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God, this review needed a fucking rewrite. So here's a rewrite.
I’ve always had a real soft-spot for Megadeth. I think it has something to do with my undying affection for the underdog. In spite of being one of the biggest bands in metal history (sales-wise they’ve gotta be in the top 10) they are always being compared to the incomparable, and it just doesn’t seem fair. Whether or not you love/loved Metallica, they are the biggest metal band in the history of popular music and by light-years. Sales mean approximately shit-all when you’re talking about music, but Dave Mustaine’s undying urge to compete with ‘Tallica is a hallmark of the Megadeth catalogue. Thus Dave is the underdog, and in his hopeless guerrilla war against Metallica there have been precious few wins. Megadeth has been better than temporally adjacent Metallica on certain albums (or songs, or riffs), but never more successful.
Megadeth opened up shop early in the thrash game, but rather than be a baby Metallica Dave began consistently pumping out good to fucking great records that showcased a virtuosity and verve that made them the musician’s choice of the subgenre. On this record, Peace Sells... But Who’s Buying?, this sound is still going through growing pains. It is fast and tricky, but some of these songs come off as half-baked or generic (in that way that only Megadeth songs are generic). The technical play is often rather rockscrabble and some of the songs have transitions that are simply bafflingly wrongheaded. The nuts and bolts of the mine cart aren’t screwed in very tightly, and Dave’s mind is one hell of a treacherous road to travel down in such a rickety contraption. But damn if it isn’t a charming ride, and a ride with squarely classic moments that are as good or better than anything else released in ‘86, probably THE watershed year for thrash. And that my friends, is a damn good sign.
Consider the Grade A riffing on “My Last Words”, the gleefully desperate performance by Mustaine, the power-thrash ride out, the lengthy and memorable solo by Chris Poland... Dave had a real feel for how to write quality thrash back in the day, and it says something that he still retained that touch well into the 90s. On the other end of the album “Wake Up Dead” is a perfect intro to the record. It isn’t even that the song is that well thought-out, its just such a great intro when considered as an album opener. The thing begins with a 02:30 riffstorm (really no other word would be correct) before a very brief surge of virtually inaudible mewling indicates that this thing isn’t actually an instrumental before surging into a bloody excellent solo and yep, more fucking riffs.
“The Conjuring” finds Dave trying on one of his ever present over-the-top characters (he’s really one of the few vocalists in metal who goes so far as to do accents during songs) during the intro before giving us a surprisingly smooth solo/riff barrage before finally switching gears into a scrap-metal KIMB riff, before dropping into a sick groove for the chorus, back into a spiky thrash riff and then, more killer headspinning groove-thrash. Every time you think know where Dave is going he goes somewhere else, all the while branding it with an echo-heavy distorted lyric that drips with demon wax.
I use “The Conjuring” as an example of how this album refuses to do what you expect of it. I mean, few if any thrash bands had attempted the almost danceable bass-hook on the front half of “Peace Sells” and few would even after. But that isn’t because it didn’t work. It’s more likely because they couldn’t pull it off. Dave Mustaine has always had a little Alice Cooper in his blood and even hardcore thrashers were willing to follow him as he spun his fiendishly creative and punk-drenched little manifesto because he was so damned entertaining doing it. I don’t discount Dave Ellefson’s gift in this area either; he is certainly one of the most versatile bassists in the thrash game and the fact that he could actually inject a bit of funk into Megadeth on this track and make it into one of the best-loved intros in all of metal is an accomplishment of no little merit. And hell, thank Chris Poland for those police-siren lead fills that give the song more edge than it might’ve otherwise possessed.
For all the creativity Peace Sells has, it is riven through with filler. We’re looking specifically at “Bad Omen” and “Devil’s Island” here, both pretty uninspired and derivative thrash that might’ve turned heads back in ‘84 but are now swallowed whole by the five good-to-classic songs around it and the incredible surplus of thrash glory outside of the album. It isn’t that they’re bad (“Bad Omen” is actually quite good, with its “Gates of Babylon”-like verse riff), its more that they have been completely obscured by the rest of the album and there’s really no reason to trouble your brain to recall them. And kindly ignore the hideous “I Ain’t Superstitious” which, in spite of a fun vocal performance, is one for the refuse pile. Why was Megadeth always so terrible at covers anyway?
Peace Sells is also scarred by heaviness-robbing overly trebly production (like Rust in Peace), poor mixing (Dave’s voice is way too low), and a somewhat frequent occurrence of what I’ll call “chickenscratch guitar” which refers to the way the guitars are sometimes too raw and have a tendency to poke and prod at the ears. Dave’s yowling cat-in-heat vocals are also quite underdeveloped here, which is sometimes good (“PAINT THE DEVIL ON THE WALL!”) and sometimes... not.
All in all, well worth getting but certainly bearing the marks of a band that hasn’t quite gotten their shit together yet. For every classy moment (gore-soaked epic “Good Mourning/Black Friday”) you get an amateurish mistake. In the end, Peace Sells... But Who’s Buying? makes up for its short-comings in hapless charm, devil-may-care attitude, and oh yeah, neckwrecking riffs. Good shit in my book, but there would be better stuff to come.
Stand-Outs: “Peace Sells”, “My Last Words”, “Good Mourning/Black Friday”