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Megadeth have always been an odd band for me, and more than a bit of a mixed bag. This was the first album I heard by them, from samples on iTunes, and I'll fully admit this right from the bat: When I first listened to those samples, I thought they were a joke band.
Blasphemy? Perhaps, but only to absurdly obsessive elitist faggots. Or, to be more precise (and fairer), I don't really believe in blasphemy; Metal has no sacred cows. Well, it does, but I couldn't care less, and so to me, they don't exist. A feeling that Megadeth's music, their lyrics, and their vocalist are all a big joke is no more an insult than the overstated (and ridiculously obvious) observations of some metalheads that Metallica have meant nothing since the Black Album. As if, and that's the irony - a lot of those people are simply jealous and angry of Metallica's stunning success in becoming full blown rock stars. Sure they'll deny it, but if you look deep enough, it's there.
Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that whether I believed Megadeth's music was a joke or not at the time was purely arbitrary. Anthrax was often jokey, did that make early classics like Among the Living and Spreading the Disease lame? No. Of course, Megadeth's music isn't a joke, and never has been; putting aside Peace Sells's value as a sacred cow (whether or not to be slaughtered), I fully admit to simply having been ignorant when I first heard the album. Wake Up Dead was, to me, very odd, yet not jokey - just odd. The Conjuring sounded a little like a silly attempt at being evil that, in comparison to Slayer, just didn't work. (I still hold this opinion to this day - more on that later) And the title track? Yeah, that one was an oddball. It was this song, with its not all that heavy riffs and its seemingly jokey vibe, that made me think of Megadeth as a joke band for a while. That was, until I realised the lyrics, despite being sarcastic and snarky, were meant to be taken seriously - I had thought of them as a joke because I'd never heard anything like that in metal before. Previously, it was all either depressing doom metal, brutal thrash, vicious death metal, evil and often raw black metal, or classic metal that I thought of at the time as hard rock (that's for another time). Megadeth were thrash, and they were faster than Metallica, but they weren't brutal like Slayer. They were...well, different.
Some point later, I listened to Rust In Peace, and this...well, again, it was odd. Holy Wars worked for me, but the rest of the album didn't. Again, I had trouble connecting with Megadeth.
Finally, I went back to this album, and this time listened to the songs properly.
My opinion changed entirely.
Put basically, no matter what you may think of him as a vocalist, Dave Mustaine is, in my opinion as well as that of many others, a somewhat twisted, yet definite genius of a man. In fact, a twisted genius may be the best way to describe him, on this album especially, which is crammed full of crazy yet workable ideas that all come together as one to form a classic thrash album. Yet, this isn't typical thrash at all...nothing on the album is. It's all unusual, very unique, in that way that simply stands out, and like so many others places Megadeth amongst the top metal acts of all time as much because of that uniqueness as anything else, if not more.
Wake Up Dead exemplifies this in so many ways. The drum and bass only intro that explodes into...well, odd riffage, with Dave's very odd and, here, very low vocals. Almost like he's whispering, or talking drunkenly. Then this crazy solo kicks in, all the while tempo changes galore have already begun...and we haven't even reached the first memorable riff yet. That's just coming up. As the solo fades out, a new riff begins, eventually shifting into that crushing thrash riff that makes use of Mustaine's unique "Spider Chord" style of guitar playing. It repeats four times, then the ending is altered with more Spider Chords...then comes another tempo change, into something even faster, with another crazy solo played over some riffs that sound like they're in the pentatonic scale, except so fast that it's hard to be absolutely sure. Then the song speeds up even more into truly crushing, windmill worthy speeds, with yet more new riffs, now played atonally! Then a somewhat memorable riff kicks in again under Dave's now more prevalent and obvious vocals...and we see that the song is about being found out by your girlfriend after cheating on her. A joke? Not really, as the song's structure indicates. It's odd, frenetic, even disturbing more than funny.
Suddenly it all stops. Then a crushing drumbeat signals the arrival of a new riff - an angry, vicious, slower riff. A few moments later one of the album's greatest solos begins. This is a real killer, a dark harmonic minor scaled solo with a somewhat middle-eastern vibe, but whose real purpose is to sound tense, angry, aggressive, even deathly. The speed and ability of Dave as a guitar player is really pushed to the forefront here. As the solo fades, cries of "WAKE UP DEEEEAAAD!" ring out over the continuing riffage. Finally, after this repeats a couple of times, the song ends with a final, almost forlorn "Wake up dead!".
And all of that, ladies and gentlemen, happened in less than four minutes.
That's Mustaine for ya. Crazy, fucked up on drugs, booze, and chicks, but oh so clever in his own warped manner.
The rest of the album is a similarly bizarre, sometimes schizophrenic affair, with a mixture of slower, sometimes more "normal" songs, mixed with some insanely fast numbers. "The Conjuring" has an intro that tries too hard to be sinister and, in comparison to Slayer, simply doesn't work (this keeping in mind that Hell Awaits was released a year before this album, too). However, once it speeds up, this song is a great thrasher, again with tempo changes, crushing riffs, and crazy solos galore.
The title track is absurdly simple, far simpler than almost anything Metallica was doing at the same time, yet it works. Unlike Metallica, Dave didn't have this hypocritical view of being above MTV. He used it, and it worked. Ironically, he was still less popular than Metallica was even before they released the Black Album. In another silly irony, Metallica changed their tune entirely when they released a music video for "One", then just decided "fuck it" and released the Black Album. I don't hold anything against them for doing that, and in many ways it may simply have been a natural progression. But if they had been less overly anti MTV and anti-commercial from the start, they would probably have got a lot less criticism when they changed, since they wouldn't have been hypocrites.
Anyway, moving on. The point I was trying to make was that Dave didn't care about whether being on MTV made him a sellout or not - he just did it. And yes, Peace Sells is a fairly accessible song by thrash standards. Still, it works, and his snarky, sarcastic delivery is part of that charm. Without it, the song just wouldn't be the same. Once I got used to it, I grew to quite enjoy the song. Not as much as many of the others on the album, but it's still great in its own way. Whether it's a metal classic or not is indisputable, but to me, it's never been more than very good. The lyrics are the best part, both in that they are about being a metalhead (to a point) and just as a general "fuck the system, I'll do as I please" song in favour of individual choice, which is very much a metal thing.
"Devil's Island" is a very straightforward thrasher, probably more straightforward than any other song on the album in fact. It starts off slow and crushing, has a tiny bass interlude, then becomes a speedy crusher. It's a decent song, yet not much more. For this reason, I have to place it as amongst my least favourite songs on this album (along with the Willie Dixon cover). It's not bad, just very ordinary, which by Megadeth standards is a bit of a bummer.
Now we come to one of this album's true masterpieces. Good Mourning...Black Friday is one of the heaviest, darkest, most aggressive, ugly, nasty, vicious, and fucked up thrash songs not in the category of brutal thrash that you'll find anywhere. By Megadeth standards this is pure evil. Sure it's not that nasty compared to Slayer, Kreator, Sodom, Destruction, Dark Angel, Sepultura, etc, but those all come under the umbrella of brutal thrash, which Megadeth does not. As such, this song is extremely dark and a really vicious thrasher, probably one of the most extreme songs Dave ever wrote.
It begins ever so slowly, calmly, yet in a sinister way, with a doomy, gloomy vibe suited to a song about a crazed serial killer. The solo here is phenomenal; filled with emotion, bluesy, and dark as fuck, and it just plain works. Continuing over the clean, creepy intro riffs, the song then explodes into heaviness around the 1 minute mark, with the clean guitars overtaken by the distorted ones. The solo then disappears, to be replaced by more clean riffs, except by this point, they are building up and up, tension mounting, reaching a deeper and deeper level, while Dave's vocals appear, now properly after his brief "Good Mourning" exclamation earlier. "Hey, I don't feel so good...something's not right...something's coming over me...what the fuck is this...?" Boom! That pick slide, and the guitars explode along with Dave! "WHHHOOOOOOAAAAAA!" DUN, DUN, DUN, DUN DUN - DUN DUN DUN, DUN, DUNNNNN...it goes on and on.
Then it changes. Very abruptly. Screaming riffage kicks in, along with a new solo, before it all stops again. Then a new riff begins. Some of the most crushing speeds yet heard on the album now can be heard in earnest, along with a crazed performance by Dave. The song stays this way until the end, a maelstrom of madness suited to a twisted, killer looney. Something's not right, indeed.
"Bad Omen" is another very dark number, but rather more 'normal' when compared to its predecessor. After a sinister intro, it gets heavy, with some odd sounding pick slides that work very well. Afterwards it's just a straightforward thrasher, but a hell of a lot better overall than "Devil's Island".
Now the cover. I'm sorry, but covers of this nature have never really appealed to me, and I'm rather grateful that this stopped following So Far, So Good, So What. I mean, a blues cover on a thrash album? Yes, I know that without blues there would be no rock, thus no hard rock, thus no metal, and thus no thrash...but still, this just doesn't really work. It comes across as very light and silly.
Thankfully, one cannot say the same about the very last song here, which is a masterwork in almost every way. "My Last Words" opens with a somewhat sinister clean guitar intro, before the distortion kicks in, but without drums, so no actual heaviness...yet. Then the song gets very bluesy, but heavy and fast as fuck. Very much like speed metal here, as much as thrash if not more, but that doesn't matter - Megadeth's unique character has always made them standout, usually in a good way, and this is no exception. Well, the riffs are a little repetitive, I'll admit. I wish it wasn't just the same two riffs repeated ad nauseam for over two minutes. In fact, this is a rather annoying point that could have easily been averted - Dave has more than enough writing ability to have come up with a new riff. Unfortunately he doesn't, not until about 3.10 into the song, at which point everything changes. A vicious (I've really overused that word on this review) speed metal riff kicks in, and the song gets really FUCKING FAST. Seriously. This cross into something almost insane is what makes the song so special. The solo is also phenomenal here, with tons of melody, a few arpeggios, and a great vibe. Finally, the song closes with the same riffs and Dave screaming: "You! Come on! Next victim! Your...turn to DIE!". The only silly part is that the song is about Russian Roulette, which is a game usually played by choice. Nevertheless, what a closer.
So yeah. This album is a masterpiece in almost every way, with a couple of weaker moments. You've got killer songs (pardon the pun) like Wake Up Dead, Good Mourning, and My Last Words. You've got great songs in The Conjuring and Bad Omen. You've got a good song in the title track. And you've got an average song in Devil's Island, plus a barely average cover of Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious".
I've added this up to around 90. The album is great, hugely influential, and some parts of it are masterful. Suffice it to say, looking past the weaker elements that are still here, if you are a fan of thrash, or any metal at all, this is an album you cannot do without. Sure it's got some bad spots, and some rough edges here and there (remember, Megadeth at this point were still a fairly young band - Mustaine's genius aside, they were youthful and in some ways even inexperienced - something that would change drastically by Rust in Peace), but that's part of the charm. That wild abandon, sheer madness in places worthy only of a heavy metal musician. At the end of the day, Peace Sells, for all its flaws, is a winner.