Music » Music Features

They Come in Peace

Thrash-metal heroes Megadeth flip through their back pages.



The Big Four of first-wave thrash metal represented exactly that number of unique approaches to the form. New York's Anthrax was thrash metal with a smile and even a sense of humor at times. Lead singer Scott Ian is a perfect talking-head on VH1's ADHD-ocumentary-format shows — articulate, funny, clever, and charismatic enough to make me forget I'm listening to a middle-aged man with a five-inch dyed-purple goatee. Metallica was catchy, well-written everyman-thrash with obvious crossover appeal long before the crossover actually happened. Slayer broke sonic ground and essentially created a self-supporting mini-genre — too heavy for straight thrash but too melodic for the serious ugliness that would soon take over the metal underground. And then there was Megadeth, technically complex but with an added political angle, and they were fronted by the scene's firebrand. Megadeth's Dave Mustaine is a consummate badass, a fearless speaker of exactly what's on his mind. He's also an influential guitarist of the highest order, an obscenely driven workaholic, and a guy with a Wikipedia page titled "Dave Mustaine Feuds & Rivalries."

What's paramount is that Mustaine was there at the beginning of thrash metal, refining and establishing a playing style as Metallica's pre-Kirk Hammett lead guitarist. Allegedly, Mustaine's drinking, drugging, and skill at being an asshole's asshole resulted in three separate ejections from the band, the third and final being particularly harsh and taking place on the road immediately following the recording of Metallica's 1983 album Kill 'Em All. Mustaine was literally driven to a bus stop and given enough money for a ticket home.

Mustaine wanted Megadeth to erase Metallica by being a faster, heavier, and all-around more intense band. Lineup turmoil dogged the band from the very start, due in no small part to an ongoing propensity for booze and drugs. Bassist David Ellefson was a founding member (technically) and stayed on, more or less, throughout the band's now-infamous first four-album run. Otherwise, Megadeth went through second lead guitar players and drummers like toilet tissue. This put a lot of playing pressure on Mustaine, who proved able to handle it. In the book The 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarists of All Time, Mustaine ranks first.

Drug use is much more noticeable when the user is required to do something very technical, and substance abuse made the albums sound awful, especially the 1985 debut Killing Is My Business ... And Business Is Good, in which $4,000 of Combat Records' tiny $8,000 recording advance bypassed the studio in favor of the band members' habits. Still, it's a pissed-off little record with energy to burn and an obvious vehemence behind everything. Then there's everyone's favorite, the barn burner Peace Sells ... But Who's Buying?, released in 1986 and marking a move to Capitol Records. After the token classic comes the token misstep, So Far ... So Good ... So What?, or so the critics are convinced.

By then, Mustaine had developed a form of preventive maintenance in the savvy hiring of guitar techs and drum techs whom he had already secretly or not-so-secretly approved as members of Megadeth should the associated active member commit a firing offense, and this was usually the case. Then, not long after the band's confusing appearance in the documentary film The Decline of Western Civilization Part II alongside a bunch of poodle-perm pop-metal bands, Mustaine had an embarrassing situation behind the wheel that involved police and an eventual court-ordered stay in rehab.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of its release, Megadeth's clear-headed 1990 high-water mark Rust in Peace will be performed in its entirety for the appropriately named "Rust in Peace 20th Anniversary Tour." Rust in Peace was the band's critical/creative breakthrough as well as achieving an unprecedented commercial success without the aid of radio airplay. Rust in Peace is the first Megadeth album to dive headfirst into epic, progressive metal while retaining a proper thrash approach, and if readers are thinking Metallica right now, Rust in Peace has no obvious stabs at radio-airplay like Metallica's "black" album, and Megadeth's integrity shines bright in comparison.

Megadeth would soon make highly commercial albums. A couple would be unrecognizable as products of the creative mind behind Rust in Peace, but for this moment in metal history, especially considering the underground rock that was grumbling and ready to explode in 1991, Megadeth had skillfully stepped on Metallica's shoulders to reach a pinnacle without blatantly selling out.

Another reason to be excited about seeing the current incarnation of Megadeth perform their best record is that this is the band that also released 2009's surprisingly intense, heavy, and just plain impressive studio effort Endgame.

Supporting Megadeth on this tour is a refreshing duo of almost identical vintage, Exodus and Testament, two leaders of the second wave of thrash metal that followed "The Big Four."

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