Thursday, 11 February 2016

Megadeth's 'Dystopia' - Album Review

As one of the Big 4 of Thrash, Megadeth really have nothing left to prove. Their first five albums (at least!) were genre-defining for the burgeoning thrash metal scene. It is mostly agreed that 1990's Rust in Peace, the band's fourth album, is their true masterpiece. That is a fact that is hard to deny. It was the first to feature former guitarist Marty Friedman's awesome neo-classical shredding solos, and was probably the album where founding member and lead songwriter Dave Mustaine began to strike the right balance between fast-paced thrash metal and infectious melodies. 1992's Countdown to Extinction, another bona fide classic, streamlined the band's thrash style somewhat, taking more cues from hard rock and the NWOBHM, but it proved just as successful. Unlike many other thrash bands, Megadeth have never been too content to rest on their laurels. Various tweaks have been injected into the band's sound over the years, mostly to the outcry of the notoriously closed-minded metal world. The band have always remained popular despite this however, and Mustaine has been putting out albums fairly regularly since, despite the fact band members have come and gone. Since reforming in 2004, Megadeth's output has been, in my opinion, pretty strong and consistent. 2009's heavy Endgame, which proved the then-new guitarist Chris Broderick was a revelation, is my favourite of the band's recent catalogue. It had everything that was great about Megadeth's classic output included, but sounded fresh, modern, and hungry. The only recent album that never stuck with me was 2011's TH1RT3EN. The songs just never stuck with me, but I do feel it is probably time for a long-overdue personal reappraisal - I have not played it for quite some time! I even liked 2013's much-maligned Super Collider (which I reviewed here) as it contained lots of memorable and melodic tunes. Three years since Super Collider's release and the band have released Dystopia, their fifteenth album. Yet more line-up changes have occurred in the intervening period, something which Megadeth is no stranger to. Mustaine and fellow founding member bassist David Ellefson have been joined by guitarist Kiko Loureiro (Angra) and drummer Chris Adler (Lamb of God). On paper this looked as if it could be the greatest Megadeth line-up ever, even rivalling the legendary Rust in Peace line-up, and the performances on Dystopia could indeed prove that statement to be true! Dystopia is a fantastic piece of work, and one that could unseat Endgame as my favourite recent Megadeth album, and could even end up rivalling some of the band's older albums.

Opening with the furious The Threat is Real, which shows Megadeth at their most aggressive for a while, gets the album off to a fine start. The fast picking intro guitar line, mixed with a fluid Eastern-sounding lead, soon leads into a solid mid-paced rocker with Mustaine's trademark snarling vocals sounding better than ever. Ellefson's bass booms out of the speakers and drives the song, as Adler's restrained but heavy drumming provides an excellent backbone. After each chorus, Mustaine and Loureiro trade endless guitar solos that show that this pairing is an excellent one. This song sounds like classic Megadeth, and I am sure hearing it will ensure many people check this album out. The album's title track follows, and the riff reminds me a little of a laid back version of the band's classic song Hangar 18. It is quite understated, as subtle keyboards surround it, but the melodic guitar lead is extremely catchy and memorable. The chugging verse has some excellent vocals, which are backed up by a cutting guitar lead that constantly punches through the mix to dominate. The chorus features more excellent guitar work, as Mustaine howls 'Dystopia' repeatedly as the shredding goes on around him. This is a real guitarists song, as it features a tonne of excellent playing from the band's two guitarists. After the solo there is a great riff and drum combo, which is the first drumming section on the album that really sounds like Adler's playing. He has such a unique style when playing with Lamb of God, but that is not as apparent so often here as he plays the more traditional Megadeth material. Fatal Illusion, which has been floating around online for some time now, is a great heavy tune. The slow, doomy intro soon gives way to a fast-paced bass guitar riff which then ends up driving the rest of the song. Adler's double bass drumming lock in well with this bass pattern, and the guitars build on this with a succinct riff. This song makes use of Mustaine's half-spoken style of vocals which he employs now and again, and it works well as with the simple and heavy nature of the song. It is short and sweet, but it packs a real punch. Death from Within goes back to the groove-based mid-pace of the first couple of numbers with some chugging power chords and little breaks of explosive lead guitar. The chorus is classic Megadeth, with a call-and-response vocal style that makes use of Mustaine's strange voice. The song does not make as big of an impact as the opening three numbers, but it works well and is still an enjoyable song. Bullet to the Brain is similar, but has a slight doomy gothic vibe with some darker vocals and some really grinding guitar riffs. This is contrasted well with the more overt chorus, with the two different sounds sitting well together. To fit the darker tone, there are some excellent slower guitar solos that really ooze out of the speakers. It is a nice change from the usual speed-fests that fill Megadeth songs.

Up next are three songs co-written by Loureiro, who has clearly taken to life in Megadeth with real ease. Post American World is the best of the bunch and could well be my favourite song on the album. It has some real snaking guitar riffing that really create a great sense of groove, and Adler mixes it up quite a bit with a lot of different drum beats. One minute he is following the groove with a simple beat, and the next he unleashes a flurry of double bass drumming in his inimitable style. Mid-paced Megadeth is my favourite type of Megadeth, and this song highlights why. Downbeat guitar sections give a spooky vibe to the song, while the chorus, packed full of subtle harmony vocals, instantly sticks in the brain. Oh, and there's an excellent guitar solo to boot! The next song, Poisonous Shadows, is another excellent number. An acoustic intro soon leads into a fairly progressive riff section that is backed up by a stark orchestral arrangement. Adler's drumming here stands out, with some amazingly tight playing, and the whole song is a joy to listen to. It is not an explosively heavy song, but it has an epic quality to it through the inventiveness of the riffing and the constant presence of the orchestra. Loureiro has been a huge asset to Megadeth since joining the band, and he even plays the piano part during the song's beautiful outro. After the shredding instrumental Conquer or Die! (although the classical guitar intro is just as impressive!) we reach Lying in State. This song ups the pace considerably and is a really strong piece of thrash metal. Those who love to headbang will love this song, as Adler's fast footwork and the simpleness of the guitar patterns make this song perfect that for activity. The guitars really wail during the tortured lead sections, and Mustaine's voice is unusually expressive here as he snarls over the fast riffing. Not exactly a stand-out song, but a good fast number to rock out to. The last original song on the album, The Emperor, has a really muscular and memorable riff that hits you from the off and never lets go. This song emulates the band's Countdown to Extinction sound perfectly, and sounds like it could have been recorded during the sessions for that album. Old-school Megadeth fans will probably really enjoy this one, as it really taps into the old way Mustaine used to write and the subtle melodies are trademark. The album should have ended on this song really, as the shredding outro would have been a perfect way to close out the album. Instead we have a slightly throwaway cover of Fear's Foreign Policy. It is not bad, but it does not really seem to serve any purpose and sounds more like a bonus track. Overall, Dystopia is a really strong Megadeth album and one that will probably draw back a lot of fans who had been underwhelmed by the band's more recent direction.

The album was released on 22nd January 2016 via Tradecraft/Universal Music Group. Below is the band's promotional video for The Threat is Real.

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