For a brief but momentous period from about 1986 to 1991, thrash metal took the world by storm. Led by Metallica, a group of voraciously creative bands surged out of the underground and, much to their surprise, stormed the mainstream gates. By the dawn of the 1990s, what was once seen as a crude, almost non-musical form had evolved into a bastion of technical proficiency and musical growth on par with progressive rock. At the center of it all, of course, was Megadeth bandleader Dave Mustaine.
As even casual metal fans know, Mustaine was Metallica’s lead guitarist during the band’s crucial formative period. Ousted just prior to the recording of Metallica’s game-changing 1983 debut Kill’ Em All, Mustaine has griped about the firing in just about every interview he’s done since. To be sure, his subsequent success with Megadeth raises questions about his ability to keep his accomplishments in perspective.
That said, Mustaine has had reason to nurse a grudge, at least in one fundamental respect: Metallica have been universally acknowledged—even by peers—as the progenitors of thrash. It’s indisputable, though, that Mustaine deserves his share of that credit, if not more. No less an authority than Anthrax bandleader Scott Ian has gone so far as to say that Mustaine invented the genre. Along with Metallica leaders James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, his playing on 1982’s seminal No Life ‘Til Leather demo tape helped define a speed-driven approach to metal that was so fresh at the time no one even had a name for it.
Listening back to No Life ‘Til Leather, it’s apparent that Mustaine’s style had already crystallized by that point. Hetfield’s approach, which hadn’t quite fully developed yet, sounded coarse by comparison. Even back then, one could hear in Mustaine’s playing the sleek, aerodynamic precision that became Megadeth’s calling card. By 1990’s Rust in Peace, Megadeth had arguably taken the crown as one of—if not the—most musically sophisticated acts in the thrash pantheon.
Alas, that was a long time ago. Megadeth and just about all of their contemporaries soon abandoned the defining characteristics that had made their music (and the movement around them) so captivating. A string of conventional hard rock albums followed until 2004 when Mustaine began to re-invigorate his material with the riffing style that had earned him his reputation in the first place.
Megadeth’s 16th studio effort, The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead!, once again showcases Mustaine’s penchant for riffs. The album practically overflows with them, which bodes well for clips of amateur musicians shredding their way through these songs on social media. It’s quite astonishing that Mustaine’s stamina remains intact at his age, even after beating throat cancer in the midst of recording. The Megadeth frontman celebrated his 61st birthday days after the album’s release. Nevertheless, once he allowed the hard rock element to seep into Megadeth’s sound, it stuck for good. To this day, he’s never quite managed to wring it out.
Much like the last half-dozen albums or so, the new material touches on both sides of the band. The variety wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, but when “Night Stalkers”, for example, goes from a high-velocity bullet train riff to a catchy but generic mid-tempo chorus, Mustaine and company risk derailing the momentum—and personality—of the song. Even in their classic era, Megadeth were no strangers to hooks. They also weren’t shy about breaking out the acoustics (or clean tones) for touches of classical guitar. Here, though, they don’t decisively settle on one approach or the other. As a result, the songs lack the resolute sense of purpose that made their first four albums so special.
The galloping cadence of “Sacrifice” borrows—none too imaginatively—from Peace of Mind-era Iron Maiden, while the vocal melody recalls any number of Megadeth Lite songs that have littered the band’s catalog over the last 30 years. Worse, the backward reverb on Mustaine’s vocal introducing “Junkie” makes you wonder whether you accidentally hit play on a Def Leppard song. Oddly enough, Megadeth’s influences cohere the most on a cover of Sammy Hagar’s “The Planet’s on Fire (Burn in Hell)” that closes the digital version of the album.)
Make no mistake: no one can accuse The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! of being short on entertainment value, but that’s also part of the problem. If you’re okay with Megadeth presenting a comic-book version of themselves, then there’s much to sink your teeth into here. But when an artist titles a record to give the impression that they’re surveying the human wreckage left behind in the wake of a global disaster, it’s a letdown when that turns out to be little more than a tease. Despite the allusion to the pandemic in the title track, Mustaine mostly shies away from contemporary subjects.
Meanwhile, big-budget videos for “We’ll Be Back”, “Night Stalkers”, and the title track set the tone with over-the-top, action-movie production values. However limited the scope of classics like “Peace Sells” and “Holy Wars” might have been, one still can’t help but take those songs seriously. It’s clear that the musicians on the new album take the music as seriously as ever. Drummer Dirk Verbeuren, guest bassist Steve Di Giorgio (Testament, Death, Sadus, etc.), returning lead guitarist Kiko Loureiro and Mustaine certainly don’t slouch on the job.
But lyrics about Satanic rituals, Hollywood poseurs, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster all reek of metal tropes that lost their flavor decades ago. Is Mustaine’s spoken-word litany of bodily disfigurement on “Dogs of Chernobyl” some of the most delicious fun since the iconic middle section of Slayer’s “Angel of Death”? Sure. Does the song reveal a hidden layer of reward when one discovers it was actually written about a fractured romantic relationship? Definitely.
Still, other than the diagnostic text Mustaine reads on “Psychopathy”, you hardly ever get the sense that you’re listening to music that reflects the present day. That’s a shame because no matter how much of a marvel it is to see thrash bands stay in top playing shape, it’s simply impossible for them to match the creative vitality of their early output. There will no doubt be listeners who hail The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! as a return to classic form. In truth, it can only be heard that way on the most cosmetic level.
On its own terms, though, The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! will give you your money’s worth in the thrills department. As a kind of thrash metal answer to the summer blockbuster, the album functions as good, clean fun. Action films, after all, are meant to be a good time. But was this brand of metal ever designed to be this safe—especially in a climate where the music’s apocalyptic scenarios have come to life? For better or worse, The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! reveals its charms more the more you ignore that question.