon after Mustaine was fired in 1983), it’s far from the best song on that scrappy record, as either the title track or “Skull beneath the Skin” would have worked better.
Both the daring “Hangar 18” and the spectacular epic “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due”, from the triumphant 1990 release Rust in Peace, are Megadeth at their absolute peak, the musicianship tighter than it had ever been, Mustaine’s songwriting at its most perceptive and adventurous. Of course, the band’s commercial breakthrough, 1992’s “Symphony of Destruction” appears, but it’s two other Countdown to Extinction tunes, “Skin O’ My Teeth” and the schizophrenic psychodrama “Sweating Bullets” that show this band still had plenty of great ideas. “Angry Again”, recorded for The Last Action Hero soundtrack, is a smart selection, one of the band’s underrated gems, while “A Tout La Monde”, from the clunky 1994 follow-up Youthanasia is a first-rate piece of soul-searching melodrama.
Fans may be wondering why no songs from The System Has Failed are on the compilation, as “Kick the Chair”, “Die Dead Enough”, and “Back in the Day” all definitely deserve inclusion, but this being an EMI release, only songs owned by EMI publishing have been included, which means The System Has Failed and The World Needs a Hero, both Sanctuary releases, were not an option. Alas, this is the kind of problem that arises when a band changes record labels.
For those new listeners looking for a more detailed introduction to the band, the first four albums, especially the new remasters, are the best way to start, and this disc need not apply. Intended for the casual fan, Greatest Hits is not without its minor flaws, as nearly every best-of compilation is, but if you’re only going to own one Megadeth CD, this one fits the bill nicely. As for the inimitable Mr. Mustaine, he’s not going anywhere, and it’s going to be fun to see where the next stage of Megadeth’s evolution takes us.