With 11 studio albums behind them, including the very good United Abominations this past summer, Megadeth's sound has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget just how unique they sounded when they started making waves in the metal scene more than two decades ago.
Whenever I hear a Megadeth song in passing, or listen to one of the band's many albums, or see them live, or in today's case, poring through the gigantic new five-disc, career-spanning Warchest anthology, I'm always reminded of my own naïve introduction to the band 21 years ago. As a 16-year-old headbanger whose only preoccupation was trying to decide what cassette to buy next, I was devouring everything I could get my mitts on, but in all my reading up on and listening to metal, be it mainstream or indie, Megadeth was a band that had somehow escaped my ears, which were nowhere near as close to the ground as I thought they were.
Completely oblivious to the fact that the band's singer was a former member of Metallica, who we all were obsessing over that year, and ignorant of the 1985 Combat Records debut Killing is My Business…and Business is Good!, my initial exposure to Megadeth was when the cover of the band's second album caught my eye in a local record store in November 1986. Visually, it was an eye-grabber aimed directly towards the male teenage metal crowd, from the unusual orange, red, and purple color scheme, to the identifiable band logo, to the comic book style illustration of the grinning, Eddie-like mascot named "Vic Rattlehead" posing smugly in front of a bombed-out United Nations.
More than anything, though, it was the title, which stuck in my head and drew me toward this album more than the fancy artwork: Peace Sells…But Who's Buying? With a title that darn clever, the music just had to be good (so was my hopelessly quixotic way of thinking back then), and with no knowledge of the band whatsoever, and not knowing a lick about the music therein (the band's first music video was still months from its MTV debut), I swiftly shelled out the eight or nine bucks for the tape. It would go on to be the single greatest spontaneous, blind album purchase of my life.
As a young fella who knew all about the more de rigeur bands of the era (Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, Celtic Frost…the latter of whom I couldn't stand at the time) nothing could prepare me for what Megadeth sounded like. When I got home, I plunked the tape in the stereo and pressed play, and less than four minutes later I would have absolutely no idea what the hell this band was doing.
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"Wake Up Dead" begins innocently enough. A stuttering, two-second bass intro kicks in, Dave Ellefson's descending, falling-down-the-stairs run punctuated by the snare syncopation of drummer Gar Samuelson, which then dives straight into the opening verse, vocalist/guitarist Dave Mustaine growling scarily over a series of ascending open chords. It seems like rather standard horror-film subject matter, Mustaine's low-key mutter taking on the persona of a stalker: "I sneak in my own house / It's four in the morning / I had too much to drink…I creep in the bedroom," and with a cinematic rise in his voice, "I slip into beeeed." Awesome stuff if you're a splatter movie-obsessed metal kid in the '80s…after all the W.A.S.P., Slayer, Alice Cooper, and Lizzy Borden albums we'd been listening to, the mind reeled at the violent possibilities. What's he gonna do? Before we can think any further, he delivers the payoff line:
"I know if I wake her, I'll wake up….dead."
Wait a sec. That's not creepy story about an angry dude exacting revenge on a woman he's grown to loathe by eviscerating her in her own bed. It's nothing but a tale of a pathetic drunk who's apparently so pussy-whipped that the mere possibility of facing the wrath of his significant other in the morning fills him with sheer terror. On an adult level, it's an absolutely hilarious slice of dark comedy (many older listeners can sympathize with Mustaine's bumbling narrator), but as a pimply adolescent who craves shocking depictions of violence to go with the aggressive music, not wry moments of adult self-loathing, it's incredibly deflating. And incredibly, we're only 25 seconds into the thing.
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Of the much-vaunted "Big Four" American thrash bands, Megadeth was always a bit of an anomaly among the group at the time. For all of their extreme tendencies, there was always an air of accessibility to the other three bands. Despite the ambitious, intricate arrangements, Metallica was always resolutely melodic in its approach, artfully balancing hooks and aggression. Slayer, for all its blinding speed and atonality (especially in the solos by Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman), delivered a stunningly clean production style courtesy Rick Rubin. And Anthrax, despite drawing heavily from the New York hardcore scene, employed the services of Joey Belladonna, whose soaring lead vocals added a classic rock element to a cutting-edge sound.
Megadeth, on the other hand, was an oddity from the very beginning, and looking back now, it's absolutely remarkable that this band went on to sell 20 million records worldwide. Dave Mustaine's lead vocals are idiosyncratic to say the least, either emitting a demented growl, high-pitched squeal, or a quavering singing voice, the fragility of which flying in the face of the more bombastic, classic metal sound. While the arrangements displayed many of the thrash characteristics common at the time, that formula was not relied upon as heavily as Megadeth's peers did. Instead, songs flew off on quirky, unexpected tangents, often completely doing away with conventional songwriting structures.
The Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal, Volume 3: The Nineties,
by Martin Popoff (Collector's Guide Publishing)
The third and last installment of his massive, highly extensive culling of album reviews from the birth of metal to the new millennium (final tally: 6761 reviews), Popoff takes on the decade which saw the most radical, exponential growth the genre has ever seen, and not surprisingly, this doesn't disappoint. Although his opinions of 90s metal remains stubbornly classicist, his writing remains consistently entertaining; whether it's continually calling out Steve Harris or not buying Mayhem's shtick at all, whether you agree or not, it's a terrific read and an indispensable reference guide by the best metal writer around.
Various Artists, Metal: A Headbanger's Companion, Volumes 1 and 2
Easily the most important metal record label in the last 20 years, Earache has dug deep into its vaults to piece together a pair of box sets that redefine the word, "exhaustive". Comprised of 12 CDs (six per set) and over 200 songs totaling well over nine hours, and priced at less than 20 bucks each, not only is this an absolute steal of a deal, but it's a fabulous crash course in extreme metal history, and a diverse one at that, which may surprise some. The usual death/grindcore culprits are present (Morbid Angel, Carcass, Entombed, Napalm Death, At the Gates, etc.), but these compilations dig much deeper, unearthing such sounds as industrial, noise, thrash, doom, electronic, stoner, sludge, and hardcore. While the liner notes (available online) don't exactly say much about the music or the artists, and it all might look overwhelming at first, everything's neatly organized enough for beginners to ease themselves into whatever subgenre they want to dive into, with a new discovery lurking around ever corner. If Rhino's Heavy Metal Box was a tasteful feast, this is an unbridled bacchanal.
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After the 25 second mark of "Wake Up Dead", following Mustaine's successful sidestepping of the missus, he launches into a solo run that lasts 23 seconds, the rest of the band playing the same arrangement as the first verse, but at 48 seconds, the song takes its first major turn toward the left. No follow-up verse, no bridge, no chorus. Instead, a strange little segue that has Mustaine and Chris Poland delivering delicate chops of palm-muted notes that mirror the narrator's careful footsteps, as Samuelson and Ellefson engage in multiple stops and starts that add to the tension. Then after a languidly thunderous tom fill by Samuelson, the song settles into its unique central riff. But audaciously, vocals are left standing at the side of the road as the instrumental section settles in for an extended run, anchored by an insistent, crunching melody that can only be described as wonky, choppy notes leaping up and down the scale. A little awkward initially, but after quickly settling in, the wickedly contagious groove in the middle of this increasingly compelling song is undeniable.
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For all of Megadeth's lack of conventionality, the one thing that's been able to attract such a broad audience is Mustaine's incredible knack for extremely contagious midtempo grooves. Going through the band's steady ascent from 1986 to 1994, and even during the very stale period during the late '90s, the most crucial songs, from a commercial standpoint, were the ones in which Mustaine and his mates eased off on the eccentricity just enough to draw the listener in more, with several such songs serving as major signposts in the band's career, each one of them classic singles. "Peace Sells", from the notorious album of the same name, was a major breakthrough, as a generation of angry teens latched onto the single's surprisingly eloquent take on disaffected youth: "Whaddya mean I can't be the President of the United States of America? / Tell me something, it's still 'We, the People,' right?"
The band played it safe in '88, cover versions of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" and Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" sounding faithful, albeit a bit obvious. However, the energy on the tracks, especially the former, is still palpable, even moreso on the demo version featured on Warchest, which segues neatly into a brief rendition of the Pistols' "Problems" before returning to the anarchy at hand. Then 1990's classic Rust in Peace yielded "Hangar 18", which combines a hard-charging melodic section with an astounding, increasingly thunderous coda.
It would be 1992's now-ubiquitous "Symphony of Destruction" that would catapult the band to worldwide stardom and quickly become Megadeth's most famous song, while the underrated "Angry Again", from the excellent soundtrack album to the otherwise forgettable Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero, in spite of its blatantly tasteful MOR approach, benefits hugely from Mustaine's charismatic vocal performance and the taut rhythm section of Ellefson and drummer Nick Menza. 1995's "A Tout Le Monde" veers perilously close to (egads!) power ballad territory, but Mustaine keeps things stately instead of melodramatic, while 1997's "Trust" successfully returns to the more insistent formula that made "Angry Again" so appealing four years earlier.
As time wore on, though, Mustaine's penchant towards those more streamlined songs during the latter half of the '90s got the best of him, resulting in the very tired albums Cryptic Writings, Risk, and The World Needs a Hero, an era unflinchingly chronicled on the exhaustive Warchest. The less said about "Duke Nukem", "Insomnia", and "Crush 'Em", the better. Trust me.
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Exactly two minutes into "Wake Up Dead", we enter the fourth movement in this demented little suite, as for one less than 30 seconds, the band settles in and churns out the kind of pure thrash metal we initially expected, but even that's a bit of a red herring. Technically the most flashy of any band of the thrash era, the staccato picking is extremely tight, but Mustaine throws a nasty spanner into the works in the form of a sly time signature hiccup that feels like a slight record skip, leaving us clumsily headbanging an eighth note behind the driving snare beat. Then, after a quick 10-second verse that has our narrator admit to some misdeeds that would certainly warrant an ass-kicking courtesy his significant other ("Will she find out about the other, other lover Diana?"), the song kicks into its astounding finale.
A lurching, ominous death march that allows for an expressive yet fleet-fingered solo by Mustaine, it's not the long-awaited call-and-response chorus that sticks in our head, but that cold, almost mechanical melody of the riff (played on both guitar and bass), and the sharp cadence of Samuelson, highlighted by his hi-hat punctuation and some effective reverse snare effects. Though not as epochal as "Master of Puppets", nor as awe-inspiring as "Angel of Death", in three minutes and 37 seconds, "Wake Up Dead" offered up arguably the most daring, creative take on metal circa 1986, a song that had us wondering what the hell had just steamrolled over us.
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For all the catchy, more straightforward mainstream hit singles, Megadeth has always been at its best while bucking trends, just as "Wake Up Dead" does, and is something that's illustrated especially well on Warchest. Unlike the midtempo groovers, which Mustaine essentially grew into, Megadeth's more peculiar side has been present from the get-go (who could ever forget the insane cover of Lee Hazlewood's "These Boots Are Made For Walking" -- renamed "These Boots"-- on 1985's Killing is My Business?), and has always resulted in the band's finest moments. "In My Darkest Hour, from So Far, So Good, is a masterful exercise in metal song dynamics, shifting from its ornate opening salvos, to an almost goth-inspired, descending, 6/8 riff, to its thrilling, cathartic, careening conclusion.
Countdown to Extinction's deliriously schizophrenic "Sweating Bullets" ranks as the strangest single the band has ever released, but it brilliantly combines clever hooks, progressive metal chops, and especially an overt sense of the theatrical, as Mustaine takes psychodrama to a fascinating new level. Meanwhile, 1994's chugging "Train of Consequences" is ingeniously constructed around a shuffling, muted, rhythmic riff that drives the song more than Menza's drums do.
The coup de grace, however, is Rust in Peace's shattering "Holy Wars…The Punishment Due". Featuring the band's "classic" lineup of Mustaine, Ellefson, Menza, and guitarist Marty Friedman, the song might read like a sloppy combination of political commentary and comic book fantasy (the first half inspired by the conflict in Northern Ireland, the latter half by The Punisher comic), but musically, it's astounding, Mustaine and his mates switching directions and shifting moods with surgical precision, "epic" in every sense of the word.
To its great credit, Warchest serves up three equally rewarding takes on this legendary track. A 1990 demo recording is an intriguing glimpse at the song, which was still in the development stages, performed a half-step slower and with slightly different lyrics, but despite its more raw form, it exudes just as much power as the more polished final version.
The fourth disc features a scorching live set recorded at London's Wembley Stadium in 1990 and mixed by ace producer Andy Sneap, and not only is this the finest live Megadeth recording to ever see official release, but the spectacular performance of "Holy Wars" is the set's highlight, performed impeccably by the foursome. Disc five, a live DVD of another London show recorded two years later, gives us a visual perspective of the performance of the highly complex song, the entire band making it look effortless, when we all know it can be anything but easy.
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With 11 studio albums behind them, including the very good United Abominations this past summer, Megadeth's sound has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget just how unique they sounded when they started making waves in the metal scene more than two decades ago, but every time I go back to Peace Sells, I'm reminded of that baffling first listen, starting with the dumbfounding "Wake Up Dead".
No sooner had that weird, weird song ended that we listeners were all hit with attacks from all directions: the occult thrash rager "The Conjuring" (my choice for all-time favourite Megadeth tune), the hit-in-the-making title track, the galloping "Devil's Island", the dark one-two (or is it three?) punch of "Good Mourning/Black Friday" and "Bad Omen", the astonishingly out-of-place cover of "I Ain't Superstitious" (a song that sticks in my craw to this day), and the enthralling, Russian Roulette-themed "My Last Words".
It was all so precise, so varied in approach, and so original that I had no other choice but to turn the cassette tape over and start again. It was new, it was unlike anything I had ever heard, and although it was so difficult to digest at first, I knew I was hearing something special, as I hit 'play' one more time.
That old familiar XDR toneburst, a three-second pause, and…badum-badum-badum-badum-badabada, "I sneak in my own house, it's four in the morning…"