Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the last 30 years, Megadeth is a band that been considered one of the founders of thrash metal, one of the Big 4, and has been on the scene with consistent recordings during their tenure without indication of backing down. Despite musical and personnel changes over the years, founder and frontman Dave Mustaine (vocals, rhythm guitar) returns again with his co-founder, bassist David Ellefson, and two new members to the group, Kiko Loureiro (lead guitar) and Chris Adler (drums). After guitarist Chris Broderick and drummer Shawn Drover left after the last studio album was recorded, Mustaine tapped Brazilian metal band Angra‘s guitarist Loureiro to replace Broderick, and Lamb of God‘s drummer Adler to replace Drover. With this new lineup, Megadeth returns with their 15th studio album, Dystopia, which this time was successfully supported by crowdfunding via PledgeMusic. With a 50% lineup change, it made many wonder what the new album would bring: would Megadeth take yet another direction in their musical style, or would they return to their thrash roots? The following eleven tracks help to settle that question.
The opening track, The Threat is Real, unexpectedly starts off with a Middle Eastern flair with female vocalizations (sung by Farah Siraj), ethnic percussion, and shell/bean rattles before starting in with a thrashy guitar riff to introduce the song. The opening guitar solo also is based on an Arabic pentatonic scale before entering into the first verse, where the Middle Eastern influence disappears. The first and second verse and choruses enter before the instrumental interlude with dual guitar solos, after which return the third verse and double choruses before ending with sixteenth note blasts on toms, snare, and guitar for an appropriately thrashy ending. This song has momentum and is a great opener to the album. It gives the listeners a good idea of what the album will sound like, and shows its clear return to thrash metal roots while still remaining melodic and catchy.
Dystopia, the title track, begins with a more measured introduction based on chord structures until the lead guitar solo enters with the main motif over the rhythm guitars. The entry of the first and second verses maintain this rhythm progression as the main underpinning while the vocals carry a more melodic approach, while the chorus is simple in lyrics with the title “Dystopia” as its only word, but it focuses more on the instrumental voices of the guitars as the main drive behind it. The third and fourth verses then follow with the reprise of the chorus again, after which the lengthy instrumental portion begins. It carries on for nearly two minutes and, unlike most of the typical song structure, continues to the end of the song rather than being in the middle of the track. The style of this instrumental also shifts from the style of the rest of the song, and trades off with various guitar solo tradeoffs and duets and almost seems to infuse some bluesy elements into it for a new twist while still remaining heavy.
The third song, Fatal Illusion, begins with a darker tone with guitars, and then unexpectedly shifts into a bass solo playing a very active sixteenth note riff that the rhythm guitars then pick up directly afterward as the introduction continues. The roadmap of this song seems to be made up more of verses than a typical chorus after every verse, and between each is a brief guitar interlude segueing to the next section. Between the second and third verses is an interlude that includes a soundbyte of a vital sign machine flatlining, in the interest of audibly illustrating the song, which has a dark theme as well of a death row inmate who doesn’t quite actually die from the lethal injection, and revives in the morgue only to seek revenge and kill those in his sight in a hateful spree, the fatal illusion being that “evil never dies.”
Death from Within starts off muted with the syncopated rhythmic introduction soon blasting at full effect in the first verse that starts off imminently. This song is almost a solid wall of 16th notes throughout; however, the chorus is catchy and is a tradeoff/juxtaposition of two lines being sung together by a chorus of background vocals and Mustaine’s lead vocals. The lyrics can be taken separately with the lines from each vocal, but they also go together hand in hand. This seems to be the highlight of the song musically, and even though the verses are also melodic, this different take on the chorus brings about some additional originality to the song. The instrumental interlude features some guitar soloing along with some trading off between Mustaine’s and Loureiro’s guitars, which resumes again after a reprise of the chorus, though with more focus on the soloing guitar at the end playing out the song with the background chant of the title, “death from within.”
The fifth track, Bullet to the Brain, starts off with a martial snare, soon joined by an acoustic guitar with an arpeggiated riff continuing for 16 measures in more unusual 12/8 time signature. Immediately after this, the band comes in full, continuing the riff into the first verse. It switches to more straightforwardly common 4/4 time signature in the second half of the first verse, but continues to alternate time signatures throughout the verses and instrumental segues. After the second chorus, an instrumental interlude ensues, featuring several guitar solos augmented by harmonies and/or rhythm guitar. The chorus re-enters following this extended solo period for one more appearance before the song is played out to its conclusion with one last guitar solo. This song is fairly straightforward with a four and a half minute track length, but the song structuring is deceivingly more complicated than perhaps at first glance and has a good hook that pulls the listener in for the ride.
Post-American World starts off with a chromatic riff that is a staple throughout the whole song. The first verse soon commences with a more basic chug on the root chords, which then flows into a bridge that leads into the heavier chorus. There is a brief solo by Loureiro that segues into the second verse and reprise of the second bridge and chorus. Following this, however, there is a shift within the instrumental interlude, with acoustic guitar and ethereal vocals in the background to begin. Electric guitar later enters playing the same riff simultaneously into a full-blown harmonized solo by Mustaine, and then trades off with Loureiro for the lead. Vocals then return to re-introduce the main bridge and chorus, and then the song is played out with another guitar solo by Mustaine and ending with a bookend of the main chromatic motif that the song began with and is heard throughout the song. This song in particular has a throwback – though updated – feel heard from the late 80s/early 90s Megadeth style.
The seventh track is entitled Poisonous Shadows, and it starts off with an intro with acoustic guitar only, with an appearance of orchestral strings as they usher in the rest of the band’s entry with a fairly lengthy 90-second introduction before the vocal entry begins. With a low, ominous melody, the first verse transitions smoothly into the bridge, which shifts stylistically from the verse and continues into the chorus. After a brief instrumental segue, the second verse begins, continuing into the second round of the connecting bridge and chorus. Following this enters an instrumental interlude with an uptick in vigor with the guitar solo that is relatively brief but energetic. The conclusion of the song follows with a repeat of the bridge and chorus, boosting them with additional background vocals, which end with a ritard, fading into the ending, with a whispering voiceover by Mustaine (like in Trust) spoken over a beautiful piano ending. Farah Siraj appears again on guest vocals, providing the ethereal female vocals in the background, particularly during the introduction and segues. One interesting and welcome addition to this track is the inclusion of an orchestra which, though not at the forefront, provides a nice additional layer to the piece. The chorus in particular for me was a bit reminiscent of a darker version of Dread and the Fugitive Mind.
Conquer or Die! is the only instrumental track on the album, and the first instrumental on a Megadeth album since Dialectic Chaos on 2009’s Endgame. It begins with a semi-ominous flamenco/classical guitar opening for the first minute and fifteen seconds, highlighting the acoustic skills of Loureiro. It wraps up its motif to make way for the heavy, electric version of this theme in full force in more of a duet style, but the overarching guitar solo starts laying in about a minute and forty seconds into the track, again featuring Loureiro’s lead guitar chops as Mustaine hangs back on the rhythm guitar. There is a nice touch of chimes in the background, giving some further gothic accents to the piece. It ends with a deep voice, as spoken by Latin professor Dr. Miles Doleac: “Et erunt homines se ipsos amantes, cupidi, elati, superbi, blasphemi, parentibus inoboedientes, ingrati, scelesti,” (“For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy.“) which comes from II Timothy 3:2, citing what people’s behaviors will be like in the last days, further illustrating the dystopian theme of the album. It is also reminiscent of the pseudo-instrumental Shadow of Deth, which also incorporated Latin and Scripture (Psalm 23). A fairly short track clocking in at only a three and a half minutes long, it’s nice to hear an instrumental that incorporates both the acoustic and instrumental styles that Megadeth newcomer Loureiro gets to show off for the album.
The ninth track is entitled Lying in State, and begins right out of the gate with gusto. Focusing on another socio-political theme about the perceived slow death of western civilization, the first verse begins with the emphatically-delivered vocals of Mustaine with a steady, thrashy underpinning that continues into the pre-chorus and chorus, after which is a brief instrumental segue into the second round of verse/pre-chorus/chorus. A new channel begins, even overlapping the end of the chorus as it enters, with a different melody and shift from the previous parts of the track. As it finishes, a brief guitar solo enters, ushering in the next section of the song that is a pseudo-spoken stanza before entering into the instrumental interlude with a new blistering guitar solo. There are more passionately-spoken vocals that come in as the last words to the song, and the outro to the piece plays out with a tom-driven finale that brings an end to the short yet impactful three and a half minute track. This piece is short and to the point, without focusing on being showy while keeping the motivational heaviness that pushes the song forward along with its intense message.
The Emperor is the tenth song on the album and, as might be expected, it uses that allegory of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes as the theme for this track. Starting off with a feebly-voiced line by Mustaine saying “Come here…..closer,” the song begins with the main riff of the song led off by the guitar and the first verse follows immediately thereafter. The no-nonsense verse segues into a slightly more laid-back bridge that picks up again in the chorus. A second verse and new bridge follow with a return to the catchy chorus. An extended instrumental interlude follows with a peppy guitar solo that leads for nearly a minute of the song. A third bridge follows this solo section with more scathingly witty lyrics and continues onto the chorus again, with a further repeated though revised chorus until the end, with some wailing lead guitar in the background accenting the steady riffs carried by rhythm guitar, continuing to the end with the final “So bloody perfect, perfect, the emperor has no clothes, and everybody knows…except you.” This song has a classic Megadeth stamp on it, with attitude in the lyrics and delivery both instrumentally and vocally.
The last track on the physical album is Foreign Policy, which is a cover of the song originally recorded by the band Fear from their 1981 album The Record. A short song at just over two minutes long it is a song that is similar to something Megadeth might have written themselves. It is a clear cover of the song, keeping the elements of the song intact while giving it a Megadeth-ized makeover with a more modern mix with a faster tempo and heavier delivery. On the Dystopia Japanese release, there is a bonus track called Me Hate You, and for those interested in digital bonus tracks, there is an iTunes exclusive track entitled Last Dying Wish, and a bonus Spotify track called Melt the Ice Away (another cover song, this time by Budgie from their 1978 album Impeckable).
Overall, Dystopia is what I could safely categorize as a quintessential Megadeth album. They hearken back to their original thrash roots with the older sound of the earlier Megadeth albums such as Peace Sells or Rust in Peace, but their sound remains modern and melodic. With a 50% turnover, there was concern as to how Megadeth would now sound, but with the foundation of Mustaine and Ellefson, Adler and Loureiro fit in seamlessly on this new venture. For me, there wasn’t much doubt that Adler’s drumming would assimilate nicely into the Megadeth sound, but with Loureiro’s more progressive background in his long tenure with Angra I wondered how his style would merge with a thrash-based band. However, I shouldn’t have been concerned too much, because his soloing and songwriting chops were obviously on display, but his additions were like icing to the cake, besides the fact that Mustaine has often chosen classically trained/oriented guitarists as his lead partners on the axe. The album overall is very guitar-driven, and though there are different nuances between the songs, I felt that the album seemed a little on the homogenous side, though more of the nuances come through upon subsequent listens. Ellefson continues as the low-end “mortar” between the bricks of the drums and guitars (as he likes to put it), but I saw fewer showy basslines coming from him in this album than sometimes have been showcased previously. Mustaine’s vocals have obviously lowered over time not only due to age but also due to his spinal surgery, but his voice still maintains his classic Megadeth snarl and in some ways I like his voice in the mid-low range as it seems more comfortable for him. His guitar was also on par as would be expected, usually taking on the more thrashy rhythm guitar part, but occasionally contributing lead solos as well. And, unsurprisingly with Mustaine being the main lyricist, the songs are socio-politically oriented and are generally more pointed – and more “thrash-oriented”- than some of their more recent albums. There have been divided opinions with every Megadeth album, and some often clamor for the return of the old days while others have appreciated the metamorphosis of the band over time. Dystopia should make both camps happy. This album has more of the classic thrashy aggressive sound that Megadeth was known for while not sounding particularly dated or irrelevant. Any concerns should melt away upon hearing Dystopia; not that it is a comeback, per se – as Megadeth has continued to be one of the most prolific and steadily producing members of the Big 4 – but it can be considered a continued redefinition of the style and sound that they were founded upon, which should satisfy most fans.
(Photos by Phoenix from the Megadeth Dystopia tour May 2016 in Silver Spring, MD)
Music video to “The Threat is Real:” (graphic content)
Music Video to “Dystopia:” (graphic content)
Music Video to “Post-American World:”
Music Video to “Conquer or Die:”