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The post-1991 output of a great number of 80s thrash bands in the wake of Metallica’s hugely successful ‘Black Album’ boast a consciously simplified and commercialised sound that largely replaces the aggressive, punk-inspired nihilism of their earlier work with a more refined, approachable, and in most cases mellow direction more in line with current musical trends. Following the example of their more successful rival, Megadeth’s sound entered a process of gradual departure from the speedy thrash perfection of 1990’s ‘Rust in Peace,’ as their subsequent albums became increasingly consumer-oriented. Third stop along this line is ‘Cryptic Writings,’ representing the culmination of this radio-friendly approach, before careening off the rails with the frankly embarrassing chaos of 1999’s ‘Risk.’
Abandoning thrash for the most part in favour of a more traditional heavy metal style, though targeted more towards its dissolution through the popular grunge bands of the time, ‘Cryptic Writings’ features twelve unremarkable and unsurprising songs ranging from around three minutes long to about five. Dave Mustaine’s trademark growl improved over the course of the band’s early albums as he started to sound less like an angry school girl and more like a grown up man doing a childish impression of a goblin, but it’s pretty much the same delivery that’s been used since ‘Countdown to Extinction,’ as are the default medium speed rhythms and restrained guitars. As the band is still called Megadeth, and is thus obligated to remain a little on the dark side, there are no glam rock piano ballads or overly optimistic lyrics, as the material ranges from short and punchy Nirvana-style generic disgust to acoustic ennui with catchy choruses, and occasional short-but-sweet call-backs to the band’s more energetic days.
Setting the pace of the album right from the start, the single ‘Trust’ opens with a slow drum solo that’s almost tribal sounding, one of the few mildly interesting touches of percussion on the album, before atmospheric backing keyboards fade in and David Eleffson’s bass clunks slowly along until it settles upon the recognisable main riff of the song, all too soon joined by Mustaine’s crisp sounding guitar. The production job on this album is technically impressive as is the norm for Megadeth’s 1990s releases, the instruments generally filling out the sound-scape with a little help from backing keyboards, making a radical departure from the dirty, echoed sound of their earlier work. As one of the longest songs on the album, still coming in at under six minutes, the song diversifies slightly through a soft, whispered middle section featuring acoustic guitar before the chorus returns and Mustaine is permitted to go off on one with his guitar solos. Overall, a song that owes far more to Black Sabbath or Nirvana than 80s Megadeth, but competently executed and inoffensive, much like the majority of the music to follow. The driving riff of the poppier ‘Almost Honest’ sounds even more like straight-up rock as the song leaves heavy metal behind, and this piece generally sounds a little outdated, even down to the slower, blues-inspired guitar solo. The main chorus is annoyingly and inappropriately upbeat and bouncy for the subject matter, but there’s really very little of interest here.
Perhaps taking note of this disappointing descent into archaism, the much improved ‘Use the Man’ begins with the conceit of a jolly sounding soft rock song in the vein of the Beatles being piped through a tinny radio, a trick used earlier in the band’s career with the album ‘So Far, So Good... So What?’ which proceeded to explode into a fast thrash riff. Here, the change is less cataclysmic and more mournful, as Mustaine takes over with an acoustic guitar, creating a spartan atmosphere for this tirade on drug use. Mustaine sounds like Kurt Cobain on this one, and his electric riffs, when they kick in, sound a lot like Sabbath. The climax of this song makes it all worthwhile, as strange sound effects beckon an unprecedented faster take on the song for the final forty seconds, which has the adverse effect of making the rest seem like a waste of time. It may be my own preference for the band’s earlier catalogue taking over, but the faster sections of this album, the really fast sections that stand out as being fast and full of energy, always prove to be my favourite parts.
Although the material thus far has been far from extraordinary, the songs have generally been individual and memorable enough to be credited as such. On an album of twelve very similar sounding songs, a useless filler track was going to come along sooner or later, and ‘Mastermind’ proves to be the first. Again sounding more like a traditional rock song than anything contemporary, perhaps revealing Mustaine’s own listening habits as Metallica would later unveil their taste for hard rock and country on ‘Load,’ this song does little more than take up three and a half minutes between two much more worthwhile songs, and not only because of Mustaine’s unintentional self-parody in the chorus, performing his snarling monster impressions for no reason. The only factor in this song’s credit is the guitar solo, which lasts a little longer and harks back to the slower solo sections of the classic ‘Rust in Peace’ album, something that continues in the very Megadeth-sounding ‘The Disintegrators.’ This shorter piece is the fastest on the album so far, lacking some of the volume and power of early Megadeth but still generating enough energy in the fast delivery of the chorus that Mustaine occasionally forgets to shout along in time. Even if it fades from memory after the disc is ejected, this song will at least, perhaps, cause the listener to think ‘there was quite a good fast one somewhere around track five.’
‘I’ll Get Even’ returns to pop territory a little, with the most obvious ‘beat’ of the album and a slow, sing-along chorus, but for once it’s done exactly right. The lyrics of insomnia and depression are perfectly suited to Mustaine’s off-sounding vocals, almost spoken word but still somehow managing to bridge a gap between rasping and singing, while the cool, slow guitar riffs are complemented by refreshingly unusual cow bells. This one stood out significantly on my last listen, even if it doesn’t sound as traditionally ‘Megadethy’ as the previous offering. Sadly, it’s time for another piece of filler, this time with a second-rate replica of ‘Trust’ that I keep expecting to descend back into that opening riff of the album. Mustaine continues to use the same vocal delivery as ‘I’ll Get Even,’ interspersing spoken word between guitar chords, but it sounds a lot more formulaic this time around. ‘A Secret Place’ is one of the most repetitive songs on the album, and pop-oriented again in the vein of ‘Almost Honest’ and ‘I’ll Get Even,’ but is weirdly my favourite of the lot. After the opening ‘THX digitally mastered’-sounding build-up comes an Eastern-sounding melody that lasts throughout the whole song, occasionally transferred between instruments if Mustaine needs to do a bit of a solo. It’s far from being a perfect song, ending frustratingly soon before heading off in interesting directions, but still individual enough to stand out.
In a seemingly deliberate reaffirmation of Megadeth’s political edge after all the wussy stuff, the band unwisely start the final third of the album with the mostly irritating ‘Have Cool, Will Travel.’ As the stupid title suggests, this is something of an unusual song, featuring harmonica and piano sections, but is primarily a very tired sounding blend of knock-off Sabbath riffs and unimaginative ‘nothing’s getting done’ and ‘point the finger’ accusations. Things look up with ‘She-Wolf,’ likely my favourite song on the album and a fine return to form, opening with a scratchy thrash riff that only increases to blistering speed as the music continues. With lyrics concerning the ‘mother of all that is evil,’ this is a great metal song in the classic tradition, even going out on a dual lead guitar section that would sound fairly run-of-the-mill on an Iron Maiden album, but really shines out here. The next song ‘Vortex’ continues in the same style, but can’t really keep up with the pace, acting as the filler for this final heavy metal third of the album, and sounding oddly long despite only lasting for three and a half minutes. The final track, enigmatically titled ‘FFF’ which the chorus reveals, disappointingly, to be merely ‘Fight For Freedom’ rather than anything more risqué, is an average but enjoyable return to Megadeth’s roots as a punk-thrash band, though the uncertain lyrics – eventually arriving at ‘fight for anything’– reveal the naivety of this early, nihilistic attitude. Sounding much like Metallica’s ‘Motorbreath,’ written when Mustaine was still a primary songwriter before that band started releasing albums, this nevertheless feels more nostalgic than genuine.
The desperation for radio/MTV attention permeates the entire album, and it’s clear that the formerly talented and experimental musicians, particularly lead guitarist Marty Friedman, face imposing restrictions on their originality due to Mustaine’s self-confessed desire ‘for that Number One record I so badly needed,’ admitted in the album booklet (it would only get to Number Ten). ‘Cryptic Writings’ is still currently the last Megadeth album to sell comparatively well, showing that the recent return to form with this year’s ‘United Abominations’ may not be what the public are into so long after the band’s heyday, but at least the band can satisfy and win back its large and loyal fan base.
‘She-Wolf’ is perhaps the only song on here to live up to fan expectations, though ‘Trust,’ ‘I’ll Get Even’ and the last thirty seconds of ‘Use the Man’ manage to be fairly successful examples of what the band were aiming for at this period; sadly, the majority of the album sounds weak in comparison. ‘Cryptic Writings’ favours clichéd emotional lyrics and weakly abstract political themes over the more specifically targeted anarchy the band are more famous for, and no amount of irrelevantly mysterious cover art can satiate disappointed long-time fans.