Three years ago, Megadeth looked finished. After riding a wave of well-earned success in the early 1990s, frontman Dave Mustaine and his band started to stagnate creatively, resulting in a string of disappointing albums that got more and more mediocre, the trio of Cryptic Writings (1997), Risk (1999), and The World Needs a Hero (2001) marking a career nadir that had the once-mighty American thrash legends sounding exhausted and uninspired. Mustaine hit a new personal low in 2002 when he was diagnosed with radial neuropathy in his left arm, which forced him to announce the disbanding of Megadeth as he underwent physical therapy. And if that wasn’t bad enough, longtime bassist Dave Ellefson left under highly acrimonious circumstances, launching a multimillion dollar lawsuit against Mustaine that was eventually thrown out of court. It was a sad, deflating way for things to end, but by then, it was hard to acknowledge the band’s demise with little more than an indifferent shrug.
Little did we know that Mustaine had other plans. With expectations at an all-time low, he assembled a ragtag group of studio musicians and former bandmate Chris Poland, and recorded The System Has Failed, and to the great shock of the metal world, despite the fact that this was little more than a Mustaine solo album, it sounded more like vintage Megadeth than any album in the previous 10 years. While the album’s sales paled in comparison to the glory years, Megadeth’s credibility among the faithful was restored.
Since then, Mustaine had found his second wind as an artist. For the first time since the mid-’90s, he has a stable band playing behind him, his annual multi-band extravaganza Gigantour has done well, and best of all, Megadeth’s live shows have sounded as tight as ever. With that regained focus and optimism, the pressure this time was to prove that his 2004 comeback was no fluke, and true enough, we’ve been treated to a very solid follow-up, one that turns out to be Megadeth’s best work since 1994’s Youthanasia.
Since the band’s inception, Mustaine’s songwriting has always had a political bent to it, and that’s certainly no exception on United Abominations. However, he and the band briefly sidestep the political commentary on the frenetic six minute thrasher “Sleepwalker”, almost as if they want to prove to any remaining doubters that this foursome can play. It’s an absolute barnstormer of an opening track, displaying the kind of incendiary musicianship and ferocity that we haven’t heard since the days of Rust in Peace. Following the mellow, Iron Maiden circa ’81-derived intro (always an effective bluff in metal), Mustaine and co-lead guitarist Glen Drover step in for real with a palm-muted, single chord riff which quickly morphs into a sleek, galloping progression underscored by the robust bottom end of bassist James Lomenzo and drummer Shaun Drover’s cannonading double-kick beats. Vocally, Mustaine is in solid form, his distinct rasp snarling venom-laced lyrics (“You always make an excellent cadaver”), displaying enough melodic range to get that mildly catchy chorus in our heads.
If “Sleepwalker” is Megadeth’s best song in a very long time, “Washington is Next” can’t be far behind. Built around a melodic lead guitar melody and an old school thrash riff over a massive midtempo groove provided by Shaun Drover, Mustaine puts the powers that be in his crosshairs and lets fire. Unlike past years, when his political messages tended to be on the blunt side, he actually has a moment or two of eloquence here (“Keep the public undisciplined till nothing left is sacred”), but what really keeps us enthralled is the interplay of Mustaine and Glen Drover, who duel away during a blistering mid-song solo. “Gears of War” is less about its message than the thrilling tension created by the band, combining a simple repeated riff with a more intricate arrangement during the choruses. “Amerikhastan”, on the other hand expertly alternates between Mustaine’s observant spoken word rants about America’s culture of war (“A legion of uneducated, bankrupt souls with a lust for revenge…God versus god: the undoing of man”) with jazzy solo excursions that will remind many oldsters of the passages during “Wake Up Dead”. Musically, the title track boasts one of the album’s more multifaceted arrangements, but from a lyrical standpoint Mustaine bites off more than he can chew, launching into a bizarre, long-winded diatribe against the U.N., criticizing the organization for not backing the war in Iraq. For such an accessible musical backdrop, there’s simply too much information in the song for listeners to digest.
Elsewhere, United Abominations is a bit more of a mixed bag. For a song less than four minutes in length, “Never Walk Alone… A Call to Arms” crams a lot in there, performed with an energy we haven’t heard since the days of the classic Mustaine/Ellefson/Friedman/Menza lineup. “Blessed are the Dead” and “Play for Blood”, while not outright failures, don’t quite have same kind of immediacy shown on the ret of the record, while the closing salvos of “You’re Dead” and the anti-crystal meth rant “Burnt Ice” have Mustaine and especially Glen Drover, who comes into his own as a member of Megadeth, exchanging rapid-fire solos to great effect. Fans will argue over what’s goofier, the liner notes by fictional 24 protagonist Jack Bauer, or the re-recording of Youthanasia single “A Tout le Monde”, but despite being a rather pointless exercise, the new version of the song, which features Lacuna Coil singer Cristina Scabbia, actually improves upon the original by subtly increasing the tempo and energy, as well as having Scabbia put a more pop-oriented spin on the song’s already contagious hook.
MegaDave is all over the map on this album, but in his case, it’s always a good thing when that happens. The man is full of piss and vinegar once again, and whether or not we agree with whatever he’s fuming about, it’s great to see and hear that passion again after so many dormant years.