Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Music Review: Megadeth - Dystopia

I was once a HUGE Megadeth fan.  From 1990 till about 1999 they routinely competed with Metallica for the title of Justin's Favorite Band in the World.  Their seminal albums Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?, Countdown to Extinction, and most of all their 1990 masterwork Rust In Peace still hold up as unquestioned classics of the genre.  Dave Mustaine was my idol in high school and college.  Christ, just look at my senior photo:

I peaked early, didn't I?

But since the early 2000s my enthusiasm for this once-great metal outfit has steadily cooled.  Mustaine (and his revolving door of hired musicians) has certainly been prolific, even after what seemed to be a career-ending nerve injury in 2002.  Like clockwork they release a new album every two-and-a-half years or so (about three times as often as the aforementioned Metallica).  Unfortunately most of Megadeth's output this century has been, shall we say, less-than-stellar.  I actually really enjoyed Megadeth's 2004 comeback album The System Has Failed.  Intended as a Mustaine solo album, the songwriting felt fresh and inspired, like he was free from the constraints of writing "Megadeth songs."  The addition of virtuoso drummer Vinnie Colaiuta gave that album some unique flavoring as well.

With Megadeth now back on track (and with a brand-new full-time lineup), 2007's United Abominations and its 2009 follow-up Endgame were met with extremely high praise from metal fans and magazines alike.  But for me something seemed off.  Those two albums sounded like someone else trying to create Megadeth-style songs.  They lacked the personality so prevalent on the band's earlier works.  Additionally Mustaine's vocal range seemed to suddenly half; where he once delivered a signature high-pitched wail, he now seemed content to snarl in his lower register on just about every song.  The result is a vocal style lacking in urgency/intensity, where it feels like he doesn't mean anything he's saying.  This has been a major problem for me on Megadeth's last five albums (though less so on the more simplistic Th1rt3en and Super Collider).

And that brings us to Megadeth's latest release, Dystopia, a collection of rather paranoid tracks angrily lamenting what Mustaine percieves as the downfall of western civilization (Been watching too much Fox News there, Dave?).  While Megadeth's subject matter has always included the paradigm of "raging against the system," in 2016, coming from a 54-year-old millionaire it just feels a little forced.  On top of that, Mustaine's very limited vocal range makes for some pretty distracting melodies and performances, taking away from some otherwise very strong guitar work.

At least Vic is back on the cover.

As with the previous four albums, Dystopia contains more than a few kickass riffs and ideas, some of which actually separate themselves from those found on Abominations through Super Collider.  The addition of new lead guitarist Kiko Loureiro is also a breath of fresh air - his solos fit right in yet sound different than every previous guitarist in the band's history.  Kiko is the strongest lead since the amazing Marty Friedman.  Mustaine's solos however explore the same territory they always have - shredding right-hand work with limited left-hand movement, and repetitive blues scale figures.  Drummer Chris Adler, on loan from Lamb of God, does a fine job behind the kit, though nothing he does sounds much different than his predecessor Shawn Drover, and since 1998 I've missed the quirky jazz influence of Nick Menza.
As I said, there are some solid ideas on this album and it's more ambitious than the previous four, but the songwriting doesn't fully come together for the most part.  Early standouts include the non-traditionally structured "Fatal Illusion," the murky-sounding "Bullet to the Brain," the instrumental "Conquer...or Die," and the goofily-written-but-hooky "Look Who's Talking" and "The Emperor."  But none of these ascend to the pantheon of great Megadeth songs, and Mustaine's vocals have simply become inadequate to carry the front-end of the music.  I think it's time he hired a lead vocalist so his ideas can be fully realized.  And for God's sake he needs to stop using the word "shadows."  Seems like that's in every other lyric.

It's a shame this band has long struggled to produce material on par with its early-career highlights.  Considering Megadeth was once a band for whom I had great admiration bordering on adulation, it's hard to listen to generic-sounding tracks that feel churned out of a speed metal depository.  I know what you're thinking - how can a guy in his mid-50s possibly live up to the stuff he did in his 20s and 30s?  Well my friends, look no further than fellow thrashers Anthrax, who are even now putting out career apex albums like Worship Music (2011) and (judging from what I've heard thus far) the upcoming For All Kings.  At 55, vocalist Joey Belladonna is delivering some of the best work of his career, proving it is possible for a band to sound ageless.  Sadly Megadeth doesn't seem to fall into that category.

I give Dystopia **1/2 out of *****  

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