Some time recently, though precisely where I read it I can’t recall, my pal and yours, Captain Michael Wuensch, stated that “The Conjuring” was the best Megadeth song. Now, previous to Cap’s declaration, I hadn’t given a lot of thought as to what might be the best Megadeth song, but the more I considered “The Conjuring,” the less inclined I was to disagree with El Capitan. Best song or not, “The Conjuring” is a showcase for some prime Mustaine riffage, and since I don’t believe I’ve ever given a Megadeth song the Riffology treatment, now seems like a good time to rectify that oversight.
“The Conjuring” is the second track from the best Megadeth album, 1986’s Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying. At the time, Megadeth was considered pretty hot shit as thrash bands go. Shredding was all the rage in the eighties, and these guys had a fiery pentatonic fret-burner and a jazz-trained virtuoso in Mustaine and Chris Poland respectively. Solos are just window dressing in a world where riffs are the meat of the matter, however, and in that department at that time, ol’ Dave was at the top of his game. He was also way into drugs and black magic. Now, I’m not here to advocate for drugs or black magic, but “The Conjuring” shits all over anything Dave has done after cleaning up and finding Jesus. Draw your own conclusions.
“The Conjuring” is full of insane riffs, but let’s ease into it. First, the relatively simple intro. The opening riff is based on a four-measure chromatically descending progression of power chords from G-5 to E-5. While the progression is chromatic, 3 out of four of those chords are in the key of E-minor, so that key is heavily implied. One guitar simply plays whole-note power chords, while the second guitar plays arpeggios of those same power chords one octave higher. It’s a dead-simple harmony of roots, fifths and octaves, with no thirds to imply any major or minor tonality. And you know what? It works just fine. The repetitive, almost hypnotic nature of the riff, combined with Dave’s demonically growled recitation, sets the evil tone for this track perfectly.
At 0:54, right after Mustaine yells out “Obey,” the real thrashing begins. This riff is in some ways a typical thrash riff, featuring a palm-muted pedal-tone interspersed with some dyads. What is a bit atypical is the riff is roughly in the key of F-sharp-minor, so the pedal-tone, in this case, is F-sharp, which requires fretting the sixth string at the second fret. Fast thrash riffs like this are much more commonly played in E-minor, or some mode thereof, which enables the use of the open low-E string for a pedal tone. The open-string pedal tone leaves the fretting hand free to wander the guitar’s neck and play other chords or notes between soundings of the pedal tone. The use of the F# pedal tone in this riff forces the fretting hand to be anchored near the second fret in order to constantly sound the pedal tone. Due to this limited fret-hand movement, Dave opts for inverted power chords rather than standard power chords. Inverted power chords can be played most places on the guitar with just one finger by fretting two adjacent strings at the same position. While this choice might have been made for economy of movement, there is a sonic benefit as well: Inverted power chords sound a perfect fourth, as opposed to the standard power chord’s perfect fifth. As we covered in the very first Riffology, fourths are slightly less consonant than fifths and, consequently, have more of a snarl and bite, which makes them well-suited to aggressive music such as Megadeth’s.
The real show-stopper riff is what, for our purposes, we’ll call the bridge. This four-measure riff beginning at 2:33 is composed almost entirely of the aforementioned inverted power chords. The easy fingering of these dyads allows this harmonized riff to be played essentially as fast as if it were single notes, and Dave and Chris Poland take full advantage of that fact by burning through it at 174 beats per minute. The riff is so good, in fact, it can practically stand on its own—the majority of the bridge is played by the guitars without accompaniment. The rhythm section only sneaks in on the E-5 power chords that divide the first three bars of the riff, just a few little smacks to make sure you’re paying attention, then engages more fully in the fourth measure.
While this riff, like the intro, is chromatic, it hits every note on the third through sixth strings on the seventh, eighth and ninth frets. Because it features five out of six notes of the E-blues scale, it has a blues-rock or even rock-a-billy sound to it, not unlike the breakdown section of Mercyful Fate’s “Doomed by the Living Dead,” which we covered in a previous Riffology. I love it when metal bands make the blues sound evil, and I love the fact that that Megadeth—who at the time were “state-of-the-art speed metal”—manages to raise holy Hell with a riff that wouldn’t be too out of place in a Chuck Berry tune.
The last riff we’ll cover for this lesson immediately follows the bridge at 2:56, and it’s an oddball. This repeating, four-bar passage initially sounds like pretty standard mid-paced thrash. The first bar features some palm-muted chopping on the open sixth string and a short phrase of descending power chords from B-flat-5 to A-5, then G-5, and finally to E-5. The next bar has more chugging on the open E string and a crisp staccato jump from E-5 down to B-flat-5, reminiscent of the main riff in Black Sabbath’s “Symptom of the Universe.” If you hadn’t guessed, the interval between E and B-flat is our old pal the diminished fifth. There’s no escaping that interval in metal.
The third bar is where things get a little weird. The third measure begins much like the first, but the descending power chord phrase is abandoned half-way through in favor of sixth string chugging into the fourth measure. The first half of the final bar features a quick phrase that shifts from G to A and back, but instead of using power chords, this phrase is played using major third dyads, which provide an entirely different sonic texture—a sort of languid muddiness that contrasts with the band’s typically sharp attack.
The second half of the final measure ends with the same descending phrase as the first measure. Ending the first and fourth bar with the same phrase gives the riff an unbalanced feel, and when the riff repeats, it creates something like a stutter. We hear the phrase at the end of the fourth bar, then two beats later we hear it again. This makes it confusing as to where the riff begins and ends. If the first and third measure ended with the same phrase, it would have more musical symmetry, but it’s much more interesting this way.
Some combination of age, Jesus and an off-and-on quest to recapture past mainstream successes have dulled the edge of Mustaine’s riff-craft. For a few years, however, Dave was a riff genius, and “The Conjuring” is but one example of his mastery during Megadeth’s most potent lineup years that included Dave Ellefson, Chris Poland, and Gar Samuelson. Much has been made of the Rust in Peace lineup, and with good reason, but the original lineup had a magic that no other version of Megadeth has had since. The original band played with great precision, but also with a furious, volatile intensity that made it feel like the whole thing could explode at any minute.
There’s a new Megadeth album on the horizon, and if Dave is to be believed (note: he is not), it’s going to be “heavy.” I doubt Megadeth will ever get more than a whiff of the magic it had on its first two records, but hope springs eternal.
Homework: In the comments tell us what you think the best Megadeth song is. Submissions will be graded.
Extra Credit: Learn to play “The Conjuring”
Essential Listening: Megadeth – Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?