Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells…’ Turns 30
“We’re trying to play something that’s really working the fuck up out of a guitar; something that you can headbang to and that could also be used as a real nerve-wracking soundtrack where you can picture what’s going on. I try to portray a whole painting behind the lyrics.” - Dave Mustaine, Metal Forces Issue #12, 1985.
Megadeth’s musical goals have produced inconsistent results throughout the years. For every focused barnburner like Rust in Peace or Endgame, there has been a corresponding confused misfire like Risk or Super Collider.
In 1986, though, they had a winner on their hands, thanks to an imaginative take on thrash metal. Singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine’s now-famous ego hadn’t reached its full size. He made no promises as to his abilities and accomplishments, only that he was “trying” to evoke these images with his songs. Ultimately he wanted to show the world that he was capable of not only producing songs that one could thrash around to, but that could also stoke the imagination.
It’s easy to see hear why Mustaine would want to push his abilities in that direction. Megadeth’s 1985 debut, Killing is My Business… And Business is Good!, contains great riffs for days, catchy choruses and enough velocity to break a speedometer. But that’s all it has. It lacks the violent chaos coursing through the veins of Bonded by Blood, the gutter punk attitude of Feel the Fire or Ride the Lightning’s cinematic scope.
With the release of Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? 30 years ago today (at the earliest according to our research), Dave Mustaine’s musical goal was executed with a clear vision, using some of the sharpest playing Megadeth has ever mustered. On this album, Mustaine draped his and Chris Poland’s rapid picking over the creepiest tracks of their career. There is genuine dread induced by Mustaine’s swirling leads in “The Conjuring” and “Bad Omen,” Poland’s stabbing licks throughout the intro of “Good Mourning/Black Friday” and even the pulpy erupting volcano of a solo that opens “Devils Island.”
In 1986, Megadeth’s musicianship told better stories than Dave Mustaine’s lyrics do today. The blistering riffing that blazes across “Good Mourning/Black Friday” sounds like a lunatic going on a killing spree. Samuelson’s swinging rhythms in “Bad Omen” are the aural manifestation of funky juju before flaming guitar solos mark the summoning of the demon. There is no better proof of this idea than the rickety, hairpin-trigger thrill of “My Last Words.” David Ellefson takes the lead in the morbid intro, but he makes his presence known throughout this track, one of Megadeth’s absolute finest. Ellefson sneaks up on the listener with his fills, Samuelson punctuates his rhythms with crashes that land just after the beat and Mustaine’s solo sounds as if it’s about to fall apart. The uncertainty and nervous rush that permeates throughout “My Last Words” is about as close to an actual game of Russian Roulette that I ever wish to experience.
The guitar solos in Peace Sells in particular serve the band well. They are just so damn lyrical. They positively distract from Mustaine’s weak vocals and add color to the stories that these riffs, lyrics, and beats render. Megadeth need no words to describe the roller coaster nightmare that the narrator of “Wake Up Dead” goes through as he sneaks into bed. A mellow slumber goes south as Mustaine and Poland shred their digits, and eventually drops to hell when Gar Samuelson lets his barreling double-kick loose.
Then as now Mustaine is better when he shuts up. In “Peace Sells” he expresses his resentment better by repeating the song title over and over in the second half than by whining in the first. This wasn’t the last time Mustaine tried to coast on his words throughout a song (see “Sweating Bullets,” “A Tout le Monde” and “Endgame” among many other awful [I think you mean ‘awesome’ - Ed.] Megadeth tracks), but it was the best. The title track was the first time Mustaine had his voice convey his thoughts more assertively than his musicianship. “Peace Sells” is led along by riffs patented on Screaming for Vengeance, until one bad-ass lick opens the door for Samuelson to stomp and rage once again. Judas Priest riffs, an anthemic title chant, some classic Mustaine/Poland solos and just a couple minutes of Samuelson’s double-kick madness cement “Peace Sells” as a permanent Megadeth live staple, even if it’s one of the weakest tracks on this album.
In 1987, one year after Peace Sells Megadeth would be dubbed “the world’s state of the art speed metal band,” but the songs from '86 earned them that title. On this record, speed was just another tool in Megadeth’s high-tech arsenal, not their claim to fame. It enhanced their already great arrangements, showing off the band’s ability without compromising the song itself. This idea is perpetually “the state of the art” for technically conscious music such as heavy metal: when speed, politics or any number of distractions overtake the riff, then the band enters retrograde.
Megadeth’s mastery of that concept on Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? puts it up there with their best. The eerie passages paired with perfectly placed barrages—drizzled with manic guitar solos that are both rad and expressive—speak louder than even the most obtuse Mustaine rant. Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying may not be Megadeth’s best album (you know which one that is), but it’s the record that vividly paints imagery with its music better than any other.