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Why "Class of '86" metal legends Megadeth still matter.

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When Chris Broderick joined Megadeth in 2008, he had been a fan of the band for most of his life. "I first heard Megadeth when Peace Sells... came out," says the Colorado native, referring to the band's legendary 1986 debut. "[The title track] hit MTV and radio like a storm."

Broderick was only 16 years old at the time, but he was already playing guitar and gravitating to classical and jazz players as well as the usual guitar gods.

"I was always into the virtuoso guitarists and was a big fan of people like Jason Becker and Marty Friedman. I was following Marty when he joined Megadeth, so that's when I became a real fan of the band."

For any teenage metalhead in the 1980s, Megadeth were inescapable. Part of the legendary Class of '86 — which includes Slayer and Metallica, who also released foundational debuts that year — frontman Dave Mustaine & Co. drew from British metal forebears but made music that was heavier and harder. It was, to some degree, punk with an emphasis on technical precision, and the genre grew in clubs and small venues, offering a sense of moshing community first to hundreds, later to thousands, and finally to millions of misfits.

Broderick is Megadeth's sixth lead guitar player in its nearly 30-year history, following such distinctive players as Chris Poland, Marty Friedman, and Glenn Drover. Poland, a founding member, had a concise style that borrowed heavily from jazz, Broderick says, while "Marty had a more exotic sound. They're all very different. And I think the same is true today with my playing. On the last CD, TH1RT3EN, we recorded classical guitar parts and flamenco parts."

Like most metal bands, Megadeth encourages that kind of technical wizardry in the service of impossibly hard thrashing rhythms and lyrics that owe a debt to old EC Comics. Frontman Mustaine — who notoriously was kicked out of Metallica for his drinking — has guided the band to an enviable spot in the metal landscape: surviving drug addiction, charges of s atanism, dwindling sales, and the implosion of the music industry, Megadeth have become legends in the genre, although they don't function as a nostalgia act.

In fact, Megadeth represents metal success in its truest form, and Mustaine, in particular, offers perhaps the best example of aging gracefully in a youth-based music. For an instructive contrast, compare him with Metallica, which became the biggest band in the world during the '90s. Megadeth never enjoyed that level of success, but they're arguably more revered and more active in the metal community. They fill large venues, headline huge festivals around the world, and have reached a point where their back catalog is being reissued and critically reconsidered. In 2012, they sound like metal lifers who are never too besotted with their own relevance and never too far removed from their own fans. Especially given the band's long and contentious history, metal fans are notoriously divided into Team Megadeth and Team Metallica.

Broderick dismisses any rumor of rivalry. "I think a lot of people draw allegiances like that. Back when I was in high school, you were either in Team Judas Priest or Team Iron Maiden. Who knows why that is? People know the history between Dave and Metallica, so maybe that's why the press and so many of the fans have trumped it up a bit more than what it really is."

What throws that conflict into relief in 2012 is metal's recent resurgence, which has not only critically rehabbed the Class of '86 but introduced a new battalion of bands expanding on those thrash ideals. In publications that once never had much use for metal, groups like Mastodon, Baroness, High on Fire, and Wolves in the Throne Room, among many others, are receiving positive reviews and wider exposure than metal bands enjoyed a decade ago.

Broderick, for one, views this new attention somewhat skeptically: "I've seen a lot of smaller resurgences over the years, so I wonder, is it really coming out from the underground, or is the underground just getting a little bit bigger? I don't think metal will become like pop or anything like that, although ultimately that's for the fans and the public to decide."

For metal to grow too big — at least in 2012 — would mean losing something essential, something that creates a personal connection between artist and audience. Megadeth thrives just outside the mainstream, but maintaining a smaller presence allows them to loom so much larger: "When I get onstage," Broderick says, "I feel like I'm a part of something with the fans that's much bigger than just a band playing onstage."

Megadeth Beale Street Music Festival, Friday, May 4th, Orion Stage, 9 p.m.

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