Wednesday, January 27, 2016

album review: 'dystopia' by megadeth

There's no easy way for me to handle this review. Mostly because, as I've said in the past, it's hard to talk about bands that have defined their genre and who have decades of material. And thus it should be without question when I say that I respect how Megadeth were influential in metal and instrumental to defining thrash.

All of that being said, now having revisited the entire Megadeth catalog... Well, it's mixed, to put it lightly. Yes, Countdown To Extinction and Youthanasia are good, even great records, but they are not a group that I find all that interesting or consistent. Sure, the late 90s slump happened when they went towards alternative rock that honestly wasn't all that bad, but I'm not entirely wild about their early records either, which often felt the victim of some great musicians not exactly having strong consistent songs behind them. And frontman Dave Mustaine hasn't helped - he might have power and personality but inconsistent mixing early meant he was never sounding as good as he could... and yet when moved closer to the front, his more nasal howls have always kind of rubbed me the wrong way, and it's only gotten worse on recent records. And that's even before we get to the songwriting which was never particularly clever or nuanced, or the mid-2000s where the lineup started changing with every other album that would only begin to regain some form of form with Endgame in 2009... only for most of that form to be promptly pissed away on Super Collider in 2013, a stab at more commercial hard rock that just ended up feeling formless and pretty generic - I liked Risk more than this.

Anyway, when I heard that Dystopia was reportedly going back for a rougher, more riff-intensive sound - plus another lineup change - I didn't know what to expect. Not really considering myself a hardcore Megadeth fan, I really wasn't invested enough to hope for quality, but I had also heard that the hard right political bent was creeping into his lyrics. And considering that Megadeth has never been a band defined by lyrical nuance - and having heard some of Mustaine's antics over the Obama administration - I hoped this would turn out better than I had reason to expect. Was I right?

Well... look, folks, this record is a slog to get through, for more reasons than one. And that gets frustrating when you realize that so much of the problems with this record aren't the fault of the rest of the band but can be laid square at the feet of Dave Mustaine. I don't think there's a doubt in anyone's mind that these guys can lay down some impressive shred, but anything beyond that... this album goes off the rails hard and became a real headache to get through. And that's before we get to the politics of this record and... yeah, we'll get to that.

But let's start by highlighting the fact that there is good musicianship and a few good songs on this record. Dystopia is definitely a pivot back to Megadeth's thrash side, and they don't waste any time piling on the riffs and melodic solos whenever they can. And a lot of the chemistry between the guitars is impressive as hell, especially on the more strident solos of the title track or the chunkier revving rumbles of 'Fatal Illusion' that lead into a really sweet bass solo and tempo shift. And I really do like a lot of the acoustic elements that creep into 'Poisonous Shadows' or the first half of the instrumental 'Conquer Or Die' - I still don't think Megadeth has a handle on all the symphonic touches they try to wedge into the former song, which can come across as a little gimmicky, but there are elements of the atmosphere I do appreciate. But here's where we run into the first problem: the production on those riffs really doesn't help the differences stand out. When they aren't compressed into a chugging slurry they can have some grit, but not a lot of body, not helped by the basslines and depth in the mix feeling really underutilized. And then we get into the issues of modulation and dynamics: the layering is so by the numbers that none of the brighter guitar leads get much of a chance to really hit with impact, and for as much as the riffs run together, it means that the melodic hooks don't really jump out, which means things can get really tedious. And it's most frustrating on the symphonic tracks - 'Conquer Or Die' is probably my favourite song here as the solitary instrumental piece, but I can't help but feel it'd be so much better if that bell toll or percussion accent didn't feel swamped out.

And look, there are songs that lyrically can work for me - I liked the sheer violence of 'Fatal Illusion' which works as a pretty basic revenge fantasy, and the Trojan War-inspired 'Death From Within' connected reasonably well too - it's no 'And Then There Was Silence' by Blind Guardian, but what is? Unfortunately, that's pretty much where my lyrical praise ends, because Dave Mustaine's lyrics are very much focused on hammering his dystopia theme, specifically how it applies to the United States. Now let's put aside the fact that  most dystopian arcs, especially in modern metal, have been done to death and Mustaine's not bringing anything all that revolutionary or innovative to the template outside of hyperbolic language, but it's very quickly becomes clear that Mustaine is clearly bringing on his own personal politics onto the record, and this is where the comments section turns into an absolute nightmare. So to try and explain this, let me start by putting out my three conditions for good political art: nuance, populism, and power. The best political music has all three, at the very least you need two... and yet on Dystopia, Megadeth has power but little else. And to give you all a taste of this, the opening track 'The Threat Is Real' is an anti-immigrant screed where he describes them as a 'culture made of cover-ups', 'leprosy touching their flesh' as 'their cancer now eats us alive' - all of this is prefaced by a middle-eastern sounding riff that's clearly intended to sound exotic and flip the fear switch because 'the threat is real'. 

Here's the problem: there are legitimate and complicated questions surrounding both sides of the immigration debate, but Dave Mustaine isn't interested in having that conversation so much as he is playing into xenophobic fear-mongering, not helped by later songs that say 'why cower to all those who oppose the American world' and that family and faith are being attacked by the state that's looking to make America weak... but of course he knows better because the emperor's got no clothes, with the title track outright implying that tyrant needs to be killed. And I can disregard the violent imagery - it's metal, it comes with the territory - but it's politics done in such a broad brush that I can't even take it seriously enough to get angry or offended about it. It feels like I'm watching a bad Dinesh D'Souza documentary - and yes, I'm including the xenophobic implications - and the more I read these lyrics the less they even try to make sense. It's so hysterically paranoid, occupying the worst sort of regressive, jingoistic nonsense - which as a Canadian just looks so stupid - that I'd be inclined to consider it parody or satire... except Dave Mustaine isn't trying to be funny. He believes the nonsense he's spewing, and so do a lot of people, and it's framed as though he's in the right and violence is the correct answer, especially if you dig into the subtext that even makes songs I like feel uglier. And even if I agreed with his arguments, I still wouldn't want to be associated with this because of how badly it's presented - forget the hyperbole which you'd expect from Megadeth, on a purely technical level the writing is sloppy. Rhymes are disconnected, the lyrical flow is leaden, and the number of ridiculously bad lines is just embarrassing - take his slam against the haters on 'Look Who's Talking', where he trashes an old friend who he claims has a 'moth-eaten brain by meth' and it makes him look way worse than whoever he's dissing!

Now let me clarify something: Megadeth has never been a nuanced act. They might have had more populism back in the 80s and 90s but they made broad, borderline ridiculous political statements when they were on the left too. Want to know the difference between then and now? The vocals - in that over twenty years ago they were mixed deep enough that you could effectively ignore them. And yet on Dystopia the overdubbing is piled on so that every word of Dave Mustaine's nasal, rasping, borderline cartoonish delivery is right at the front of the mix. And speaking as someone who has never particularly liked his delivery, there are songs where he sounds terrible here, the worst probably being on 'Post-American World' and 'Poisonous Shadows', in the latter case his attempts to get more melodic just sound wretched and craven. And considering how hard he's trying to sound menacing, it doesn't remotely help his case, half because he can't pull it off and half because Mike Patton can do all of this ten times better.

So in the end... look, I'm probably the wrong person to be reviewing this record, given that I'm not really a Megadeth fan, but on the other hand having no stake in this probably gives me the most objectivity. And on that note, this record has the occasional solo I like but it can't make up for by-the-numbers production, awful vocals, and writing that I'd find regressive and borderline offensive if I could take it remotely seriously. So for me, it's a 4/10 and no recommendation, but if you're a hardcore Megadeth fan who can ignore Mustaine and just focus on the riffs... even with all that, they've done better. As I said, this album gave me a throbbing headache with each listen, and that's never a good sign.


  1. I always kinda wonder what splits the rock & metal review side with the mainstream press with albums like this one. Either way, probably still gonna get the album, considering I'm a pretty big fan of this kind of stuff (Rust In Peace was always my favourite Megadeth LP), and I can stand Dave's vocals way more than most can, but I respect your opinion all the same. Still a big fan of your videos!

    1. Oh yeah, side note, check out a band called Angra when you get the chance. One of their guitarists Kiko Loureiro was in the sessions for this album right here, but I reckon Angra might be a little bit more up your alley, kind of like a mix of power metal & prog. They dropped an album about a year ago if you're curious.