Continuing on the thread of Middle Eastern conflict…

“Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” is one of metal’s great songs on one of metal’s great albums, Rust in Peace. But despite how often I’ve heard the song, I never parsed the lyrics until recently. They only reinforce my belief that despite how political Megadeth albums are supposed to be, Dave Mustaine’s politics are a mess. At the very least, they’re ill-articulated. Sure, Megadeth songs are political in that they talk about political matters. But whether they actually state clear positions or raise hard questions is another matter.

For example, the lyrics to “Peace Sells” amount to little more than “fuck you, man” in the first half of the song + the meaningless (though catchy) “Peace sells, but who’s buying” chant at the end of the song. I get the feeling Megadeth’s politics are like the interlude in the “Peace Sells” video, where the kid’s dad comes in and tells him to turn off that garbage (i.e., the Megadeth video) and watch the news, and the kid turns around and says, “This is the news.” Instead of subjective commentary, the jumbled, rapid-fire political imagery in Megadeth’s videos and songs are merely reflections of reality – which is the supposed objective mission of the news.

Megadeth – Holy Wars…The Punishment Due

Of course, there’s no such thing as fair and balanced. In today’s media, any reflection of reality is a political act due to editorial choices. And to his credit, Mustaine does sustain some consistent positions. He thinks war in the name of religion is bad, a thread that continues from “Holy Wars…” all the way up to the recent United Abominations album. He also thinks the UN is a piece of shit.

The problem is, these are profoundly unprofound positions. Any 15 year-old who reads any amount of news would come to these conclusions rather quickly. Sure, picking on metal lyrics is shooting fish in a barrel. But for someone who mouths off to the media so much, and whose albums are hyped as political, Mustaine’s politics seem highly unlikely to change anyone’s mind about anything. Not that Nasum or Napalm Death would be more likely do so, however. In general, I think that politics – the flag-waving/burning, mantra-chanting kind – doesn’t lend itself to great art. Politics is not about subtleties (though it should be), while art is.

Mustaine should understand this, though, as he’s responsible for some of the 20th century’s most amazing musical compostions. “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” has no musical cracks. It’s wall-to-wall awesomeness, full of twists and turns that somehow make perfect sense. Trivium and Lamb of God can cite Megadeth all they want, but they will never, ever write a masterpiece like “Holy Wars…”

The classic lineup

However, the lyrics are nowhere near as cohesive. The first half of the song, the “Holy Wars” part, is straightforward – “Killing for religion / Something I don’t understand.” However, when the song switches to half-time (the “Punishment Due” part), the head-scratching begins. The first verse (“Upon my podium”) still makes sense; it depicts a zealot in line with the song’s theme.

But the second verse – what does “Wage the war on organized crime” mean? What does organized crime have to do with anything? “Sneak attacks, repel down the rocks”? Wouldn’t “rappel” make more sense? (otherwise, who is repelling what?) “Some people risk to employ me / Some people live to destroy me / Either way they die”? Huh???

The rest of the song is similarly befuddling, though repeated examination yields one possible answer. The “Paid by the alliance, to slay all the giants” line – is the narrator some sort of assassin of holy war? That might explain the “risk to employ” bit. Maybe that also accounts for the last few lines about how “they’ll take my thoughts away” and “now I must scream of the overdose / And the lack of mercy killings.” Has he been imprisoned, and wishes to commit suicide by OD because they won’t shoot him? The narrator certainly seems delusional. Or maybe I’m just dense. Help, anyone?

Here’s an interesting interview where Mustaine seems to imply that “Holy Wars” is about conflict in Ireland, not the Middle East.