ack in 1983, Metallica made the first of many mistakes over their long and commercially successful career – they kicked Dave Mustaine out of the band and replaced him with Wah-Pedal player, Kirk Hammett.
Without going too much into the history of Megadeth, the feud between Dave and Metallica or other issues, you only have to compare the band’s latest releases. Work rate-wise, Megadeth has been consistent – touring and releasing albums every couple of years (some classics, some under-rated and often overlooked gems, and some downright atrocious), but they have always kept the same theme – technically sound and precise, full-on thrash and speed metal brilliance. Metallica… well, they stopped being a thrash band when they released their eponymous effort (a.k.a The Black Album) and have gone on to be massively disappointing since their live release S&M back at the start of the millennium.
Bickering/baiting/personal opinions aside, the fact remains that Megadeth still ply their trade as a hugely successful thrash band who have had a re-awakening of sorts with their career which kicked off with The System Has Failed back in 2004 and has had one or two dips (We won’t talk about Super Collider!). With the anticipation building up around this release, could this be a modern day classic for the veterans of the Bay Area Thrash Scene? As Dave Mustaine said in an interview recently:
“As bittersweet as this is, heavy metal music is really popular and successful when the world is under a lot of stress and when society starts to eat itself”.
Look back over any Megadeth album in their career and the lyrical themes have always been the same – politics, socio-economic climates, drugs, war, relationships, conspiracy theories and religion (well, back in the day it was!) and Dystopia is no different. The themes are the same, the climate of the world today simply crafts the lyrics for Mustaine who admits that he prefers to write about current affairs as opposed to mythological and fantasy styled things. With the growing rise of extremism, intolerance, bigotry, political and financial corruption in headlines across the globe, Dave has had a rich pool to draw inspiration from.
Musically, the Mustaine and Ellefson tandem is something we are all familiar with, but what can new recruits Chris Adler (Lamb of God, Drums) and Kiko Loureiro (Angra, Guitars, Piano) offer, along with guest appearances from country guitarist Steve Wariner (Slide Guitar) and Ronn Huff (Orchestral arrangements)?
Needless to say, the anticipation for this release has been huge, especially given the lack of a studio release again from Metallica and the first Slayer Album without the ‘heart and soul’ of the band (Hanneman and Lombardo) was pretty divisive amongst fans and critics. So the spotlight is on Dystopia to set the standard for Thrash in 2016. How will it fare?
Opening up with an atmospheric and ominous sounding vocal sample, “The Threat Is Real” launches us headfirst into a classic thrash assault. The punishing, intricate and rapidly executed precise rhythm, backed up with a simple and melodic lead, grabs the attention and works well as an intro before kicking us into the verse. The heavy chugging guitars with the venomous lyrics delivered in that signature Mustaine snarl really click and get the mind working. Lyrically, this track tackles what many people believe to be a growing concern and xenophobic, warmongering rhetoric about the threat of terrorists coming into countries and causing havoc.
With the snarled lyrical input combined with the riffing, it really hits hard and the fantastic short guitar solos which punctuate the track between chorus and verse, along with the main lead section (which has some similarity to ‘Holy Wars… The Punishment Due’) with its epic trade-offs alternating between rapidfire precision and fluid flowing runs/sweeping arpeggios really shines, showing what could be the first sparks of chemistry between Mustaine and Loureiro.
Title track “Dystopia” has a slightly less scathing outlook as it kicks in and instantly the mind jumps to ‘Hangar 18’ with its chord based intro and simple melodic lead, along with the musical delivery. In the verses it’s more chugging guitars with a descending pattern to the riffs which sets a decent paced groove, whilst the vocals are more of a lower register Mustaine, singing with a gritty delivery as opposed to his snarl. With a hook-laden chorus consisting of “Dystopia” repeatedly sung over a memorable sounding riff and flair-filled virtuoso work backing it up, it sounds really solid, blending sweeps and nimble runs up and down the fretboard.
What really stands out about this track though is when it hits the 3:10 mark. The groove changes and once again, the familiarity of ‘Hangar 18’ returns: the riffs, the feel, the sound and the flowing back and forth guitar solo trades make this track, and the speeding up to a chaotic end caps it off nicely.
“Fatal Illusion” is a track we should be familiar with as the ‘lead single’ from the album. Pounding bass and drums give some thickness to the chugged rhythm guitar whilst some bluesy leads and whammy bar theatrics spice it up on the lead front, but the following section is where the magic begins. Whilst it may not be as iconic as the phenomenal bass intro of ‘Peace Sells’, Ellefson’s twisting bass riff takes centre stage initially, showing off that wonderful tone and ability he has before allowing the rest of the band to join in, guitars mirroring the bassline in perfect synchronisation.
With the song picking up momentum, the pace increases and the vocal delivery is sung slightly cleaner than you would expect. After a fluid series of ascending sweeping licks, the verse comes back in again; moving along the scale towards the end for a subtle shift in sound, but the key to this track is at the 2:30 point. Much like the bass riff earlier which was allowed to take centre stage, a real heavy and rapidly-delivered thrash riff takes the spotlight and kicks in the heavy section. If this were performed live, the moment this riff hits, the pit would unleash hell and create a maelstrom of bodies smashing against one another. Venomously snarled vocals over the fast and heavy riff combined with a wild-feeling (yet laser-guided) precise solo gives this a big ending and marks it as a track which needs to be experienced live!
“Death From Within” follows, growing in volume from a subtle guitar and drum build to a full on explosion of heavy thrash guitar and basslines with a fantastic drum pattern, showcasing just how good the stickman from Lamb Of God really is when he’s not confined to generic metal. As always, it gets louder for the verse, this time with a simple and straight up thrash riff, proving that whilst the complicated and intricate lines can be heavy and intense, you cannot beat a straightforward, no nonsense thrash riff.
Thundering away, the steady paced thrash riff, accompanied by the familiar snarl of Mustaine, lays the lyrics out, building towards the chorus where more expression is used vocally, shifting the snarl to the strained raw singing Dave is known for. Guitar wise, the riffs change a little, the fills get a little more complicated and, obviously, the focal point of the chorus is the multi-layered assault. Vocals with backing gang lines, twisting rhythms with a subtle but sharp lead, and the rock solid rhythm unit locks the entropic passage all in place. Whilst it may seem confusing, it actually holds up well and is easy to follow. Solo wise, there’s plenty of harmony and overdub lines rich in melody to balance out the wild descending triplet runs delivered at breakneck speed, and it flows just right into the final chorus for a solid end.
“Bullet To The Brain” is the first of the tracks on the album to feature Loureiro’s acoustic skills. Although it may be brief, the clear ringing tone with an ominous edge to it sets up perfectly for the thick distorted riff onslaught which mirrors it. With the two guitars seeming to play the same pattern but in different octaves for the initial verse, the sudden shift to pounding chords in the pre-chorus catches you off guard and really hits hard. The slip into the chorus brings a slight bit of groove and some cleaner singing. As expected, there’s a twisting solo which runs into the second verse.
Keeping this sinister edge, a fantastic result of the way the guitar and vocals combine, it hits the 2:30 point where the lead comes into its own. With an expressive, slow and melodic solo initially, it shifts into an eerie harmony line which transitions into a fine display of nimble and precise finger synchronisation (in the form of a rapidfire sweep-picked arpeggio section which will have both seasoned veterans and rookies to the way of a six string stood with jaws hanging and unable to form coherent sentences). Like the previous tracks, the sweeps give way to more descending scale patterns and licks delivered with precision at unbelievable pace, before we get a final chorus and melodic outro solo to wrap it up.
With “Post American World” as a title, you can tell before this one even starts up that it’s going to be full of scorn and contempt, and if you guessed that was the theme and how it would sound, you’d be correct. Heavy, slower paced, very deliberate and making great use of phrasing and dynamics to achieve the right feel, Mustaine’s politically charged social condemnation of how the world is today isn’t exactly heavy as such, but it is certainly intense. The low snarled vocals, the steady chugging guitars and occasional cutting leads keep the attention fully focused on the picture the lyrics are painting, up until the siren in the background goes off and the track suddenly sparks to life.
With a lead guitar solo which seems to be a tribute to the leadwork on ‘Rust In Peace’, the frantic and flamboyant solo serves as a wake up call for the song, giving it a little more bite to go with its bark in its final rundown.
Past the halfway point, “Poisonous Shadows” follows on and, much like the track before it, the acoustic work features here in the intro. A haunting yet beautiful sound with a slight Middle Eastern vibe to it, it makes for a dramatic opening. The thundering distorted chords cutting through and building up into a steady chug-like groove help give this song a real sense of grandeur and as the melodic solo slithers across the slow-paced intro like a serpent striking out at its prey, it gives you the feeling that this could be the defining moment of the album.
With a steady verse and possibly Mustaine’s best vocal work on the album so far, the slow paced, heavily atmospheric track simply drifts on with little urgency to the unique mood and intensity it brings. The precise rhythmic chugs of the guitars have a hypnotic quality and the subtle strings and choir-like ‘aaah’ vocals really add an extra layer of depth to this track. Of course, this being Megadeth, it couldn’t stay in this eerie state of hypnotic beauty for long. At the 3:40 mark, the lead guitar finally unleashes itself with no restrictions. Whilst the rhythm stays firmly rooted to how it has been all track, the lead is delivered with some rather expressive voicings and phrasings, peaking several times with some brilliant sounding runs and wailing bends before we get the final run of the track – a repeat of the chorus with some more expressive vocal delivery from Mustaine. An emotive and flair-filled solo rises behind it, capping arguably the best track on the album.
Instrumental tracks and thrash bands are quite tricky. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Megadeth give it another go with “Conquer Or Die”. Going for the hat trick of clean/acoustic intros, this time it is far more intricate compared to the previous passages. The voicing has a dark feel which is surprising, given how warm the tone is, but it works well. In some sinister way, it is almost welcoming you for the inevitable explosion of thrash metal which will knock you off your feet and, when the time hits the 1:15 mark, it does. Stabbing chords with a slight chugging groove roar to life underneath a real wailing solo, filled with clever wah-pedal use (Take note Kirk Hammett!) and impressive string bends and licks which just scream out when they’re nailed.
With a very neo-classical/Harmonic Minor sound to it, you would be right to believe that there would be some guitar theatrics in the styling’s of Blackmore and Malmsteen. Kiko Loureiro delivers the goods with style. His skill has been on display all across the album already, but here he really shines, showing his own unique style along with some lines and passages which can be compared to Marty Friedman or Chris Poland, both former six stringers in arms with Mustaine himself. Technically sound and precise to the point of bordering on virtuoso status, the display is enough to convince those who doubted the wisdom of Kiko joining Dave. Loureiro’s playing seems to draw a spark out of Mustaine’s, one which we haven’t seen since the Rust In Peace, years and despite this instrumental only being round 3-4 minutes long, it says enough about the partnership to suppose that Kiko could be here for a long time.
“Lying In State” brings back the scathing social and political observations to the soundtrack of relentless and intricate thrash metal riffery. With a sound much like that of ‘Sleepwalker’ from the United Abominations album, the tight rhythm work grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. Complicated-sounding with the twisting riff and intricate drum patterns, it still maintains a recognisable thrash groove and as always, the scathing lyrics are delivered with that Mustaine snarl which is so divisive amongst fans of metal.
With the track intense already, it gets more of an urgent feel and chaotic nature to it as it progresses. The harshly delivered spoken vocal section jumps right into a fantastic sounding thrash riff with simple repeating lead lick which really shines out. The wild and wailing solo which follows just ups the feeling of intensity and wildness, before it finally comes to a halt.
The album could have ended right here: nine unrelenting tracks of classic thrash metal with a contemporary edge and some interesting and relevant lyrical themes. However, two tracks remain and, to quibble, don’t quite sit right with the album. Based on the Hans Christen Andersen story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, tenth track, “The Emperor” is the Dave Mustaine version of the story, delivering a scathing attack on perception, pretentiousness and following the herd. Whilst this is a very Megadeth like lyrical theme, the musical delivery has a bouncy, slightly punky edge to it. Although it may be refreshing, the track comes across as very similar in style to ‘Sweating Bullets’ and whilst that may be a live favourite (and this may join it in that respect) it just doesn’t seem to fit right with the rest of the album in its musical delivery.
Still, it is catchy; it has an infectious hook to the chorus and some sublime leadwork on display, so it isn’t all bad.
“Foreign Policy” closes the album and is a cover, originally performed by LA Punk band ‘FEAR’. It has a similar feel to the crust punk and speed punk stylings which are prevalent in Discharge and the Anti-Nowhere League, and this really seems out of place on a thrash album. For the Megadeth treatment, it is kept relatively similar to the original. The snarl is replaced with a slightly out of key shout and the music is delivered with the same pace and intensity of the original, completed with some lead guitar theatrics to add a more chaotic feeling to the mix. Overall though, it is a poor choice to end the album, given the explosive impact of the solid thrash attack on the first nine tracks. This just seems to… fizzle out with a whimper.
Overall, Dystopia is a solid release. Megadeth have had some patchy albums in the past, but despite this phrase being one of the tropes commonly thrown around in reviewing, it really could be a return to form for the group. Rediscovering their past but keeping their newer approach in mind, Megadeth have managed to build a bridge which satisfies most – the killer sound of classic with a more modern edge, whilst still retaining that unique signature sound Dave and the band (whoever may be in his line up at the time) are known for.
Lyrics decrying the state of today’s society delivered with a backdrop of technically precise and relentless thrash, Mustaine and his boys prove that there is still life in the Megadeth machine. Provided the new parts fit into place and Dave stays satisfied (and they remain content), this could very well be one of the partnerships people talk about with the same respect the iconic ‘Mustaine and Friedman’ is given.
This is essential listening for 2016 and it sets the standard for thrash metal this year. Whilst Metallica cannot be called a thrash band any more, and whilst (as much as it pains me to type this) Slayer aren’t Slayer anymore – they have the look and sound, but not the thing which made them unique… it is only Anthrax and Megadeth left out of the ‘Big Four’ who can rightly call themselves the kings of thrash. With this being the case, the first royal decree will be to acquire Dystopia.