There’s almost no good reason anymore to discuss Megadeth’s last two decades. But I guess we sort of have to…
Either you started with the band in their prime, their mostly classic run from the feral ferocity of Killing Is My Business to the mastery of Rust In Piece… or you came in with the commercial peak of Countdown To Extinction and Youthanasia… or you missed everything that was ever good about Megadeth.
Dave Mustaine’s entire career has been fueled by vengeance against his former bandmates in Metallica, and as is forever the case with trying to beat someone at their own game, he’s really just spent that whole career following them. When they jumped off a bridge in the 90s, so did he, and they’ve both been drowning ever since. Metallica’s lows are lower, for sure – there’s no low lower than Lulu, and Mustaine can take solace in that. So sure, Megadeth’s recent highs are higher, which brings them back to average (-ish), but really, both bands remain inextricably linked in their ill-conceived race toward perpetual mediocrity.
Which is why the past few Megadeth albums have been doubly frustrating: Instead of just returning to form and ripping like all holy hell, Mustaine continued to feed his need for radio rock approval, the same need that tanked both bands twenty years ago. He could’ve won his war with Lars and James simply by recapturing the fire, but he’s insisted on releasing variations upon streamlined crap in what I can only guess is an attempt at a mass popularity that most everyone else can see is never coming.
In 2009, Endgame hinted at the return every Megadeth fan has been waiting for, a strong album that showed renewed energy from that particular version of Mustaine’s ever-changing cast of characters. But then came the abominable Th1rt3en and the outright awful Supercollider, a tandem that erased any goodwill Endgame had engendered. Add in yet another band overhaul, and that brings us here, to Dystopia.
And it’s almost as good as Endgame, which makes it almost the best Megadeth album since 1994. In its best moments, Dystopia mostly comes close to Endgame, but there are fewer truly strong tracks than on that earlier effort. Still, Dystopia is a surprisingly consistent and quality effort. By modern Megadeth standards, it’s positively brilliant.
Opening number “The Threat Is Real” hits hard and fast, prominently showcasing the guitar interplay between Mustaine and newcomer Kiko Loureiro of Angra. Mustaine has always had great foils in his co-lead guitarists, even in the dark days of Pitrelli and Broderick, but he hasn’t given his band much strong material since the classic line-up days, and Loureiro reaps immediate benefits simply by getting to play on better songs. “Threat” still relies on a lot of chugged verses, a hallmark of modern Mustaine, but the chorus riff harks back to the golden years, and the lead work shines atop the re-energized riffing. Helping matters greatly, drummer Chris Adler (Lamb Of God) effortlessly outplays departing ‘Deth skinsman Shawn Drover, providing a stronger backbone to propel Mustaine’s songs.
And it’s there, in these songs, that Dystopia ultimately has to live or die. These first four tracks are as good as anything Mustaine has released in decades – they’re not quite as furious or as intricate as the good old days, but they’re certainly better than a large part of post-Youthanasia Megadeth. The title track starts out in the melo-‘Deth vein, but finishes up some great classic-styled riffing that could’ve come straight off of Peace Sells. It’s some of the finest vintage Megadeth on hand, and it certainly helps to bolster the midtempo melodicism of the first half. The palm-muted chunk and twisting bass intro of “Fatal Illusion” leads into another highlight, with its double-time chorus standing as Dystopia’s thrashiest moment.
All isn’t perfect, of course – it wouldn’t be a Megadeth record these days without some of Mustaine’s paranoid anti-government lunacy, and the back-to-mediocre “Post American World” brings it. The string-laden “Poisonous Shadows” further plays to Megadeth’s weaknesses – they’ve never been a band for anything but thrash, and this one’s another in their series of slower moments that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. “Lying In State” tries to right the ship somewhat, just in time for the album’s end. That final highlight brings some belated fury, but whatever good that does is undone by the dunderheaded lyrical diatribe of “The Emperor.” (Note: If you buy the expanded edition, there’s a fun cover of Fear‘s “Foreign Policy,” another throwaway new song called “Me Hate You,” and a pretty lame cover of Budgie‘s “Melt The Ice Away.” Blues boogie proto-metal is not Megadeth’s forte.)
Seven years ago, I had pretty much given up on Megadeth, I’ll admit, and then Endgame came around. I enjoyed that record, certainly enough to give me hope for the next one, and then came two more utter duds, and I gave up again. Now Dystopia is enough to bring me back one more time, albeit tentatively now – it’s not Megadeth’s finest, nor even their finest post-Risk, but it shows them once again on an upward trajectory (which, given the starting point of rock bottom, isn’t all that much of a compliment).
I won’t say they’re back, but I will say they’re better, and that’s something. Let’s hope Mustaine can keep the fires lit.