Oprah should have Dave Mustaine on her show sometime. Many would probably like to know his anti-aging secret. 17 years after his expiration date (Countdown to Extinction), he’s somehow still making records, and people somehow still care. He’s still relevant, though the relevance of Megadeth and its Big Four of Thrash peers (Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax) now stems from their longevity, not their music.
Such is the case with Endgame, Megadeth’s best record in over a decade. That isn’t saying much, as Megadeth has put out some real dogs (Risk, United Abominations) in that time. Thanks to Mustaine’s ego, Megadeth will always be measured against Metallica. In its ’80s prime, Megadeth’s mission was to out-metal Metallica. This was quixotic. Megadeth’s music was often more interesting than Metallica’s, but in terms of iconic albums and world domination, Megadeth didn’t stand a chance. The band was too busy shooting up and shooting itself in the foot. Megadeth exited the ’80s with one big anthem (“Peace Sells”) and an overachieving technical thrashterpiece (Rust in Peace). Metallica exited the ’80s on top of the world.
Now the tables have turned, though some would argue that the bands are in a race to the bottom. Metallica are rediscovering that democracy is bad for them. Megadeth, on the other hand, explicitly became The Dave Mustaine Band with 2004’s The System Has Failed, and have flourished with the help of their annual showcase, Gigantour. Almost by default, Megadeth are out-metalling Metallica. The problem is, Mustaine probably got jealous of Metallica’s mainstream success in the ’90s. Megadeth records since then have been a mix of expensive-sounding metal and repulsive attempts at radio hits. Thankfully, Mustaine seems to have changed his mind. Endgame is mostly metal, though it does have syrupy moments. Unlike Metallica, though, he’s making the records he wants to make. He’s no longer the wild-eyed, drunk guitar terrorist of the ’80s. He’s a father, he’s born-again, and he wears oxford shirts onstage. In car terms, he’s traded up from a Camaro to a Porsche.
Drivers of fine cars often ascribe animate characteristics to them. I don’t know what a Porsche’s “soul” feels like, and perhaps I’ll never know. But if Megadeth is a Porsche now, its Camaro was much more exciting. Sure, it didn’t go as fast, and it broke down much more often. But old Megadeth was gloriously imperfect: alternately underachieving and overachieving players with fierce chops and even fiercer drug habits. The band kicked up dirt and left needles in its wake. The modern version of Megadeth leaves instrument endorsements in its wake. Mustaine’s hired hands play too well. He’s recruited a long line of lead guitarists, each seemingly more fluent than the last. The result is a whole lot of notes that don’t say much. “Head Crusher” is impressively busy, but its intro is just that of “Washington Is Next!” (from United Abominations) sped up. “Bodies” is basically a rehash of “Symphony of Destruction.” “1,320″ is one of the few modern Megadeth songs that fans might request, but thematically, it, too, recalls the past glory of “High Speed Dirt.” There’s having a style, and then there’s repeating oneself.
Even with repetition, though, Megadeth’s elements are at least entertaining. “Entertaining” seems to be the standard applied to stylistic fossils AC/DC and Motörhead, so perhaps it’s appropriate here also. Dart-like palm-muted runs, chromatic movement in chord progressions, vaguely political snarled lyrics — details like these constitute the Megadeth sound, in which songs are almost an afterthought. With hard candy-like production (clear, sweet), Megadeth albums are now surgical, bloodless operations. This aesthetic has a certain OCD appeal. Kids who are into Necrophagist and so-called “Sumeriancore” would dig it. But when they buy Megadeth shirts now, the shirts stand for something much different than before. Helping pay Dave Mustaine’s mortgage isn’t as fun as funding a war, however illusory, against Metallica.