Thursday, February 29, 2024

Lucifer - V (2024)

The first few singles I had heard of Lucifer V before its release were alright, but didn't leave me quite so excited as I was for its predecessors. Turns out that was the usual smoke & mirrors of maybe a label or band members choosing material that wasn't quite the best, because nearly every other track on this album is absolutely the nut. It might lack some degree of surprise and progression that I'd felt for prior entries, and a lot of the writing here seems like it's hanging out on the plateau with Lucifer IV, but still snooping about for points of ascent, higher grounds to scale of pools of diabolic lava to dip its toes into, and in the end I've even come around to some of those advance tracks as cogs in a very consistent, grooving occult hard rock machine.

The moody "Slow Dance in a Crypt" and "At the Mortuary" were the two I had encountered, and the former has its place as something bluesier, but a little too predictable in its progressions. Still, if you're at the prom, with someone missing most of their flesh, I think this is the exact sort of song you'd hear playing in the end credits of that particular Carrie sequel, and it does have a nice twist in the end with the pianos and elevating vocal line. But when you've got so many other scorchers here like the Priest-y "Fallen Angel", or "Riding Reaper" which I could hear ending up on an old 70s Scorpions album, everything really balances out. Lucifer revels in taking the familiar and then giving it a little spin here, a chord change there that makes it freshly memorable and unique to their own legacy. A few of my favorites here are tucked away near the end like the rocking "Strange Sister", or another bluesy piece, the creeping "Nothing Left to Lose but My Life", but by this point I've listened through the whole album and don't find any compulsion to skip past anything.

Production is steller, the band pulls off one of those cleaner 70s-style atmospheres and yet it can go toe to toe with modern rock, and helps translate the darker vibes to the guitars. It's just a perfect tone for everything...organs, acoustics, drums, and especially Johanna's voice, which is still one of the best out there, she might not have the craziest range, but there's a wicked smoothness to her pitch that hangs tight even when she becomes a little more desperate and shrill, and again it adds to the sense that this is an unearthed relic. But that's not to take away from the other players here, like Nicke who's fills and thundering totally moor "Maculate Heart" so that it kicks even further ass, and the sweet guitars of Martin and Linus which knock out the harder punching chords and burn bluesy through the airbrushed muscle car nightscape this album once again created for the Swedes. Another excellent Lucifer album, I'd probably place it on par with III, I had a slightly stronger connection to IV; though at this rate I hope they can keep this up to X.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Voivod - Morgöth Tales (2023)

I've made it no secret through the years that Voivod is my favorite band, so the prospect of an album of re-recordings is dubious. Why mess with what has largely been perfection, or close to it? The thing is, I've been proven wrong on these specific sorts of compilations often enough that I've no question that, when done patiently, or done 'right', they can have some value in the modernization of limited recording technology or production values that in some way might have crippled the original sessions. Or maybe the band just wants to give the current roster a chance to lay down their spin on the band's legacy, or gloss up some golden oldies for the younger audience used to the sound on the more contemporary output in the discography. The idea behind Morgöth Tales is all of the above, but it's also a 40th year anniversary offering with the idea to take one track from each of previous albums, or at least eight of them, and 'update' them with Rocky and Chewy; plus a few added bonuses.

For me, those three bonuses were initially the biggest draw, since they tackled their Metal Massacre track "Condemned to the Gallows" and made a neat sweep of it, tightly controlled with a tone that wouldn't be out of place on their recent records, but structurally just as fun and punk-driven as the original. Daniel's lead is great and the thing is just infused with youthful vitality, although I can imagine a swath of the purists might rue the lack of real rawness and underground vitriol to the recording. The title track, which closes off the album, is a very cool new track, but with a style that more closely resembles Dimension Hatross, with a spacious atmosphere due to some of the reverb on the vocals, but some real amazing, cycling grooves and a nice psychedelic break which lapses into Nothingface territory. This is ultimately my favorite part of the collection, although their slightly metalized cover of Public Image Limited's "Home" is also quite good, and fitting with Snake's vocals and the overall odd vibe of the band. I like some of their sillier covers of stuff like "Batman" or the "Ultraman" theme plenty enough, but they do their best tributes with more serious fare like this or "Astronomy Domine".

I'm not sure I'm entirely in love with the idea of picking one track from each of the albums, since I think some really wouldn't have needed to be touched, like "Fix My Heart", "Nuage Fractal" or "Rebel Robot"; the differences are minor, and I don't know that these versions truly embellish on the originals, even with the tonal evolution and alternate studio. It's more fun to hear early stuff like "Thrashing Rage", and I wonder if just re-recording War and Pain or its successor would have been better. The versions of "Killing Technology" and "Macrosolutions to Megaproblems" here are damn tight, and they will certainly give a better idea of how the band would sound performing them today with this lineup, but the originals come from works I praise so highly that any small detail will feel more abrupt to me. Perhaps I'm just too biased, but I'm certainly not trying to bash this, I think overall it's a worthwhile pickup for the longtime fan or initiate, I bought it day one, and I'd buy six more volumes if they were intent on release them. But at the same time...I'm looking forward to the band's energy being focused back on the infinite universes they still might explore, the past they've lest us is already so awesome, expansive and unforgettable that I'd never get sick of playing around in it.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Darkthrone - Astral Fortress (2022)

Each new Darkthrone studio album comes with the obligatory internet tug-of-war over why their new material is irrelevant, and they need to hang up the bullet belts; or why it's genius, and they're still treading some new ground. Here's the thing, though. Darkthrone doesn't give a fuck, and I have to agree with them. Yes, their material might been on an increasingly minimalist path of late, and some might construe that as lacking effort or 'phoning it all in', but it's not their first rodeo. That's exactly where they've been through so much of their career! Was Total Death complex, or The Underground Resistance revolutionary? They were cool because they held true to the band's ideals of slowly expanding and contracting its sound, tapping into primal influences across various metal sub-genres, and always infusing that with their own distinct personality. Astral Fortress is no different, and while it's got the most 'trolling' cover image in their entire discography, that's just another thing to admire about it. They don't always do what I expect, but 95% of the time so far it's turned out pretty damn awesome...

And it's awesome this time too, and that is why Darkthrone has my trust. Astral Fortress does conform a little to the blackened/doom vibe they've manifest through some of their recent albums, but this time they've got a warmer, more direct sound than on the eerier Eternal Hails... The riffs definitely feel like the sort the duo have written in the past, and across the seven tracks, they usually do a few per song, but MAN what riffs. "Impeccable Caverns of Satan" has those great, Sabbath-laden grooves to it, which work so well against Ted's constipated grunts, and the very simplistic Fenriz beats. "Stalagmite Necklace" opens with one of my favorite 'Throne riffs since forever, and the way the vocals echo off against the shuffle of the drums is just timeless, it feels like it could have hailed from any dark shed or sub-cellar of the last four decades, and the little synth touches are just perfect in enhancing the atmosphere. The most ambitious piece here is probably "The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea", with its ridiculous title and 10-minutes of evil, churning molasses riffs that once again bring to light that strong doom influence with not a small amount of the Celtic Frost/Hellhammer sound they were birthed on.

Almost all the other tracks deliver too, though if I had to pick the three I enjoyed the most, it would be those. The jangly noise interlude "Kolbotn, West of the Vast Forests" does feel extraneous, but in a weird way it feels like some breath of icy breeze is striking some strings or chimes out in the frigid environment of the cover photo, I just think it could have been better used as an intro that wound better into a proper metal track. They bounce back with the harmonic glazing of "Eon 2", another very good tune with a nice folksy surprise within, but it doesn't bring back any of the same tropes from the instrumental. Otherwise, the mix on this album is's very bare and some might argue dry, but the way Culto's vocals hover off the simple riffing and timekeeping, lightly struck drums makes for an unexpectedly haunted experience. All the instruments sound good in isolation, though the bass as usual isn't an important factor, just thumping along enough to notice it. The guitar tone, the few acoustics, the drums, all adherent to the simplicity and effectiveness of their design, and Astral Fortress grants me what I so wish for every time I listen to this or any other black metal band...escape.

Maybe it doesn't throw me a lot of left field hooks like some of my favorite Darkthrone moments throughout their hearing "The Winds They Called the Dungeon Shaker" for the first time on Dark Thrones and Black Flags, thinking 'what the fuck is going on?' and then gradually becoming so smitten that it's one of my favorite songs period. Or that earliest transition from the otherworldly, murky death metal of Soulside Journey to the icy Swiss-style nihilism of the sophomore, which seemed so unapproachable at the time but has long-since proven mandatory. Astral Fortress is not borne of such revelations, but it's another journey within that greater journey that I am privileged to be alive and take with two of the most honest, down to Earth dudes in all of metaldom. The most absorbed I've been with one of their albums in 15 years.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Monday, February 26, 2024

Cannibal Corpse - Chaos Horrific (2023)

I'm going to say this up front: I like Vincent Locke's artwork, I like that the band is high on consistency, but would it kill Cannibal Corpse to explore some other color palettes once in awhile? It's not that the cover to Chaos Horrific is bad or unfitting whatsoever, but considering how the band is often criticized for some of the sameness of their death metal material, it might help a fraction to vary up the packaging. Other than that, though, I have few if any complaints about their 16th studio album, because their sound is not one I grow that weary of, and while it's got a lot of the predictable, hammering, gory elements, you can hear them occasionally trying to throw a few new hooks or patterns at you when they can spare the expansion. That said, if you're not a fan of the George Corpsegrinder era of the band, now the default at nearly three decades, if you're pining for those simpler times of the early 90s, Chaos Horrific is not going to change your mind.

This is the battering, clinical, darkly brutal death metal they've been releasing since Vile with few if many alterations other than who is in the lineup, what they can offer, and minor differences in production. I for one prefer this flurried, semi-technical style and I'm constantly exploring the substrate of gore for all the tasty, meaty little hooks, but there's no question that you could mix up a bunch of tracks off the last ten albums on a playlist and perhaps forget which album they came from beyond a few standouts. All of these tunes are almost obnoxiously consistent, packed with agile little palm-muted chops and evil tremolo picked rhythms that alternate against groovier, weighted hooks like those that set up "Blood Blind" and its roiling horror show. One thing that's great about Cannibal Corpse, you can almost always discern the thrash roots and propulsion through their material, where other bands in the more cavernous style seem to have distanced themselves more from those fundamentals, this feels like that genre armored up with more oozing entrails and a growling animal and set to non-stop headbanging. If only all our necks could endure this as much as George's can!

I wouldn't mind more leads to whirlwind about here, but with Erik Rutan in the fold, you know where they do appear they're going to kick ass, and they do, like the eerie harmonies and exchanges in the center of "Fracture and Refracture". Alex and Paul still mete out the rhythmic bottom end like players 20 years their junior, and Rob and Erik load every song up with too many chops to ever bore from, even if there is that slight monotonous sense that they're largely small alterations on past progressions. The album is totally ferocious, even where it breaks to let a guitar thrash out or slows into a cyclopean but loaded groove, there is no place for your heart to rest, you are going to be splattered for 40 minutes and you'd best be ready. Rutan's production is quite in line with other recent efforts, and there's no point at which my attention wavered when I was truly in the mood for this style. Favorites include "Pestilential Rictus" for its infectious death/thrashing opening and groovy verse, or the finale "Drain You Empty" for that cool atmospheric intro, but the whole thing smokes just as hard as a lot of their other output from the 2010s and beyond.

Is there still some fleshy masterpiece waiting on the slab, ready for carving? I think the band would have to endure a forced evolution into a more widely-written album, or perhaps a de-evolution to super catchy, simpler tunes with the same charm, but at this point, even if they make another half dozen LPs of this general pace, punishment and quality I'll be supplied with enough bruisings to last me the rest of my days. Nothing broken (except your bones), nothing to fix.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, February 23, 2024

Prong - State of Emergency (2023)

There seems to have been a reinvigorated interest in Prong lately, with what might be their most hyped album in ages, a swank tour with the greatest band on Earth (and beyond) Voivod, which is unfortunately not coming anywhere near my neck of the woods (god damnit). State of Emergency itself continues along that path of polished thrash that Tommy Victor has been on since the surprising Carved Into Stone back in 2012, which I'm sure is a relief for some, but obviously lacks most of the industrial elements that the band was performing quite well on Rude Awakening or Cleansing, as well as the really interesting and weird, organically mechanical rhythms the band was feeding us when they blew up on Beg to Differ or Prove You Wrong. Naturally, this also isn't a foray back into the raunchy sewer thrash of the magnificent Force Fed.

No, State of Emergency is in reality a pretty standard array of groove/thrash rhythms given personality through Tommy Victor's vocals and the occasional twist of melodic chord patterns reminiscent of Rude Awakening or Carved in Stone which help to balance out the taut chugging force. It's nearly identical to the last four original studio albums, and that's not a bad thing, since he's really settled into this style alongside bassist Jason Christopher who has now been a part of the proceedings for nearly a decade. He has a simple style, which supports the structure of Victor's rhythm guitars with a good tone, making for an appreciable impact; but it doesn't venture off on its own quite enough, and I do think the simpler riffing patterns would certain allow for that. On the other hand, the new drummer, Griffin McCarthy does an awesome job, slapping out a lot of fills and grooves to help amplify the material without attempting to extremify it too much, which just wouldn't work on such basic grooves. As for Victor, he's always had that relatable, gruff tough guy timbre and sounds awesome here, barking off with a few effects here or there to make it feel sleek and modern.

I do think the album gets better as it goes along, really picking up with tracks like "Light Turns Black" or "Who Told Me" which go for broke a little more and grow catchier as a result. The opener track "The Descent" has propulsive riffing energy, and makes sense in that position, but it feels like a good 12-14 minutes pass before it's grabbing me, other than the squeals in "Breaking Point" or that melodic floe of chords in "Non-Existence". But pretty much the entire second half of State of Emergency is flooded with the more emotional style of chorus, and the riffing really supports that. Even the cover of Rush's "Working Man" really thrives in context, and unlike a lot of covers it actually functions alongside the band's original material. I also noticed that the few little spurts of effects or industrial influences that do sneak through here almost always stir my interest, and wouldn't mind if they brought more of that back into the songwriting for the future.

Ultimately, I found this the best Prong album since Carved in Stone, though I don't think it exactly laps their more recent output like Zero Days or X - No Absolutes. Though some of the riffing choices are short on nuance or innovation, the sum package is largely consistent after a predictable start, and the band still retains its distinct feel from the rest of its genre. So while it's not at all any sort of comeback album, the hype is deserved, this has always been a worthy East Coast thrash band throughout most of its incarnations and stylistic shifts, with only 1-2 sub-par studio offerings in the earlier 2000s, long since compensated for with much stronger determination, tapping into the core, urban fundamentals while streamlining them for an audience of today.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Megadeth - The Sick, the Dying... and the Dead! (2022)

Is there some Secret Society of Highly Skilled Metal Musicians somewhere with the express purpose of joining Megadeth? I understand the band's a huge draw with a strong discography behind it, but it just seems like there's this endless carousel spinning around where Dave can summon up the most qualified candidates. This time it's Belgian dynamo Dirk Verbeuren joining on the drums, and though something like this thrash band must seem like a cakewalk for his capabilities, he's yet another guarantee, along with Kiko Loureiro, that Mustaine wants the very best for his recordings and for his fans. Oh yeah, toss in Steve DiGiorgio on bass for this album just for safety's sake, and you know it's all in good hands.

Now, none of these guys are exactly busting the seams on their individual instrumental prowess here, but instead playing to the level of the material, and that's once again competent and wholly aware of the past strengths that got them this far. Like Dystopia before it, The Sick, the Dying... and the Dead! feels like it treads on a sideways path from a Rust in Peace or Countdown to Extinction, not exactly surpassing those recording in songwriting quality, but doing some justice to the speed and finesse the band possessed when breaking those new grounds 30+ years ago. There are riffs flying all over the place, a lot of them (as in "Night Stralkers" or "Killing Time") feeling just a whiff familiar, but putting their own permutations on the pre-existing patterns, spinning them off into a few new melodic hooks here, a decent lead there, and just enough memorable writing to compel a fan to repeated listens without any stinkers to sift through.

Like Dystopia, it's very consistent, with a good degree of variation, a band seemingly still in the prime of their youth. Dave's vocals might not have the exact melodic potential that he used to, but I think he covers that up more here than on the previous album, and if you told me this was him in 1994-1995 I'd buy that. Kiko's beautiful shredding pokes through in places, but never shifting Megadeth back towards his alma mater Angra, while Verbeuren and DiGiorgio make the rest sound easy. The production here is super clean and effective, with a little less punch to the rhythm guitars than some past efforts, but it's all so meticulously balanced, between everything from the cascading leads to an Ice T guest vocal. There's also just so much speed here, I don't know if I can scientifically calculate it across all their albums, but they're performing on average at the most agile clip since those early 90s, and the mainstream slowdown years now just seem like a memory.

At the same time, the songs here don't individually stand out for me as much as albums like Endgame or even Dystopia, so this whole album just feels like checking the stew to see if it's still boiling up correctly, and on target for a fabulous meal. If Megadeth is capable of this in 2022, there's really no limit going forward until Dave is literally having to put together albums from a hospital bed or beneath a headstone. There's a version of this with a cover of Sammy Hagar's "This Planet's On Fire (Burn in Hell)", and they even manage to give that number a swift kick in the ass and make it sound as fiery and thriving as ever. There is nothing sick, dying nor dead about The Sick, the Dying... and the Dead!, and if nothing else, if not a standout against all the hits the band has generated, it's a veritable Fountain of Youth, Vic striding through its dystopian cover landscape as confident as ever, much like the performances here.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Megadeth - Dystopia (2016)

I have at least two friends that consider Dystopia to be one of the best albums Megadeth has ever written, and while I can't go anywhere near that far, it certainly could be heard as heralding a second resurgence, a 'third wind' for the band after 2011's middling Th1rt3en and lamentable Super Collider from 2013. The band really gets back to some thrashing basics here, with a small bump in energy and inspiration from the adding of Angra's Kiko Loureiro to the lineup, a master who would bring both an elevated level to the lead guitars as well as the rhythm/songwriting, which he does contribute to this album. Despite the delicate, intricate touches of his alma mater though, make no mistake, this might just be the heaviest Megadeth record, armed with a lot of two-fisted, chugging thrash, intense session drumming from the beast Chris Adler, and Mustaine's desperate sociopolitical lyrics, which all certainly help the album live up to its name.

Sadly, this is the sort of modern thrash that often enters through one ear and immediately exits the other. Everything about it functions on a surface level, and the rhythmic, palm-muted bombardment has a few new tricks up its sleeve like in "Foreign Policy" or the quick lurching grooves of "Fatal Illusion", and they're all slathered in the sorts of seasoned leads that Mustaine and Loureiro can provide, with some breaks towards classic Megadeth speed (like the end of "Fatal Illusion" which recalled "Five Magics"). It's not even that the tunes are catchy in the moment, but perhaps it's just that the band had already created such an elaborate lexicon that few of these really stand about the shoulders of their elder siblings. The performances are off the chart, with Ellefson's bass lines giving the frightening guitar talents a run for their money, and Adler's power unquestionable as it drives the tunes harder than anyone has ever done before him. Mustaine's voice certainly feels its age, and he often sticks with a more mid-pitch grumble, but on a few tunes he'll flex that upper range and it still sounds melodic and effective, just with a bit more gravel to it.

The backing vocal arrangements are also quite nice here, like the counterpoints on "Death from Within" and the smooth descending harmonies on "Poisonous Shadows", a track that probably best exhibits Kiko's neo-classical input into its structure. But a few 'perk-up' moments aside, like the rhythmic groove in the bridge of "The Emperor", one of my fave tracks here, so much of the riffing just feels as if I've heard it all before, and it doesn't always congeal into songs that are going to stick around in the brain like they once did in the 80s. Dystopia is clearly a proficient, effective return to form after the miserable record that preceded it, and has enough going for it to fire up an entire next generation of Megadeth fans who hopefully would go back and check out the classic era, while also letting the old heads breathe sighs of relief that Dave still has his finger on the pulse of what makes his band so great, but it's rarely blowing me away like it could have with the teamwork of these four players.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Megadeth - United Abominations (2007)

United Abominations ushers in the 'Drover' era of the band, with Dave picking up brothers Glen and Shawn from the consistent Canadian power/thrashers Eidolon, about as perfect a fit that he was going to find from that scene north of the border outside of drafting Jeff Waters of Annihilator into the fold (which I still think should happen). The duo lends an instant seriousness and edge to the material which catapults this record right back to what might have been a follow-up for Rust in Peace, not that the riffs ever reach that same level of immortal, blazing catchiness, but this is clearly the product of much more effort than almost anything in the 15 years before it, with any cobwebs shaken out of the joints and the band sounding, I daresay it, 'young' again.

That's not to say it's the 'best' material in that timespan, but it joins the records sandwiching it as a sort of 'second wind' for Megadeth. Dave's vocal soar over the opener "Sleepwalker", as he shifts between a melody and more of his snarling, sneery attitude through the verses, with a busy lattice of thrash riffing and lead-work below that holds your attention, occasionally giving me a "Take No Prisoners" vibe. And it doesn't really apply the breaks, ever, I mean there's plenty of variation in tempo, but like its predecessor The System Has Failed, there's no real wimping out to honor some midlife crisis or emotional side of the creator's ego. A few tracks here don't work for me, like the title track on which the chorus of the title sounds a little obvious, repetitive and lame. Or "Amerikhastan" which also had some cheesy sounding vocals and political raving, not that I necessarily disagree with all his points but it just comes off in that cringeworthy "Sweating Bullets" intonation at some points.

The decision to revisit "A tout le monde" is also a strange one, though comparing this with the original from Youthanasia, it's got more pep and energy, lacking that version's darker, drearier mood. But both of them do fit within their surrounding track-list and production style, even though I don't need the guest vocals from Christina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil, and I'm half-wondering if that affected the decision to re-record it, because they needed a tune she should contribute to? Probably not. However, I'd rather have included the cover of Zeppelin's "Out on the Tiles", a bonus track from other releases of the disc, which is pretty well-rendered, although not as kinetic as the version Toxik did on their 1989 masterwork Think This. If there's one other complaint, I still don't think the bass playing is where it needs to be, because it lacks Dave Ellefson. James LoMenzo joins in here, coming over from various Zakk Wylde projects, and he's certainly a decent presence, but he just lacks that strength in his lines which could complement and even rival Mustaine in places; he's just a solid support.

For me, United Abominations is probably the weakest of the 'trilogy' in this particular Megadeth surge, since I thought the tunes on the glorified solo album The System Has Failed were catchier, and Endgame triggers all the Rust in Peace nostalgia in all the right ways. That said, it's still largely a quality album, and the one of the three that most feels like it could have had an original release in the 90s after Rust and Countdown. There are definitely some subtle callbacks, when you're listening to a tune her and remembering enough, for instance some of the low end in "You're Dead" brought back thoughts of the thrash/groove in "Architecture of Aggression", or the other I mentioned earlier, but no real direct rip-offs. It's a decent one, the Drover brothers were definitely the right guys for the job, and that would become even more apparent two years later.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, February 19, 2024

Megadeth - The System Has Failed (2004)

The System Has Failed has an immediate punching weight to it that grabs your attention, which is all the more refreshing after a decade of doddering, listless albums that might not all have sucked, but could never cross the finish line. Even more compelling is that it's effectively a Dave Mustaine solo album with the Megadeth brand slapped onto it, a slew of guests joining in to fill out necessary roles like keyboards and the 'character' voices that lend some intensity to the subjects through the roles of newscasters, politicians, etc. In retrospect, what would really have been the difference? It sounds a hell of a lot like it could have been a natural successor to Youthanasia, and if I'm putting together a playlist for this band sometimes I pretend it's exactly that.

This one sets up by repeatedly clubbing you over the head with tasty riffs, often on a similar ballistic arc to the 'heavier' bits of Youthanasia, but it also hasn't abandoned some of the poppier sensibilities the band had started to explore 10 years before it. Thankfully, this manifests in some symphonic flirtations which complement a few of the tracks rather than obfuscating the metallic elements, or some smooth vocal harmonies that lend an eeriness to tracks like "Die Dead Enough" or "The Scorpion". The album is never peppered with a bunch of ballads or country nonsense, something you might expect from a Mustaine solo project after he'd previously dabbled with it. No, all the tunes here are varying shades of rock, from the more aggressive cuts reflective of the band's history, to something like "Something That I'm Not" that launches with a Zeppelin-like rhythm, or the moody, narrative "Shadow of Deth" with its melancholic, slow leads and strictly spoken word vocal inclusions.

Few of the tracks can even hope to rival the top tier Megadeth hits of the past, but with the exception of the aimless political ditty "I Know Jack", whose riffs would have been better spent elsewhere, this is one I can sit through in its entirety without much regret. The production is quite polished, but doesn't leech away from the grooves or intensity of the riffs. I actually liked how the synths presented here in tunes like "Back in the Day", they feel like you're sitting at a ball game and the organ/keys erupt and thus amplify the material rather than trying to consistently take over. The leads also sound really great throughout, and I know Chris Poland popped in to contribute which is fun, not only because of his skills, but because you know on some level there was some reconciliation, even if he's serving as more of a mercenary for the recording. The session drums and bass are adequate, though Dave Ellefson's presence is clearly missed, and will stay missed for several more albums.

Regardless of whatever it's original purpose was, The System Has Failed brought a little faith back to me that Dave Mustaine could pen a coherent set of tunes which I could keep coming back for. Don't get me wrong, I am almost never choosing this over the first six, but if I'm willing to reach for something a little fresher from the bench, this one can join the rotation, and it also spurred off a little Renaissance in the quality of the full-length Megadeth studio efforts.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, February 16, 2024

Megadeth - Rude Awakening (2002)

By the time this album arrived, I had already seen Megadeth a couple times in the live setting, so there wasn't any real sense of anticipation to hear how it would come off on the stage. When I watched Sabbat's The End of the Beginning VHS tape, for instance, that was a band I had longed for and thus became more satisfied for all its flaws to at least get the chance to see them. Here on Rude Awakening, two whole discs of live material (and to their credit, they gave it almost two decades before dumping this sort of release onto their fandom), it feels competent but slightly dialed in, probably with some studio overdubs, and not all that high energy despite a considerable two hours and 24 tracks that cover the good chunk of their career. Still, The World Needs a Hero lineup manages not to cock up the classics, and that means something.

Right away I can tell you that I'm not interested in the inclusion of material from the three studio LPs before this, but it was inevitable since that is what they were touring on. I loved hearing "Angry Again" here, but I would have much rather had "Go to Hell" or "99 Ways to Die" on the track list above "Trust" and "Almost Honest". Still, they unleash a nice trio of "Symphony of Destruction", "Peace Sells" and "Holy Wars" at the end of the double-album which is probably what any crowd would want, and you get some of my favorites like "Tornado of Souls", "Hook in Mouth", "Devils' Island" and "Wake Up Dead" among the choices, so the bulk of this is rock fucking solid. Dave sounds pretty great, you get some of the flaws or imperfections in his pitch, but they only add to the personality. Considering that you have Dave and Al Pitrelli, I think the guitars sounds a little on the wimpy side, like when a lead breaks out there doesn't feel like the rhythm guitar offers much support. The drums are steady and I can make out the bass well enough, but even though I like the general 'airiness' of the recording, I think a little more punch and power to the instruments would have improved my rating.

Overall, though, if you had been waiting almost two decades to wander down to your record store and buy a proper Megadeth live offering, I don't think this one would disappoint you much, they sound tight enough and offer you a robust selection of tracks from their whole history, leaving only a few noted obscurities behind and 3-4 awesome Rust in Peace tunes that would have been better than anything off the more contemporary studio material for the time. This one doesn't approach the timeless annals of a Live After Death, No Sleep 'til Hammersmith or Unleashed in the East, but it's professional enough not to totally waste your money. As for the cover art, a fun image, but I feel like it would have been better on an actual studio outing...say you switch the random person for Vic Rattlehead, include the logo along the opposing building, here it feels thrown away, and I don't get the point. There's nothing rude or offensive or even explosive about how this sounds, instead it's practiced and rigid.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Megadeth - The World Needs a Hero (2001)

The World Needs a Hero is certainly not among the stronger albums Megadeth have released these last 40 years, but it's at least a step back towards a more decidedly metal direction, and kicks the shit out of its predecessor. To me, the production and songwriting here seems like a shift towards Countdown to Extinction, with perhaps a bit of the more accessible flourishes of Youthanasia, but at the same time there are riffs and structures here that feel fresher for the canon, grooves and ideas that were relatively well-developed. Jimmy DeGrasso had joined on drums for the previous album, but this was Al Pitrelli's debut in the lineup, and though I'm not ever going to be sure of the level of his input here, he brings a slightly different feel playing alongside Dave. It's also his only studio full-length in the fold, the rest of his tenure was live albums and compilations, so it's not like you're going to get a chance to settle in with his contributions.

This one is mixed slickly, reminding me a of a mix of Cryptic Writings and Countdown to Extinction, very mainstream and poppy but also a little digitized in the crunch of the rhythm guitars. There are also a few tracks which I found embarrassing, like the acoustic country/folk track "Coming Home" which goes all in on its rustic persuasions, and is honestly probably not bad for that style, but I'm just not into it, whether it's Bon Jovi or Dave Mustaine crossing genres. "Promises" is likewise akward, this is just not a ballad band, I'm sorry. "Moto Psycho" might be the real nadir here, though, an extremely goofy tune driven by mediocre riffs and really lame chorus; I remember this was one of the singles off the album, the first I heard and couldn't even believe how dumb it was, even just the title. The other acoustic stuff here is a mixed bag, like the setup in "Recipe for Hate...Warhorse", and his spoken word vocals made me cringe a little, but at least it has some good bass lines. The rest of the tracks are passable if not terribly exciting, slightly stronger than Cryptic Writings on a one-for-one basis, realizing that is not saying much. The truly blazing and unforgettable speed/thrash riffs are still evading this material, though there is clearly a sense that the band wants to ramp back up to that.

This even comes through on their own self-nostalgia so we get a "Return to Hangar", which is not even a fraction as memorable as the original off Rust in Peace, but thematically and stylistically it at least consistent, though it does sink so low as to ape lyrics and such, a pretty shallow way to handle a sequel, like trying to sell us an Expendables movie in which Arnold Schwarzenegger just rehashes his old one liners instead of coming up with new ones. That could never happen, could it? Well yeah, and it doesn't really come off any better here than it does on those songs where veteran bands just list previous song titles in the lyrics. On the flipside, the opening duo of "Disconnect" and the title track were at least solid enough to reassert my relationship to their style, and the lengthy closer "When" is probably my favorite with the acoustics, an atmospheric mid-pacer which might sound eerily familiar to "Am I Evil?", sans being a proper cover like Dave's alma mater put out in their early years.

Ultimately, this one suffers from the inconsistent quality of the tracks, and still has a few lingering olive branches it's trying to make with a more mainstream realm, which are totally unnecessary as they always have been, but in some cases aren't executed too poorly. There's a chunk of material I could live without, but still around 30-40 of passable mid-tier Megadeth which if nothing else shows a slight determination to get back on the bull, just a mechanical bull at the bar, on a low setting, with one or two friends raising a beer bottle to you, rather than a bucking wild animal in front of a crazed live audience. The cover art is also real shitty, Vic the Chestburster must have looked better on paper than in execution

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Megadeth - Cryptic Writings (1997)

Cryptic Writings was hardly the abrupt faceplant many of our favorite bands had experienced across the decades, but it was nonetheless a massive disappointment for me, and almost immediately cut off my interest in whatever was going on in the Mustaine camp. Even today, as I put this thing back on to cover it, I could barely remember any of the individual tracks, despite numerous attempts through the years. By 1997, there was a lot more going on with metal music, it was starting to 'pick up' again with the progress of death and black metal, power metal was also starting to gather some momentum internationally, and though thrash wouldn't see it's proper resurgence for another decade, a few of the acts were still hanging on where they could.

So an album that largely consists of lukewarm offerings in the Youthanasia style wasn't going to cut it, especially since they were just nowhere near as catchy as on that underrated work. I will say that this album is really well produced, they'd largely cemented themselves into this mid-paced rock style and everything is presented clean and potent. The bass grooves, the acoustics, the rhythm tone, the drums all sound as slick and bacteria-free as whatever pop plastic you were pumping into your CD player at the time. Mustaine's vocals are restrained here, and he's starting to bark out lines that feel like repetitions off previous albums, especially the last two, but he still sounds good, and there's only a little bit of cringe here, his more manic lines like the counter-vocals in "Mastermind" are actually well implemented, and in the goofy backyard barbeque rocker "Have Cool, Will Travel" he actually soars. I'll also say that whenever this record picks up the intensity, like the later-Coroner grooves of that very track, or the flightier fits of speed metal in "The Disintegrators", "Vortex" or "She-Wolf", it gets a lot more fun to experience, but even then they rarely have a chorus payoff that can contend with their greats.

Yes, there's more velocity in places than Youthanasia, so the band doesn't seem entirely committed to phoning in the performances of their limbs, but there are single tracks on Hidden Treasures that are better than anything throughout this whole playtime. They threaten a few power ballads, but always throw in a few heavier hooks to balance them out. Unfortunately this still ends up with some dull tunes like "Use the Man", which has a semi-Western vibe to it but never really hits you with a cross hook of surprise catchiness. "I'll Get Even" fares a little better, but it might as well be a Phil Collins song if you didn't hear Dave's distinct voice. They may have taken the watered down approach a little far here, but also seem to have a little identity crisis as they head back in earlier directions, just lacking the same level of songwriting quality or finesse. It's not a total dud, and pleasant enough to throw on in the background since Mustaine's melodic sneer still demands a modicum of attention...

Hell, compared to the shit show that would follow it two years after, this could be deemed a masterpiece. But Cryptic Writings is clearly, at least to me, the point at which the levee had broken and the flood of mediocrity had started to enter the band's trajectory. It would also be Nick Menza's last with the band, not a high note to end that best known lineup with.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Megadeth - Hidden Treasures (1995)

Hidden Treasures was the last 'cool' Megadeth release before a steady decline in quality of their output for around 14-15 years. Yes, they held out longer than Metallica, whose ascent into vast commercial success came at the cost of creative bankruptcy, and to me they even outlived Slayer, who cease to be relevant for me after 1990 with the exception of popular live performances and an adequate track or two. Is that revenge enough for Dave, who was once thrown from the ranks of what would become the biggest metal band ever? I think on some level, it must be. Granted, this is not a proper studio album, but a collection of odds and ends from soundtracks and tributes that I appreciate because they're not all readily available without bailing out loads of extra cash. Industry: this is how you do a fan compilation correctly!

And I won't lie, even if it's not a 'proper' full-length, I enjoy Hidden Treasures more than any of the albums they have release since, with the exception of Endgame. Though it's not all recorded at the same time, a lot of the material here is quite consistent with the production and songwriting level on Rust in Peace, Countdown to Extinction, and Youthanasia. It's also a lot more ferocious than the album before it, with Dave sounding a lot nastier, the instruments flexing their muscles more, and as much as I did enjoy Youthanasia, this presented a nice snapback, even though I'd already heard most of the songs...hell, these days I think I've even got all of these films on Blu-Ray or DVD, including the crappy old Super Mario Bros. flick which my sons demanded for the collection. So you could say I was in the 'target' audience to experience a lot of these on the big screen, from the cheesy slasher Shocker to Last Action Hero to the Beavis & Butthead Experience. In some cases, the Megadeth tracks were the best parts of the movies, and while the cover choices here are hardly obscure, something like "No More Mr. Nice Guy" is the perfect vehicle for Dave Mustaine to capture his attitude like a fly to the amber of his influences.

But the originals are where this really shines..."99 Ways to Die" is a song I fell in love with the first time I heard it, with the amazing riffs in the verse and the acoustic bridge that leads to one of their most memorable chorus riff/vocal tag-teams ever. "Breakpoint" feels like an exercise in the groovy speed thrash of their Rust in Peace era, "Angry Again" is a cruise control thrasher which wouldn't have felt out of place on their 1992-1994 releases, and "Go to Hell" also has its moments. The one exception for me is the closer "Problems", the previously unheard track which channels a lot of shitty hard rock or blues vibes into a slightly more crunchy thrash riff or two, with a lame punk-like chorus. Both the Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper covers are decent, though, so I just have to end my listens to this about four minutes 'early' so that the experience stays consistent. You can't win 'em all, but I still hold Hidden Treasures as a sort of precipice beyond which there is a rather steep plummet to oblivion. Will they fall straight off the edge to their doom, or maybe grab a lifeline to halt their descent?

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, February 12, 2024

Megadeth - Youthanasia (1994)

Megadeth was clearly one of those 'too big to fail' sort of metal bands that had established enough of a presence by the 90s that they weren't going to necessarily be ended by all the grunge, nu metal and alternative rock exploding in popularity, but that doesn't mean they weren't going to undergo some sort of shift with the times. Like their peers, they sought a simplification and safety net, a more mainstream presence without the abandonment of their genre, and Youthanasia sounds exactly like that: a streamlining of Countdown to Extinction with a lot of that same sort of processed sound, less riffs per track, and a huge focus on standard rock song structure and choruses. This was clearly The Black Album or The Ritual for Mustaine and crew, only a couple years later, and I'm sure it was a jumping off point for a lot of disenchanted 'first four' purists.

Remarkably, Youthanasia works, and it works really damn well, Megadeth more than capable of strapping themselves into this simpler style and writing songs that still matter. There are still a good number of catchy, heavy riffs, as in opener "Reckoning Day" or "Black Curtains", it's just that the band is no longer focused on maintaining the dizzying velocity or complexity of a Rust in Peace. The hooks are just as big, but they're steadily treading towards the glorious, heartfelt chorus sections in tunes like "Addicted to Chaos" or one of my favorites, "Blood of Heroes" (no relation to the underrated Rutger Hauer dystopian combat sport flick, I'm afraid). There are still a few moments that flirt with the up-tempo, as in the palm muted sprints of "Train of Consequences", but this is really just 50 minutes of controlled momentum, cool leads, and riffs with more pent up power than finesse. Dave's vocals manage not to irritate me anywhere here like they did on "Sweating Bullets", and it's clear he is incorporating as much melody to his pitch as possible, though it's just not in his nature to lose that sneering, lip-curling edge.

Acoustic guitars return, like the atmospheric intro to "Blood of Heroes" or "A Tout le Monde", which is probably the closest thing to a proper power ballad the band had released by this point, but still relies mostly on rock chords. Ellefson, Menza and Friedman might feel underused throughout this selection, because the minimalized structure of the songs doesn't require much of them, yet the bass tone still sounds pretty strong throughout, the drumming suits the more commercial/hard rock vibe, and Marty will make almost anything sound good, from a cartoon jingle to a metal lead. In fact, though I'm sure it took some effort to craft tracks this catchy, Youthanasia must have felt like a vacation on the band's appendages, it's never dialed in but it's certainly not taxing upon the anatomy. Production-wise, this sounds like a slightly slicker Countdown to Extinction, the rhythm guitars are smoother in tone and lack much of the bite other than the few harder hitting tracks I mentioned above. All the instruments are balanced well and allow Dave's pipes, the most taxed body part on this album, the shine...and they do.

No real stinkers here, so you might argue that this is the most consistent Megadeth album outside of Rust in Peace, even if it's consistent on a more subdued level. The riffs don't often dazzle me, but they are all pretty memorable in how they service their respective tracks, even "I Thought I Knew It All", in which the slowly pumping verse reminds me a lot of something off The Black Album. Ironically, while this album didn't move a fraction of what Metallica did with their colossal, catchy sellout, this album holds up more for me, there's nothing which has been overkilled to the point that I no longer want to hear it ("Enter Sandman", "The Unforgiven", etc). I still think I like The Ritual the most of these sorts of West Coast watering-downs, but I realize I am alone in that opinion, and that's not to take away from how timeless and rock-solid Youthanasia remains. Hell, I even like this and return to it more than a few of their 80s efforts, but at the same time, this is also the end of the Golden Age of Megadeth for me, with one small exception.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, February 9, 2024

Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction (1992)

Rust in Peace is not an album you can really 'follow up', but since that had secured Megadeth on such an upward trajectory of popularity, they were certainly going to try, and I credit Countdown to Extinction for not only achieving the highest level of commercial success the band would experience, but also for not entirely cocking up the evolution that led to its creation, and not dishonoring its predecessors. It's not immediately evident with the first track that this is going to be a more accessible, polished and radio-friendly effort, but by the time it's over, I was left with that impression. Thankfully, most of the songwriting here is strong enough that I couldn't care, because there are still plenty of catchy tracks that would end up on any career playlist I could assemble.

The first three tracks are actually kick-ass, with "Skin 'O My Teeth" really tapping into the band's frenetic speed metal roots. "Symphony of Destruction" might come off painfully simple compared to Rust in Peace, but it's understandable why this became one of their biggest radio singles, and how it would actually foreshadow the following album Youthanasia with the mid pacing crunch, vocal effects, and focus on an excellent chorus. "Architecture of Aggression" is perhaps the highlight of the album for me, one of my favorite Megadeth songs, with some really amazing thrash breakdowns and leads, especially at the 2 minute mark, and a vibe that definitely could have placed it on the Rust in Peace roster. It's after this point where the results become a little more mixed. The band tries some acoustics on "Foreclosure of a Dream" and "Captive Honour", the former carrying a country vibe, but both do result in some solid metal riffing and emotional payoffs in the vocals. The closer, "Ashes in Your Mouth", is another personal favorite because it gives me a bit of a "Five Magics" vibe, at any rate it would also not have been out of place on either of the two albums before it.

There is some cheese present, however, in particular "Sweating Bullets", a song in which Dave's more conversational vocals really sound cringe and goofy despite the song having a solid, bluesy shuffle behind it. I just can't listen to this one and not feel uncomfortable, and there are a few lines elsewhere on the album ("Psychotron", "Captive Honour") that continue this trend. I thought the ship really sailed on this silly style after the title track to Peace Sells, so I tend to skip it as I'm listening through. Other than these few things, though, it's a pretty tight record. The instruments are reined in due to the more commercial nature of the material, but there are still quality leads throughout, and I wouldn't call any of it 'dumbed down' since there is still the potential to explode lurking around many of the corners of the album. Dave's voice is still pretty confident, but there are just those moments where he is getting a little too comfy with the crumb-sucking and lip-curling sneers and they sound kind of stupid against the more machine-like persistence of the music.

Production also feels more punchy, processed and digital, lacking the grace and packed power of Rust in Peace, and I question why they went this route when they clearly must have had the budget to replicate that one. But again, I'm outnumbered here, because this record sold gangbusters and for a lot of folks might have been their first exposure. Many compare to The Black Album, but I think I'd save that for Youthanasia, or Testament's underrated The Ritual, both of which strive more towards those heavy metal basics, that minimalism which might presumably reach a broader audience, for better or worse. There is still plenty of finesse here, and I listen to it as often or more than the debut or So Far, So Good, So What!; just a few songs that slack behind others, a production that seems a step below where they had been, and a handful of awkward vocal lines that could have been cut from the finished product.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Megadeth - Rust in Peace (1990)

When I often think of my favorite bands or albums, I notice a prevailing thread that runs through them; they've each created their own 'language' or musical voice that is entirely distinct and capable of being picked out from a lineup of peers. Sometimes this runs the course of their entire career, for example Voivod, a band that has maintained its unique, alien nature throughout numerous stylistic shifts, or others like Enslaved and Borknagar, who have kept their Viking philosophies through the black metal roots into more progressive or folk leanings. Other times it's down to a single record...for instance, Artillery's By Inheritance, with its charging, fraternal, melodic thrashing interchange which might have its DNA in the earlier records, but hasn't quite been replicated since, or Deathrow's brilliant Deception Ignored, totally standout even against the rest of their discography, a cautionary, clinical, consistent orchestra of technical thrash.

Rust in Peace is the point at which Megadeth mastered its own 'language'. Killing is My Business... was the equivalent of cave paintings, Peace Sells... started refining that onto written scrolls, but it was 1990 when the speed metal monks started transcribing it into a complete text, one as timeless as the Bible for any hesher in the congregation. I know several individuals who consider this the greatest metal album of all time, and while I might not go that far, it's difficult to pose an argument. 39 of its 41 minutes are total thrash perfection, taking all the techniques and ambition of its predecessors to new heights of riff quality, melody and musicianship. This is especially poignant as a contrast to So Far, So Good, So What!, an album that certainly had its moments, but felt misguided and transitional, where Rust in Peace moves in almost complete lockstep. Part of this is the roster quality, as Nick Menza and shred god Marty Friedman joined the ranks, creating what is even today considered the band's premiere lineup, along with the two Daves who have proven here that they are both incredible writers and players that rivaled anyone in the genre at this point.

The result: magnificence. Skip a rock across the heads of the rock radio-fed masses in your vicinity, and you'll strike quite a few people who know the epic "Holy Wars...The Punishment Due" or the more accessible, Roswell tribute "Hangar 18", but Rust in Peace is an incredibly deep record with amazing hooks and interesting lyrical fare. The speed and precision of the licks are on a new plateau, but there's always a lot of melody and emotion, explosive and complex chorus sequences in tunes like "Tornado of Souls" or "Five Magics". Dave's vocals are at a career high, and he manages to balance off some of that sneering attitude ("Rust in Peace...Polaris") with a little vulnerability. While the thrashing edge of the material is fully fresh for its time, even so late in the trending niche as 1990 was, there's always a pretty direct lineage to the classic British heavy/speed metal like the breakout riff in "Poison Was the Cure" which reminds me of groups like Satan, just taken to a new level (for the time, anyway). Or the burning grooves in the verse to "Lucretia". Tradition tempered with progression, packed with new ideas, or stretching older ideas to their limits.

The playing is out of control, and yet entirely under control, with so many notes flying around in cuts like "Holy Wars..." or "Take No Prisoners" that you could get dizzy. And I did. Melodic and mean at the same time, I remember sitting in stunned silence trying to emulate as many of the riffs as I could back in my teens when I was only about 3-4 years into playing the guitar myself. It's no wonder that this became such a guitar hero album, worshiped in countless magazines. Add to this some of the best bass playing on any metal album in history, complementing the Mustaine/Friedman interchange with ease, and often standing ABOVE them, and Nick Menza's performance which was taut and flexible, but also knew not to try and challenge the incredible guitar work flying above it. Another point I'd make is that the leads here were far superior to the three albums before it, they were finally becoming the sorts of earworms that could match the rhythms and become a pleasure to listen to on their own. Production is also a highlight...Rust in Peace does not sound a day older to me now than when I first heard it. Clean, vivacious, youthful, but still anchored by a steady low-end that still thumps in my speakers.

Now it's not a popular opinion, but the one thing that holds this record back from perfection for me is "Dawn Patrol", a sort of spoken/whispered word piece over some fat bass lines and a beat. It's not that the band is goofing off, there's a serious message here, and Ellefson's bass is pretty good, but I just don't think it really goes anywhere, and seems rather abrupt and out of place. Whereas the amazing bass intro to "Poison Was the Cure" really offers a lot of payoff once the guitars arrive, this one doesn't, and I've often taken "Dawn Patrol" off my playlist in iTunes and gone straight from "Tornado of Souls" into the finale title track and then it all felt 100%. Again, there's nothing terribly wrong with it, but I think it would have been stronger as an intro for a full-length track, maybe on a later album. As it stands it's just a little bit of a scuff on the otherwise flawless paint-job that is Rust in Peace, their most iconic, and my favorite Megadeth album. The one that goes with me to the desert island, although I'd probably wait until the last minute before I bailed out Peace Sells.... You don't need me to tell you how fucking awesome this album is, it's the most fluent in a tongue which has been fairly muddled ever since.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10] (to slay all the giants)

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Megadeth - So Far, So Good... So What! (1988)

If So Far, So Good... So What? doesn't get mentioned in the same reverence as the records sandwiching it, that's probably for a good reason, because this is a strange one. It's Megadeth through and through, don't get me wrong, but the band is certainly taking more chances here than one might have anticipated, with some slower, more emotional pieces to contrast against the more intense battery, another cover that feels a little too cheesy against the originals, and a couple of cuts that don't quite get a Golden Star from the teacher. Ironically, this features a few of my favorite cuts from the band, it's just that they are not all created equally. In Megadeth's defense, they were enduring half the roster being changed out...Gar Samuelson and Chris Poland dropped for their alleged drug addiction, Chuck Behler and Jeff Young signing on board to replace them, so the idea that this would be a step up the ladder like Peace Sells... was from the debut was wishful thinking at best.

Weirdly, the issues I take here are almost the inverse of those few I had on Peace Sells... That album frontloaded all of its best material, where this time I think the opposite. The first three tunes don't exactly line up for me. "Into the Lungs of Hell" is a fine, anthemic instrumental, something more ambitious than the shorter intros like "Last Rites" or "Good Mourning", but it's a little too steady and never achieves the payoff it needs, certainly not in "Set the World Afire", a solid technical Megadeth track that once more that feels like a Peace Sells... outtake that can't quite compare. As for the Sex Pistols track, I think it does fit the band's attitude even more than those on the last two albums, but clearly this is a practice that had run its course. I realize "Anarchy in the U.K." was a limited hit, and they do slightly metalize it from the original, but not enough, and I was over this one by about the age of 16. Had it been tucked later onto the track list I might be more forgiving, but this is a skip almost every time I listen through the album the last couple decades.

That said, I REALLY like the rest of So Far, So Good...So What! "Mary Jane" and "In My Darkest Hour" are wildly successful attempts at building slower, more dramatic, accessible and melodic tracks without teetering into lame ballad territory, and they feel as poignant now in 2024 as they did in 1988, the former with plenty of the thrashing in the bridge you'd hope for, the latter having some amazing harmony hooks and perhaps the best Megadeth song to break out your lighter for. Pair these up with some superb speed metal licks on "502" and "Liar" and we're getting somewhere, but I have to talk about "Hook in Mouth", a personal favorite. I love how the crashing chords set up the bass lines and moody verses, and when it busts back into the thrash rhythm guitars around :45 I swear my puberty had achieved a new level. It's a strangely subdued track with a lot of pent-up energy, an an epic latter half where Dave's vocals just ring out under the sustained chords, a real gem with a great title that also manages to tie itself into the band's mascot.

The production on this is highly atmospheric, lots of reverb, guitars not always as bold as they were on Peace Sells..., and a lot more emotion being showcased through Dave's vocals. Perhaps natural as a response to the band's personal or lineup troubles, but it feels genuine and painful nonetheless. A few of the leads are awesome, others fail to land, but there's still a strong sense of musicianship, especially the two Daves, since the other roles felt temporary and mercenary even back then. What I take away from this is much the same as the's like a magnificent, chonky EP of material with a few extras tacked on that don't really flesh it out to a properly brilliant full-length, yet there's no question that this album also possesses its own sense of timelessness. The quirkiness and variation are interesting, and this isn't the last time a Megadeth album would take risks (ha ha), but in terms of sheer consistency or quality, records like South of Heaven, Eternal Nightmare, or The New Order send this one home on a stretcher. It had its charms...a good one to play for your girlfriend if you had one back then, and the better tracks hold up, but it can hardly shine the shoes of what would follow.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (every poem that ever was)

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Megadeth - Peace Sells...but Who's Buying? (1986)

I mentioned in my Killing is My Business... review that I really dug one of the remastered versions, but I'm the complete opposite when it comes to its follow-up. You want the original Peace Sells..., the default version and an improvement over the debut album in every category. Alright, if you PREFER the rawness, the disheveled vibe of old thrash and speed metal demos or albums, then perhaps this one came across a fraction too polished. Personally, though, I thought this record was straight fire when I first heard it and I've never changed my mind in going-on four decades. If it wasn't for one other album, this would be my favorite from Dave Mustaine, but even then it's a close match, and the sophomore is one of the most mandatory and iconic works of its genre. From the amazing Ed Repka cover art (which put the guy on the map) to the Cold War themes, the incorporation of the mascot, the bold orange and violet colors, this is not an album you look at and forget. It's also not one you could LISTEN TO and forget...

From the opening, bass-heavy grooves of "Wake Up Dead", it's almost shocking how much these four members had matured within the span of a single year. Instantly, there is more 'control' to the songwriting and performance, and while that might sound unappealing for a reckless band like Megadeth, borne on attitude and twisted sneers, they still manage to keep that personality intact. This thing is a riffing fucking juggernaut, and Randy Burns and his staff knew how to capture all the lightning in the bottle. The songs have an excellent level of variation, atmosphere and pure power, whether the band's moving steadily along or at some unbridled clip. Rhythm guitars are imbued with a lot of punch to the chords, and crunch to the palm muting patterns. Ellefson's bass lines are some of the best sounding of the era, joining others like Harris, Lemmy or Burton as an exemplar of how important the instrument should be in the medium. Strangely, Gar sounds a little more subdued than on the debut, that's not to say the beats are lacking, but it's just part of the balancing act.

The leads are quite a lot more memorable than on the debut; they've harnessed that slight sloppiness into something more defining and melodic, but they can still feel a little reckless and uncouth, and incorporate a little more harmony alongside some of the low-end thrashing (as in the bridge of the title track). Dave's vocals are also reined in for the better, the nasally mid-range adding some nasty bite and wit to some really memorable lines. In fact, I think "Peace Sells..." is the poster-child for his sense of sarcasm and socio-political critique, his pinched delivery can often prove cringe-worthy on later tracks like the awkward "Sweating Bullets", but they come off perfectly in this track, and the lyrics are truly hilarious, inspired, and 'Murica (in a good way). And so much of this is just so goddamn catchy, the first four tracks are unassailable, from the neck-stressing breakdowns of "Wake Up Dead" to the evil trot of "Devil's Island", this is how to start off an album, and I'd run these up against almost anything else in the genre when it comes to structure, pacing, and riff choice.

The 'B-side', well, not quite so much. It's funny that I have some of the same complaints as on the debut, only they are minimalized due to the sheer momentum of the band's musical maturity. For example, I don't care much about the "Good Mourning..." intro, with its clean guitars and lead, but it's at least better at setting a mood than "Last Rites" on the previous album. Also, there's the obligatory cover, this time Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious", and unlike "These Boots", they are playing this one a little closer to the feels like a bar cover by a couple metal musicians, but until they get to the nether regions of the track, they don't really metalize it at all, and even then it's too late. Then again, "My Last Words" is quite good, and there's a case where the acoustic/bass intro really shines. "Bad Omen" seems like a largely instrumental flex, but a decent one, and "Black Friday" probably dominates this deeper part of the track list, it far exceeds its intro half with those churning little rhythms during the verses.

Because of these small B-side missteps (at least for me), Peace Sells... doesn't quite reach the perfection of the albums Megadeth's two West Coast peers put out in the same year. Yes, it's basically up against my two favorite metal albums of all time, in the same genre, from the SAME fucking State! Uncanny, but to be fair to Dave and the boys, this album really does hold its own, it's one I am constantly listening back to, and the many positives almost completely obfuscate its few flaws. Within a span of months, Mustaine had already manifest into the metal godhood for which he was destined, and what a joy it is to have been around then, to have heard this when it first came out, and grown up with it. Worth every penny, worth every drop of nostalgia, and a triumphant evolution that doesn't cede any of the band's intensity other than sounding like the product of a studio and not a shack.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (Just not your kind)

Monday, February 5, 2024

Megadeth - Killing is My Business...and Business is Good! (1985)

Say what you will about the drama with Metallica that birthed this band, its status as arguably the most high profile 'revenge act' in metal, or the long and problematic history of one David Scott Mustaine. Even at a young age for me, it was obvious that this dude was going to make huge waves, not only for his distinction and talent as a guitarist, but the aura of sheer attitude that always surrounded him. From junior high to the real deal, he was one of the most often discussed musicians in the genre among not only my metal fan peers, but a larger audience of hard rock and glam fans whose underground dive went about as far as...Megadeth. So as I cover this debut, I'm not going to kick up a stink about what riff was taken from where, who wrote what, but just the work as it stands alone, and then maybe some meta-comparisons to Dave's alma mater.

Killing is My Business... was a fun, energized kick in the ass that was also a bit of a clutter, but excels when it hits its more accurate stride. While it exhibits a lot of the same roots as peers like Kill 'Em All or Show No Mercy, British-influenced heavy metal dirtied up in technique and meted out with a far nastier disposition, Dave's unique writing and riffing shines as something that you really hadn't heard on either of those seminal West Coast works. He's got a lot more game on the higher strings, and there's also a lot more of a hyper-bluesy groove on tracks like the titular "Killing", which certainly existed on tracks like "Jump in the Fire" or "The Antichrist", but it's in service to more complex, flashy rhythm guitars that characterize this band's sense of excess and indulgence. In many ways, this album serves as a prototype to one that you'd certainly have heard half a decade later, the same sense of finesse and momentum, but here the ore is just less processed and refined. Still, Dave in particular turned a lot of heads with this material, just because he was one of the most lethal six-stringers around at the time.

Now the leads here from Mustaine and Poland don't fare for me as well as the riffs themselves; they have that loose, frilly feel that you'd associate with Slayer and other early thrash bands, but even there I'm barely remembering the patterns or how they ever quite elevate anything else. They're functional and raw, but too straight-to-the-face with little payoff. It's the rhythm guitars that impress, but also the furious rhythm section, with some of David Eleffson's loosest and most effective playing mooring the whole production with a darker bottom end. Revisiting this once again, I have to say that I am also pretty floored by Gar Samuelson's work here, he's hitting the kit so hard that I feel like certain drums are about to fall off the thing, and yet it's well-controlled and pretty intense for 1985 with some nice kick and loads of strong fills. Mustaine's voice itself is already formed as a more nasally and angsty alternative to Hetfield's control, thriving in both that gravely constipated mid-pitch as well as the higher howls.

As far as the songs, I do think that not all the transitions are created equal, and occasionally there's a smidgeon of that clunkiness which can simply come with inexperience. For example I don't think the album starts out on its best foot...once "Loved to Deth" gets going, it has some magnificent riffs in between the verses, but the lurching rhythm of the verse itself seems a mess, and I also thought the "Last Rites" piano and guitar intro was really forgettable and the two don't complement each other in succession. That said, there is certainly foreshadowing in this track for betters to come, and once you get more into the 'meat' of the album, things become more consistent. "Killing...", "The Skull Beneath the Skin", "Rattlehead", "Chosen Ones", the atmospheric "Looking Down the Cross", and "Mechanix" make for quite a kickass 20-25 minutes, each of them also giving me prototype vibes in retrospect, but the opener doesn't always click with me, and I couldn't care less about the Nancy Sinatra cover beyond the fact that it does at least viably offer you that in a speed metal context. To be fair, it doesn't stand out too sorely from the originals, but it's a little goofy and unnecessary here. It's not nearly as cool as covering "Am I Evil?"...I had to say it.

So how does this hold up to the debut of Dave's previous associates? It's certainly more ambitious and advanced, even two years out, where Kill 'Em All toiled with its NWOBHM roots a little less glaringly as it began transmuting them into thrash. This was something more charged-up. Fresher. However, I've come to love every second of that 1983 masterpiece, it's one of my favorite Metallica records, whereas this one seems less consistent and something I'm less apt to revisit, especially if the choice is against some of Megadeth's later 80s material. It's certainly iconic, with the great cover photograph that introduces us to Vic Rattlehead, and belongs in a fan's collection, most of the tracks have plenty of rewarding replay value, but it's just not as seamless and developed as its successor. Also, perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I actually prefer The Final Kill remaster that dropped about a decade ago, I just dig the balance of the more muscular rhythm tone and vocals a little more than on this, but then again, that's not a deal breaker since this still holds its own. But if we're evaluating that version you might adjust my rating a few points upward.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (and I know just what to do)

Saturday, February 3, 2024

A/Oratos - Ecclesia Gnostica (2024)

There's something immediately classicist about French act A/Oratos (not to be confused with the Naas Alchemist project Aoratos), from the sculptured cover imagery to the almost-matching costuming, to the use of Latin and even the musical architecture on exhibit. Dealing heavily with philosophical themes, the vaulted heights and structure of the songwriting here can envelop the listener to stroll the columned halls of antiquity, and it's compositionally intelligent even where it sometimes might fail to stick in the memory. Featuring a few current or former members of countrymen and labelmates Griffon, who themselves have put out some great work in the last few years, Ecclesia Gnostica is both an esoteric and welcoming record thanks to a bold, accessible production standard and a series of peaks and valleys that manifest through its shifts between melodic black metal and acoustics.

The guitars are bright and airy, swathed in a warm but enigmatic chord selection which is often more a consonant than dissonant, tinted with melodies both pensive and nostalgic. They don't exactly embrace an 'evil' aesthetic through the instruments, but the technical performance is impressive enough, with a busy selection of riffs, and a flexible, intense drumming performance that can match every twist in the album's structure. The bass is clean-cut and audible, matching the melodic loops while standing out just enough of its own to increase the robustness. Acoustic guitar sequences are threaded seamlessly throughout bursts of blackened emotion, and there's always a little folkish undercurrent to the flow, and some subtle orchestration through keys, without dipping sandaled toes too far into that direction. Vocally, you get an abrasive rasp, sometimes overloud or monotonous, but complemented by cleaner French chants that help balance it off, almost like spoken word or narration that gives a bit of a ponderous pretense until the band then rolls your face off with a black beast surge.

It definitely feels like an 'Ancient World' spin on the Medieval black metal which is popular with some acts in the French scene...just as involved, textured, and thematically flush with its subject material. The one area Ecclesia Gnostica might lack is in having intensely catchy guitar lines, which would put it over the top...there are literally FLOODs of ideas here, it's a busy work, the component riffs always serving the central, winding aesthetic, but they aren't always molded into earworms. I think the band could better fashion some leads for another layer of atmosphere and complexity. Still, when you take this full-length debut as a whole, it's impressive, it's someone distinct from the band's peers, though I would be very quick to recommend them to fans of Griffon, Aorhlac, Sühnopfer, or especially that great new Pénitence Onirique record Nature morte which recently dropped from the same LADLO imprint this past Fall. Loads of potential, high end production values, a cool niche aesthetic and a maturity beyond their years make A/Oratos worth your time tracking down.

Verdict: Win [8/10]