Friday, April 29, 2011

Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction (1992)

The early 90s were a sad time for Thrash Metal purists. Possibly as a reaction to Metallica's "Black Album", many bands were slowing things down and looking to create a more accessible sound, in order to appeal to a wider audience and sell more records. In other words, it was a time of compromised values and decreased creativity. Unfortunately, Megadeth jumped on this bandwagon as well, though faring a little better than many of their contemporaries. Countdown to Extinction, released in July 1992, represented the beginning of a new era for the band. This much was evident just by the absence of Vic Rattlehead from the cover art.

This one took me a few years to get around to, since I was too busy with the old records. However, once I did, I actually appreciated it for what it was and listened to it during a very rare time in my existence where things were actually fairly decent. As a result, the album holds a handful of good memories. As well, since it was over a decade and a half ago, I was somewhat less picky when it came to music; i.e. I had a tendency to remain loyal to bands even after they had betrayed their fans and changed into something else. Not that this album is so terrible, but it is a far cry from the days of Killing is My Business...

The L.P. begins with "Skin 'O My Teeth", with introduces the listener to a much cleaner sound than what was heard on Rust In Peace. While it had most of the sharp edges smoothed out, this is completely polished and ready for mass consumption. With that said, it's still aimed at Metal fans, at least. There's less thrash, and an overall lower lever of aggression, but it actually feels as if it is connecting back to more traditional Metal. There are still some enjoyable riffs and solos, and the added sense of melody is not necessarily a bad thing. It's just not what most people wanted to hear from Megadeth. The song is catchy and still feels like the same band, just from a different angle.

Next up is "Symphony of Destruction", which is mid-paced and even catchier. The verses are a little annoying, since they feature vocals backed only by drums, bass and sparse guitar riffs. The more melodic parts are where the band manages to shine, as the main riff actually gets tiresome after a while. A fairly simple song that doesn't hold up very well, after all these years.

"Architecture of Aggression" is yet another song that deals with war. Musically, it's another mid-paced affair, possessing a relaxed atmosphere and a nice solo later on in the track. Many of the songs on this album really don't stand alone very well, so they are best appreciated in the context of the album as a whole. There isn't anything particularly awful or offensive about this, but it seems like filler.

The weak and non-threatening vibe continues on "Foreclosure of a Dream", which deals with more political matters. It actually contains more interesting riffs than the two songs that precede it, though it never lives up to the potential that is hinted at.

"Sweating Bullets" follows this, and is one of the most annoying songs that Dave Mustaine has ever written. The lyrics are irritating and the delivery is completely laughable. The verses are entirely cringe-worthy and the song, as a whole, is largely useless until the middle section. The "war march" riffs and accompanying solo are the only things that save this track. In the end, it really should have been left on the cutting room floor.

The next song is "This Was My Life". For one reason or another, this one is my favourite track on the album. Again, it's slower, but there is a melancholy vibe that draws you in and the execution of the material is more successful than some of the other songs on this record. Near the end, there is an eerie solo and a doomy riff that was originally heard (in a somewhat different form) on Metallica's "Phantom Lord", back when Dave was a part of that band.

Side B starts with the title track, which is a little more engaging than a lot of the other songs. It still suffers from the same issues that plague the rest of the album, but somehow it all works a little better in this case. The chorus is memorable, as are several of the riffs and guitar melodies. The harmonies that are found late in the song feature some of the most interesting guitar work of the whole album.

"High Speed Dirt" is a faster song and, while it isn't terribly intense, this pace shift is quite welcome. The riffs sound like they could have been used earlier on in the band's career. Strangely, this song would have sounded inferior or generic on any of the previous albums, but it manages to stand out a little bit, here.

"Psychotron" is one of the catchiest songs on the record, though that isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it comes off as one of the more well-structured pieces when compared to a few of the other tracks. Oddly enough, I always felt that certain parts of the song would have sounded better if sped up, and only recently heard the demo version which proved that to be true. Not only were the riffs more effective with an increased tempo, but that allowed for a harsher vocal approach. Obviously, this is not what the band was going for, but it just goes to show that the material here had the potential to be more in line with what Megadeth had been known for.

The next song is "Captive Honour", and the mood gets mellow once again. The vocals, and the various voices that are used, are on the ridiculous side and it is difficult to take this song seriously. Nevertheless, once it gets underway, there are some redeeming qualities. The latter part of the song includes some good riffs and nice solo work and, overall, the song isn't painful to listen to.

The album ends with "Ashes in Your Mouth", starting out with something a bit more in the vein of the last album. The production may hide this a little, but this song definitely contains a few leftover ideas from Rust In Peace. This one track is more interesting than most of the other songs, combined. The guitar harmonies, late in the song, are particularly enjoyable. There's a hint of melancholy that weaves throughout the riffs and even the vocal lines. In a way, some of the lyrics point to the situation that the band found itself in, by this point.

"Where do we go from here?
And should we really care?
The end is finally here"

Countdown to Extinction is widely regarded as Megadeth's attempt to follow in Metallica's footsteps, by simplifying their music and attempting to build their fanbase. Ironically, they were far more successful in altering their approach while still sounding like the same band, albeit in a more easy-to-digest form, but failed to reach the same level of notoriety. Nonetheless, this ended up being their highest-selling album, but at what cost? This is recommended for loyal fans, but it's not a good starting place for anyone that is new to the band.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Megadeth - Rust in Peace (1990)

Rust In Peace is the fourth full-length album from one of the elite bands of American Thrash Metal, Megadeth. Recorded in early 1990 at Rumbo Studios, and produced by Mike Clink (the first producer to make it through an entire Megadeth session without getting axed), the L.P. was released in September of that year. Considering when the material was written, this record features one of the final gasps of the 80s Thrash scene, as most bands would soon travel down a path of damnation and misery. This album featured yet another line-up, as Jeff Young and Chuck Behler were replaced by Marty Friedman and Nick Menza. Despite the hardships, Dave Mustaine and Dave Ellefson persevered and put together a tight unit capable of bringing to life one of the real masterpieces of the time period.

This was my first Megadeth album, and has always maintained a certain amount of sentimental value. In fact, it was one of the first Thrash Metal albums that I ever acquired, and part of a core group of releases that served as the measuring stick by which many other bands were judged, as I began delving deeper into this music. There was a time when this cassette was constantly in my portable tape player, accompanying me on many early morning walks to the school bus stop (and occasionally being listened to, at a low volume, during class). Nearly two decades later, I can't say that I even have a favourite album by this band anymore, as each one possesses its own charm.

Side A begins with "Holy Wars... the Punishment Due", which opens with one of the best thrash riffs ever written. Right away, one can tell that the production is cleaner than on the previous album, which almost does a disservice to the material. The guitars are thicker and the sound is reminiscent of that of their sophomore effort. While So Far, So Good... So What! seemed chaotic, at times, it is very clear that this is a group of musicians that are much tighter and up to the task of creating something special. The first couple minutes of the song are rather intense, and the lyrics deal with the Northern Ireland conflict. Oddly enough, there is a musical shift that accompanies a change in lyrical focus, which then describe a comic book character. This mid-paced section is memorable, but nothing compared to the shredding that follows. As the song progresses, the intensity builds again and it builds to a vicious crescendo, with the first riff returning to pummel the listener into complete submission.

The next song is "Hangar 18", which starts out with a somewhat melancholy chord progression. While clocking in at just over five minutes, the track has an epic vibe that is similar to the way Mercyful Fate would construct their songs. There are lyrics, which deal with UFOs and government cover-ups, but the song feels like an instrumental, in a sense. It is packed with killer riffs and great solo work from both Mustaine and Friedman. By this point, one gets a sense that Dave has given up on trying to sound too menacing with the vocals, as they sound a little more smooth and his snarl lacks some of its usual bite. All in all, this is one of the best songs that the band has ever written.

"Take No Prisoners" follows this, and is more of a straight-forward track with a lot of fast riffs and a little more attitude than the previous songs. Nick Menza seems a little busy behind the drum kit, but does a decent job anyway. There are enough riffs and tempo changes to keep things interesting, without going so far as to just throw them out there with no purpose.

Next up is "Five Magics", opening with some very ominous melodies that imbue the listener with a sense of doom. The riffs hearken back to some of the darker moments of Peace Sells..., before the song changes gears and turns into an all-out thrasher. There are some nice galloping riffs that are interspersed later on, just before the song speeds up and bursts with intensity. Beware of the remastered version, however, as this is one of the songs that was completely raped by the alterations that were made, rendering it completely ineffective.

Side B starts out with "Poison Was the Cure". The song slowly builds from a bass and drum intro, with crushing guitars that weave in and out, soon giving way to old school Speed Metal at its finest. The intricate riffs remind one of songs like "Rattlehead", from Killing is My Business... and there is a great solo at the very end. The only complaint that I have about this is that it is too short. That is something that it has in common with many of the other songs on this record; iit leaves the listener wanting more, never lasting long enough to become tiresome or boring. Either way, it certainly delivers.

"Lucretia" slows things down a bit, but still presents some interesting riffs. While not the most intense or impressive, songs like this are necessary for the cohesiveness of the album, as a whole, to give it peaks and valleys. There are some really good solos (as if anyone would ever doubt this band's capability to offer up worthy guitar solos), though the song's primary function seems to be only to break things up and add a little diversity.

Things speed up again on the next song, "Tornado of Souls". It is loaded with memorable riffs and has long been a fan favourite, since the album's release. It's not terribly fast, but the pace is more energetic than some of the other tracks. What one really finds on this album is a band that is more comfortable with its own identity, allowing for more melodic moments without compromising themselves as they would do later on. There are great transitions between each riff and, though the vocals aren't very threatening, they work well within the context of the song.

"Dawn Patrol" is a peculiar track, in that it doesn't feel like a real song and is just bass, drums, and Dave Mustaine doing a horrible accent. More or less, this is just an interlude and builds to the final real song. It is kind of interesting, but not entirely necessary.

The album ends with "Rust in Peace...Polaris". The opening drum sequence is very memorable and the riffs are some of the most intense moments to be found on here. Unfortunately, my appreciation for this song has waned, over the years, as I find myself wishing to hear more Thrash and less of the relaxed type of riffs that dominate much of the song. Things speed up a little, as the song nears its conclusion, but there's not quite enough to satisfy those who needed more of the speed and energy that the first riffs promised.

Rust In Peace is one of Megadeth's best albums, and is far more impressive and together than the the album that preceded it. However, over time, it doesn't quite stand up to the first two in the way that it once seemed to. Most of this record's best qualities are things that were done better years earlier. That said, this is a solid album and it features some of the band's best work. When compared to other releases from 1990, it is much more creative than Seasons in the Abyss, Souls of Black or Persistence of Time (to compare them to their closest peers), and it completely destroyed the pile of garbage that Metallica would unveil in the following year. This album is highly recommended, just be sure to seek out the original version.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Megadeth - So Far, So Good... So What?

So Far, So Good... So What! is the third L.P. from Megadeth, and it is a very unique album. It is peculiar in many ways, yet criminally underrated. Following the much-praised Peace Sells... but who's Buying? and preceding fan-favourite Rust In Peace, this record is often overlooked or just outright ignored. It was surrounded by controversy, from the very beginning, as line-up problems threatened its very creation. Drug abuse had run rampant within the band since the beginning, but by 1987 Gar Samuelson and Chris Poland were ejected. Mustaine later made it clear that, as far as the former guitarist was concerned, it wasn't so much the drug use as it was the actions that resulted from it... such as stealing and selling off band equipment to pay for drugs. Dave and Junior were then joined by Chuck Behler and Jay Reynolds, on drums and guitar, respectively. By the time the album was set to be recorded, they discovered that theur new guitarist was incapable of handling the material, so they ended up replacing him with his own guitar teacher, Jeff Young. During the recording, the band also clashed with the producer, ending up with him being tossed out and the whole thing remixed, just as with the last effort. Despite all of this, by January 1988, Megadeth released their third album through Capitol Records.

Side A opens with "Into the Lungs of Hell", which is an incredible instrumental track. Clocking in at over three minutes, it really gives the listener the feeling of having been taken on an epic journey. Several of the riffs that are present here could have been used to sustain individual songs, and this was merely the beginning. It is almost reminiscent of the instrumental that starts out Iron Maiden's Killers album, just far more vicious. The feeling that is conjured up takes one to an earlier time, and sounds like something that may have been developed prior to the first album, with a good Speed / Thrash approach.

This leads right into "Set the World Afire", which was the first song that Dave Mustaine wrote after being fired from Metallica. Surely, it went through some sort of development in the five years that it took to make it onto a full-length, but it still captures a very raw feeling. Following the nuclear explosion, one hears the sound of razor-sharp guitars that slice right through you. Many say that the production of this album is somehow less effective than that of the others from Megadeth's classic era, yet the sound suits the material, perfectly. In fact, given that some of the songs pre-date Killing is My Business..., it is only appropriate that the production is a little more raw and ugly. This track is one of the highlights of the album, and features a variety of tempos and a good mix of Speed and Thrash riffs, along with wild solos and hateful vocals.

The next song is a cover of "Anarchy in the U.K.", by the Sex Pistols. As a matter of fact, Steve Jones even plays a lead solo on this version. Unfortunately, the song really kills the momentum of the album. It is well done and enjoyable enough, but the placement couldn't have been worse. It should have been buried somewhere on Side B, as with the previous cover tunes. At this point, the record has not been able to establish any particular feeling and the listener already begins to sense a feeling of disunity within the material.

This is followed by "Mary Jane", which starts with a rather eerie melody. The pace is considerably slower than the previous songs and really would have worked well as the second proper song. Some of the haunting guitar work and vocal effects are slightly reminiscent of Mercyful Fate, and the lyrics seem to deal with dark topics. Initially, I was a little annoyed with the song, thinking it was a reference to drug use and thinking such a thing to be immature and pointless to write a song about. It may very well be that, but the lyrics don't make it as obvious as the song title would have one expect. As the song continues, you can really see the chaotic nature of the record and it is actually a breath of fresh air when one considers how most of Megadeth's peers were getting farther from their roots, by this point.

Side B kicks off with "502", which loses the dark feeling that was present on some of the earlier songs. It's more of a straightforward song, being one of the faster tunes on the record, though never really reaching full speed. It lacks the intensity of some of the band's older material and the non-serious subject matter, once again, kills any sense of cohesion that that could have existed. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "throwaway track", but it could have used a little more work. All in all, not a bad song.

Next up is "In My Darkest Hour", one of the band's best-known songs of all time. The music was inspired by the death of Metallica bassist, Cliff Burton, while the lyrics seem to deal with something altogether different. The mixture of clean and acoustic guitars start the song out, before a mid-paced riff carries this miserable dirge toward the shadows of despair. It doesn't quite compare to a song like "Fade to Black", but it's about as close as Megadeth ever came to making such a song. Later on, the pace picks up and some nice solos are included, though not measuring up to those found on the previous record. Following an intense crescendo, the song returns to the slow and depressive riff that introduced it, before stepping forward and collapsing into an open grave.

"Things will be better when I'm dead and gone..."

"Liar" picks up the pace, as an ode to the band's former guitarist. Again, this sort of thing is not my cup of tea and manages to lose the feeling that has been conceived by several of the other songs. Musically, it's got some decent ideas, but none that are particularly brilliant. It is at this point that one gets the clear picture that So Far, So Good... So What! is very inconsistent.

The album ends with "Hook in Mouth", which is a little annoying until the second verse, since the first has no guitars. This song deals with censorship of music, most notably the P.M.R.C. This was a big issue in the late 80s, and is the only real example of anything political on this release. Naturally, as with the last song, the lyrical concept is less interesting but the music increases in feeling as the track progresses. There is also a decent amount of shredding tossed in. Going from heavy-as-hell Thrash riffs to more intricate Speed Metal passages, this features some of the best solos heard since the beginning of Side A, and at least ends the journey on a positive note.

Here we have an album that is made up of a few old songs that didn't make it onto either of the first two records, a cover song and a couple tracks that never really live up to their full potential. Combined with a somewhat more raw production job and an inconsistent feeling throughout, So Far, So Good... So What! is often discounted and largely forgotten. The fact of the matter is that there is a good deal of worthy material here, despite the album's flaws and anyone that likes the old Megadeth material would be doing themselves a disservice to overlook this collection of songs. While the whole may fall short of being greater than the sum of its parts, some of the individual tracks represent a few of Dave Mustaine's career highlights.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Megadeth - Peace Sells... But Who's Buying? (1986)

Peace Sells... but Who's Buying? is the second full-length album from Megadeth. Recorded in late '85 / early '86 and produced by Randy Burns, the original mix did little to satisfy the band's desire to improve upon the sound of Killing is My Business... By the time Capital Records bought out their contract from Combat, they hired Paul Lani to remix the album and in November 1986, one of the all-time classics of Thrash Metal was unleashed upon the world.

Aside from the low budget that they started out with, the band also struggled with internal problems stemming from drug abuse. While all of the members were involved in this, to some extent, Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson lacked the same level of passion and commitment for the music, itself, thus allowing their bad habits to wreak havoc during the recording process. In fact, the album nearly never came into being. Notwithstanding, Mustaine's dedication and drive forced the birth of this landmark album and cemented his place in the Metal pantheon.

As was common throughout the years, Dave always had one eye on what his former bandmates were doing and continued to feel that he was a step behind. However, it is actually nothing more than ridiculous paranoia since, on a purely artistic level, Megadeth's 1986 output crushed Master of Puppets in nearly every way. While it may not have led to the same financial success, it is clearly the superior record and that should count for quite a bit more.

The album begins with "Wake Up Dead", which wastes no time with acoustic intros, instead opting to just bludgeon the listener's skull with crushing heaviness and Mustaine's killer solos. The difference between this album and the previous one is very clear, from the opening moments. The sound is thicker and yet still possesses enough raw feeling to appeal to those that appreciated the debut. This song actually feels like an instrumental at some points, given that the vocals are so sparse. Nevertheless, when utilized they display that Dave had already begun to gain a little more control of his voice. Musically, the tempos are varied and yet each riff flows into the next with such ease that it is very obvious that Mustaine's songwriting skills were second-to-none at the time, especially when compared to Metallica.

The next song is "The Conjuring", which starts with a dark melody and an ominous build. Tracks like this gave Megadeth a Satanic image, back in the mid-80s, occasionally being labeled as Black Metal. The lyrics to this song were attributed to Dave's experimentation with black magic, during his youth, though he later rejected such practices. The various riffs offer a clinic in Thrash Metal, showcasing abilities that most other bands were simply lacking. The music manages to be memorable and still evokes a somewhat sinister vibe.

"Come join me in my infernal depths
Mephisto's hall of fame
I've got your soul, I've got your soul
The conjuring... Obey!!!"

The title track is a rather odd track, in some ways. Upon first hearing it, many years ago, it seemed to interrupt the flow of the album with the unorthodox vocal delivery and bass intro. It almost has more of a pop feeling, though undeniably heavy. It is one of the earliest forays into politically aware lyrics, though in the minority on here.

"Devil's Island" opens with doom riffs and incredible solo work, before picking up the pace and serving as yet another vehicle to exhibit Mustaine's unique ability to create songs that are both intense and yet infectious as well. This is a rather straightforward song that sounds like something written prior to the release of the debut album. As with the rest of the tunes, one can easily notice that the bass has more presence on this record than with many other Metal bands of this period, and the guitar work is incredibly solid. Whatever personal issues the band members had to deal with, they were able to hold together enough to create something quite remarkable.

Side B starts with "Good Mourning/Black Friday", which features a haunting and somewhat sorrowful intro that adds another layer of darkness to the album. Eerie riffs and masterful solos lead the listener deeper into the mouth of Hell, as Dave's voice soon emerges from the shadows to lead the damned on their cursed path. Once the song gets going, the riffs become more intense and the lyrics are basically early Death Metal, with all of the sadistic glory that would be utilized by bands such as Death and Autopsy, sometime later. This song stands out as one of the highlights of the album, which is saying something considering the high quality of nearly every track on here.

"Their bodies convulse, in agony and pain
I mangle their faces, till no features remain
A blade for the butchering, I cut them to shreds
First take out the organs, then cut off the head"

"Bad Omen" continues the dark feeling that was conjured up by many of the earlier tracks, going from themes of death back to Satanic rituals. While not reaching Venom or Slayer levels of blasphemy, it still maintains a darkness of its own, nonetheless. The atmosphere is evil and the slow build is done to perfection. Doom riffs and menacing solos give way to a troublesome bass line before a rather subdued riff carries the first verse. Soon enough, this bleeds into one of the best lead breaks of the entire album. The pace picks up as Dave continues to tell of demonic rites and the music continues to leave no doubt about the band's skill. The fast section is one of the most enjoyable parts of Peace Sells... being intense and also well-crafted.

"Their master's time has come
The moon is full tonight"

This is followed by another cover song, "I Ain't Superstitious". While well done and worth hearing to some extent, it really doesn't fit in with the rest of the material and is kind of pointless, thus resulting in the album losing points for coherence. Still, in some way, it kind of fits in regarding the lyrical content, in an odd manner. The fast part at the end isn't too bad, but the album would have benefited from this track being omitted.

The record ends, appropriately, with "My Last Words". It starts with an acoustic intro, joined by foreboding guitar work. Once the song gets underway, one can hear more of a NWOBHM influence in some of the riffs, which is very enjoyable. While not blistering, the pace is rather fast and aggressive. The final minutes of the song are absolutely classic Speed / Thrash with intricate solos and killer riffs that will have even the most comatose listener banging their head. There is something very epic about the melodies, enabling the record to end on a high point. One can also detect a sense of melancholy in the vibes created by this closing section, and the lyrics seems to add to this feeling.

"You... come on... next victim... your turn to die"

Peace Sells... but Who's Buying? is the definitive Megadeth album, a testament to the overwhelming skill and brilliance of its creators. While lacking the rawness of the debut, it still managed to destroy Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood, both of which were released that same year. Not without its faults, but certainly a classic and proof that whatever difficulties arose from the other members of the band, it was a battle worth fighting with an end result such as this. With Dave Mustaine's excellent songwriting and the combined talents of each member, Megadeth was able to give birth to their crowning achievement.