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.