The video for Megadeth’s “Hangar 18” never lets you forget who the stars are. Guitarists Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman take the center stage, trading solos while rubber alien puppets writhe in torment. Considering that the song’s climax is one of the most iconic guitar duals in metal history, it is only fair that the video would stick to Mustaine and Friedman’s interplay, but for a split second around five minutes in it cuts to Nick Menza, shirtless but wearing athletic gloves,  theatrically swinging his arms across his body to hit a pair hanging crash cymbals in extravagant fashion.

Nick Menza, who played drums in Megadeth from 1989 to 1998, collapsed on May 21st while performing at The Baked Potato in Los Angeles and passed away later that night. He was 51.

As great of a drummer as Nick Menza was, and let’s be clear he was a great fucking drummer, “theatrical” and “extravagant” are not the best words to describe his playing. During his nine-year stint in Megadeth, Menza anchored the band’s rhythm section in a sturdy and dependable fashion. His playing wasn’t defined by his fills, or by any lengthy solos. Maybe because Megadeth has always been the Dave Mustaine show, Menza never seemed to play outside of himself, his every move was locked firmly within the needs of the song.

Nick Menza joined Megadeth right as the band was at their compositional peak on Rust In Peace and stuck around as they pivoted towards more streamlined songwriting in the 1990s. He fit comfortably in both versions of the band, dexterous enough to follow along with Mustaine’s rhythm guitar at every hairpin rhythmic turn and deep enough in the pocket to give the straightforward grooves on Youthanasia some serious heft.

We often remember metal’s most famous drummers for they way they would play against the music surrounding them. Bill Ward’s jazz inspired swing, Lombardo’s relentlessness, Hoglan’s fluttering ride accents, Haake’s limb isolation, Dailor’s complete disinterest in barlines. Even someone like Lars Ulrich, who often seems to lose track of where he is in any given measure, has made heavy metal history by zigging where the rest of the band zagged. Menza on the other hand was a master of zagging alongside his bandmates with gusto.

Listening back to the studio albums he recorded with Megadeth, Rust In Peace, Countdown To Extinction, Youthanasia, and Cryptic Writings, it’s remarkable how much of his playing follows along with Mustaine’s, even synchronizing fills with accents or patterns in the rhythm guitar. Menza colored firmly within the lines, but he found endless shades to keep his playing fresh, catching unexpected accents on his snare and peppering in quick bursts of double bass playing in a way that anticipated the groove metal style that Vinnie Paul would codify and that countless drummers would emulate for years to come.

As Megadeth’s music opened up breathing room for catchier vocal melodies, Menza allowed himself to break away for occasional big fill, but on a song like “Blood Of Heroes" those fills always came at precise moment, cutting in just as Mustaine’s vocal melody ended a phrase, or setting up a new section of the song. Your mileage may vary on Megadeth’s hard rock era, but I defy you to point to a single moment where Menza played anything other than the right part for the song.

Mustaine has gone through several drummers since Menza’s departure, some of which are indisputable masters of the craft (Vinnie Colaiuta) some of which are bland but serviceable (Shawn Drover). Menza was the last drummer to feel like more than just a hired hand in Mustaine’s rolodex. He was the drummer for the band during their most stable lineup, and that stability was built from his playing upwards.


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