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Megadeth’s best shot at getting on top of the thrash heap was with this album; Metallica and Slayer had peaked four or so years ago (Anthrax never being any competition to these three), thrash was probably at it’s commercial apex- or at least pretty close to it- it was the perfect time to strike. It wasn’t a bad attempt, but various head-scratching ideas in this album stop it from being the definitive statement that Megadeth probably hoped it would be.
Let’s not waste any time and go to the most obvious point here: Megadeth absolutely suck(ed?) at mid paced riffs. It’s no coincidence that the best tracks and moments here are when restraint is abandoned and Mustaine and co. construct strange and beautiful towers of fast paced thrashing ecstasy. Perhaps it’s just because Mustaine’s vocals are more audible (never a good thing) when things get slower and more melodic, maybe it was a poor attempt at copying Metallica’s AJFA when Megadeth were always better at being faster and more violent. Who knows? Regardless, they’re pretty much consistently terrible and there’s a lot of them. Holy Wars is good enough proof; the opening is pretty much the best thing ever, but come the "know it all scholar" bit things start going down hill quickly, and we’re treated to a few awful momentum-sapping minutes of Mustaine doing some truly horrible wailing while a bunch of really meandering riffs crap on your thrash boner. Perhaps it’s because at this point Megadeth still weren’t any good at making hooks, I dunno. Attempts at slower choruses and catchy mid paced riffs just consistently fail; Hangar 18’s vocal lines and riffs aren’t really any good until the solo section comes along, likewise Five Magics is pretty much anti-catchy for a time. Lucretia being the most mid tempo of all of them, and also the most awful; before some redemption is found in the solo the riffs are average and vocals ruthlessly terrible, Mustaine doing his best wailing cat/ozzy tribute. It’s a really terrible song that’s possibly even worse then the horrible interlude that’s Dawn Patrol.
Anyway, a lot of this record is pretty excellent; Take no Prisoners has some fairly awful gang vocals (Urinate them! Masturbate them!) but otherwise is pure thrashing orgasm; fast, super choppy riffs with a rather strange structure to the song that keeps you guessing throughout- not a verse/chorus and more a long build where everything gets increasingly choppy, chaotic and awesome. Continuing this "choppy and fast is where it’s at" theme, Poison was The Cure is quality; slow bass intro (pretty sure DooM ripped this off?) gives way to massive hammer on riff times before Friedman goes crazy. He’s in rare form on this album; shredding up a total storm- consistently fast and pretty technical but always fairly melodic and purposeful. I’d say that based on my "extensive" (haha) knowledge of thrash this has the best lead guitars of any thrash album. People are always pretty keen on the solo in Tornado of Souls- fair enough, it’s pretty cool; but I’d reckon Poison was the Cure is his best moment here, it’s relatively short and not quite as epic as the aforementioned Tornado, but it’s pretty much a totally perfect solo without a note out of place; lead guitar perfection in the 32 or however many bars it goes for. It’s an ideal mix of speed and compositional skillz throughout the album; I wish this dude could’ve played on every single thrash album.
For 80% or however much of the album, the instrumental work is either faultless or pretty damn close to it. Rhythm section’s tight, Mustaine’s guitar contributions (when playing fast stuff) are of a consistently high quality, honestly when everything comes together it’s a real sight to behold; a glorious, super intricate sort of noise, like a truck carrying fifty guitars and three drum kits rolling off a cliff. The title track’s probably where everything works the best, huge guitar riffs and a catchy chorus (!!!!) holding sway before all hell breaks loose in the last half. The last half’s a bit overlong and repetitive, but having said that I’m a big fan of overlong and repetitive stuff, especially when the riffs are of as good a quality as they are here. Fantastic stuff. If the vocals were as good as the instruments, you’d have an amazing album.
Not to be, though. Those familiar with metal will know that throughout it’s history there’s been a rather perplexing tendency to willingly overlook, or even praise terrible vocalists; Ozzy, that dude in Diamond Head (Sean Harris?), Varg, Akerfeldt, the dude in Agalloch. There’s millions of ‘em (literally) and I’d say the figurehead of the bad-vocalist apologetics movement would be our man Mustaine. I can appreciate that he was too busy writing awesome thrash riffage here to bother about good vocal lines, and perhaps Megadeth couldn’t afford enough studio time so Mustaine had to record the vocals when he had a cold; alternatively they hired a 13 year old to do the vocals, as a joke. Regardless: they are awe-inspiring in their shittiness. Upon hearing Mustaine’s first vocal line a bunch of questions will undoubtedly enter your mind: Did I accidentally buy/download the Anal Cunt parody of the real thing? Perhaps these are the backing vocals? Will he start singing properly in the chorus? Why did they hire a 13 year old? How is it possible to write such bad vocal melodies? Why didn’t Mustaine bring another vocalist in? And so on and so forth. The vocals are horrible; whiny, nasal tones that struggle to get anywhere near the required pitch, devoid of any power (Dawn Patrol being an amusing example of this; hear Mustaine painfully struggle to get as deep as possible) and just overall terrible on a level you’ve never heard before. Mustaine: he’s an objectively horrible vocalist, no two ways about it.
It’s a real shame that the vocals blow as hard as they do. It’s a real shame that these guys developed a boner for mid paced riffs. There’s a lot to love about this album- a few songs and plenty of moments of near-perfection- but likewise there’s a lot about this that’s just straight out annoying, and while that accentuates the good parts it also makes them more frustrating. Mustaine is clearly a really gifted songwriter and guitarist, and the rest of Megadeth had a level of mastery on their instruments that’s rarely seen. As it stands though this is good, maybe even great, but not the "holy crap guys best thing ever" that they had intended it to be. I’d still recommend you buy it post haste, though.