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The titular phrase has been common in Megadeth fandom since the early days of the band. It was a celebration of the band's leader, but it also had a certain ironic charm. The Dave Mustaine of the 1980s was drug and alcohol-addled, irreverent towards religion and politics, and had a certifiable rebel aura. He was the antithesis of the Reagan era conservative establishment. In the current American political situation, the irony may well be lost. Mustaine is a born again Christian who writes songs protesting the United Nations and the expansion of government power and worrying over conspiracy theories like the so-called New World Order (and given his association with psychopathic radio host and cruel, lying bastard Alex Jones, probably some others). Somehow, this might just make him a feasible candidate for the listless and rebuilding Republican Party. He calls back to the party's recent Evangelical past, fits in with its current pseudo-libertarian and tin foil hat spasms, and reaches out to the key demographic of metal fans who somehow still think this guy is cool.
Now, to return to the “glory days” of Megadeth, there is Rust in Peace. Depending on who you ask, this or Peace Sells... But Who's Buying? is the peak. I'm of the latter persuasion. This album does, however, represent the last gasp of credible Megadeth before Dave followed his former band/white whale's lead into arena metal and the '90s wilderness years of radio rock experimentation and 21st century attempts to make amends with the fanbase via rehashing or roughly approximating an "old sound". At the same time, it does foreshadow the decline in two ways. The first is something that can be witnessed in many thrash metal bands at the end of the '80s and into the '90s, especially the more famous bands in the “Bay Area” scene. With experience came increased technical skill, the flashy display of which became an important component of the bands' sounds. As they gained more attention from fans, they moved to larger record labels with access to expensive studios and more professional producers. The result was slick and accessible music with that was nevertheless fairly complex. It was and is easy to get into, but the skill and underground origin of the performers gave it a certain credibility and sense of depth. The result is what I've come to call arena-prog thrash. (I must pause here to give some credit to MushroomStamp, as a conversation with him a while back [which he may well have forgotten by now] led me to this concept.) Despite its complexity, this is music that inescapably is meant for a mass audience, and I am sure the bands were well aware of this when they went to compose a record to deliver to a major label. Which brings me to the more idiosyncratic and important flaw of Rust in Peace: it's a singles album.
A singles album, as the epithet obviously suggests, is one that is ultimately based on a handful of very strong songs that establish a formula, with the remainder of the record based on those tunes, with a few changes to the equation for variety's sake. Like any good singles album, Rust in Peace front loaded the most important songs, “Holy Wars... The Punishment Due” and “Hangar 18”. One is a multi-faceted mini-epic with contrasting, distinct segments, while the other is centered on high speed and, while also having multiple parts, is more cohesive. Now, every band uses songwriting formulas, so my criticism isn't purely based on the fact that Megadeth employed them here. Hell, a lot of better bands and albums have even more limited songwriting ranges. The problem here is that the best and most interesting ideas are concentrated in these first two songs. These aren't even necessarily great ideas. “The Punishment Due” tanks a bit when it slows down, primarily due to a particularly poor Mustaine vocal and particularly poor and heavy-handed lyrics. “Hangar 18” is the top track of the album, a speed burner with catchy (almost iconic in the case of the opening) riffs and a groovy jamming lead breakdown which gradually builds back to speed for the climax, and a snarling vocal.
“Take No Prisoners” is probably the second best track on the album. In terms of formula, one could say this takes the most visceral elements of “Hangar 18” and focuses them into one stomping cut. Gang vocals and alternating between speed and mid-paced grooves during the verses heighten the sense of aggression. I also must mention the bass drop, which back when some old friends and I were neophyte metalheads at the age of 13 or so, was jaw dropping. We thought it was almost inhumanly fast back then. Anyway, this song succeeds on account of its relative simplicity. “Five Magics” returns to the “Holy Wars...” mold with its long build into a heavy metal gallop and abrupt changes in pace. It has a great chorus, but otherwise plods a little bit between that and the leads. The frequent changes often come at the expense of the best riffing. “Poison Was the Cure” begins with an ominous bass feature before breaking into more of a “Hangar 18” type song with some neat NWOBHM-esque riffs that sound like they could have been Killing Is My Business... rejects.
“Lucretia” and “Tornado of Souls” are the two worthwhile songs with a Dave Ellefson songwriting assist and perhaps for this reason escape the formula of the singles a little bit. “Lucretia”, unfortunately, grooves along rather miserably and is probably the worst of the real songs on the album. It kind of takes the “Hangar 18” approach and makes it slower and boring. I'd like it more if it was a cover of The Sisters of Mercy's excellent “Lucretia, My Reflection”, but every metal band that has tried that has failed to do anything good with it, so it's probably just as well that it's a mediocre original. “Tornado of Souls” is one of the better songs and is sort of a hybrid of the two formulas, marrying distinct passages with a good sense of flow. “Dawn Patrol” is a piece of shit. This is actually Ellefson's last songwriting contribution to the album and I can't believe it took two people to write this waste of space (unless it was improvised while high or something). Mustaine's vocal can only be described as douche-y. No matter how many times I hear his normal speaking voice, this is how I imagine him talking to his family and friends in private. “Rust in Peace... Polaris” closes the album with a more straightforward tune. It grooves along acceptably, but ranks towards the bottom of the pile.
Another point worth addressing briefly is the production. This review has dealt with the original CD version. It's one of those strange major label thrash productions that is slick and professional to match the music, but in some ways might work against the album by sapping some of its potential aggression and heaviness. I can't really call it bad as it presents a pretty clear sonic space with every instrument very audible. Unfortunately, the guitar tone is quite thin and has a strange jangly feel. The bass also has a somewhat weak plunking sound. It certainly is unique sounding for a metal album, but I can't help wondering if many of the songs, and especially “Lucretia”, might have a little more force behind them with a chunkier sound.
Returning to Megadeth's present, it seems to me that whenever Dave and his backing band get ready to drop a new album, the hype involves the question of whether and hope that it will be the true successor to Rust in Peace. Well, guess what? He's already delivered it twice and at the time of this writing is preparing to drop what will likely be the third one! The post-injury albums all have a few strong and interesting songs that define the album, then a bunch of tunes that round things out by reusing or merging their templates, and some songs with a touch of the wilderness years for extra spice. Probably their biggest weakness is that Mustaine hasn't been wise enough to front load. This is why it's unlikely that Megadeth will ever truly reclaim their glory days and deliver a worthy successor to their real masterpiece and only work remotely deserving that status, Peace Sells. That was a set of individual songs that captured different writing styles and moods while flowing together into one coherent piece of music. Rust in Peace has two strong singles, a couple very good b-sides, and rounds out with some derivative material of varying effectiveness. It's good to be sure, but falls well short of greatness.