Megadeth's Rust in Peace turns 20 today, according to Wikipedia and

At the moment, it is probably the most prominent classic album in the metal consciousness. This is due to two consecutive tours on which Megadeth have played it in its entirety. (Presumably they will not do so on their upcoming tour alongside Slayer and Anthrax.) I saw both tours, and my impressions each time were almost identical: Shawn Drover lacks Nick Menza's touch on the skins, Chris Broderick does a very decent Marty Friedman impression, Dave Ellefson looks very happy to be back, seeing little kids in Rust in Peace t-shirts is weird. The only real difference was that Mustaine's voice had noticeably deteriorated on the second tour.

These are all present-day yet distanced impressions. The lineup that recorded Rust in Peace is but a fond memory. A few good records and many bad ones followed. Megadeth has long been Mustaine, Inc. His constant, self-serving chatter almost single-handedly convinced me to stop reading Blabbermouth, mainstream metal's CNN. The word "Megadeth" brings to mind "professional sports" in many ways, none good.

But despite his repulsive public persona, Mustaine is a musical genius. People like him are why we separate creators from their creations. I don't want to know about James Brown's or Varg Vikernes' personal lives. But I can't help but know, thanks to the overeager media - and even then I'll look past them to their musical legacy. I believe in functional musical consumption: take what you need, and ditch the rest. All that baggage about killing people and beating wives and being all-around douchebags? That's between those guys and their makers.

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"Hangar 18 (official video)"

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So the abovementioned present-day impressions are just distractions. If I block out the sight of Mustaine's red hair, which, matador-like, makes me mad with Pavlovian certainty, then I remember that he crafted my favorite metal album of all time. That's right - Rust in Peace is higher in my personal pantheon than Reign in Blood or Master of Puppets or the other usual suspects. This probably says more about me than the record itself. Positive associations would be "precise", "efficient", and "technically adept". Negative ones would be "anal retentive", "anal retentive", and "artsy". Guilty, as charged.

"Precise" and "technically adept" aren't so important, as Megadeth's ranks have always included shredders. Mustaine only hires the best. Post-Rust in Peace, Megadeth records have all met the highest standards of production and performances. But they - and most other albums by any artist - have not made their notes mean as much. (A feat considering the number of notes on Rust in Peace!) This is a nonverbal type of meaning. DJ Shadow once said something about the best music being where every moment is the perfect choice to follow the previous one. (I am greatly paraphrasing.) I keep this in mind when listening to music; often I detect seams where the artist could have gone in different directions. In good music, the choice is usually the best one, or at least the most interesting one, but it's still evident that there was a choice. (A basic example: a song fadeout vs. a definite ending.) With Rust in Peace, there are no choices. It has thousands of twists and turns - and each one is perfect.

I didn't read contemporary reviews of Rust in Peace - I bought the album solely based on the mind-blowing "Hangar 18" video - but I'd guess that few saw it coming. Predecessor So Far, So Good... So What! was uneven. Mustaine was drug-dependent - or not, depending on the day - and unpredictable. Maybe if people had seen the now-famous video of Marty Friedman auditioning for Megadeth, they would have known that the band's future was temporarily in good hands. But even in retrospect, it's still hard to believe that Rust in Peace happened. "Hook in Mouth" is a killer song, but it's no "Hangar 18". Follow-up Countdown to Extinction was so stripped-down that it was almost the work of a different band. Maybe Mustaine's God indeed touched him while he wrote this record.

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Marty Friedman auditions for Megadeth

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But there I go again with Mustaine. And it's making me mad again. These songs are ostensibly about politics, war, and other lofty concerns - but in the end, they're all about Mustaine. That's all Megadeth ever was: Mustaine, Mustaine, Mustaine. He could have made this record live up to its artwork. It could have been some significant statement about government conspiracies, or how power corrupts, or the deception of people by their elected leaders. But no. Like "Peace Sells" or "Foreclosure of a Dream" or any other topical Megadeth song, it's all a bunch of phrases. They sound good. They're memorable, and they roll off the tongue: "Take no prisoners, take no shit!" Not that that's bad. Maybe this is just metal in its "illustrative" rather than "prescriptive" mode. Black Sabbath talked about the war pigs, but didn't talk about how to stop them. That would have been punk - and possibly tiresome, and possibly futile. Maybe it's just as effective to paint an aural Guernica. Open people's eyes, and trust them to do the right thing. Would Mustaine be magnanimous enough for that?

I don't know. I don't know what he thinks of the three generations of metal fans that turned out for Megadeth's last two tours. I don't know what he thinks of Rust in Peace now. Maybe he's sick of playing it night after night. Maybe he resents it for being his career highlight, and the fact that reprising it in its entirety is a sign of his waning career. Or maybe he, like me, tries to separate Mustaine from the music. Maybe he is a fan of the music. Maybe when he machine-guns those notes with terrifying fluency - and, brother, he's still got it at age 49 - he respects them and their seismic impact. They've bought him a livelihood. They've given me a lifetime of pleasure. And they're perfectly, amazingly, maddeningly efficient.

— Cosmo Lee

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I was at this show. You might see me in the crowd!

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