I’d be hard-pressed to identify which of the “Big Four” of thrash metal has had the most tragic, Paradise Lost-style fall from grace – at least artistically, since none of those bands will ever go hungry. Slayer is engaged in antitheist self-parody at this point in their career. Anthrax is the group which, in the historical record, is most likely to be forgotten and replaced by some Bay Area band like Exodus or Testament. Metallica is in the lovely, paradoxical position that bands like Green Day and U2 are in: they indisputably have millions of fans, but ask most people you know and the response will range from indifferent to hostile. But to me, the story of Megadeth is the most depressing. They are also engaged in a form of self-parody, but unlike Slayer’s cartoonish and questionable anti-religiosity, Megadeth’s downfall lies on the shoulders of one man: Dave Mustaine. Thrash’s resident and foremost conspiracy theorist, ever fascinated by the occult, the extraterrestrial, and the paranoia-inspiring, has transformed into something very different and yet oddly familiar over the years.
In the 80s, Mustaine and Megadeth stood in opposition to the “moral majority” of Christian evangelism and conservatism. Mustaine wasn’t the type I’d call politically nuanced (i.e., the ill-conceived and ill-timed support for the Irish Republican Army, brought upon because he heard the words “the cause” and got excited), but the band filled some necessary niches – musical, as metal fought unsuccessfully to shake off glam, and political, as they criticized American power structures and hypocrisy within the framework of a largely apolitical genre. They would continue to do this for a bulk of their career, ramping up in the two records they released during the Bush administration. But Mustaine has also swung to the radical right in a way that is both saddening and not all that surprising; the “New World Order” stuff rife through their album Endgame, buying into the “birther” controversy, endorsing Rick “Sometimes Frothy” Santorum for the presidency in 2012. It’s all very surreal, and yet as partisanship has shifted it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, Mustaine just can’t resist inserting his bizarre conspiratorial politics into his records.
Dystopia is certainly better sonically than the radio-metal of their last outing Super Collider. That said, Megadeth is largely floundering in an old sound gussied up with contemporary production, and to make matters worse it’s thick with xenophobic politics and bland platitudes that taint everything vaguely redeemable about the record. This is immediately obvious: album opener “The Threat Is Real” begins with a “Middle Eastern” vocal melody and a pretty sweet if repetitive thrash riff. But the song takes on a very uncomfortable tone when Mustaine (whose voice, never beautiful, has further deteriorated into being nigh-unlistenable) starts singing about a vaguely defined “culture made of cover ups where leprosy touch their flesh” that storms through an unchecked door to issue “a deadly strike”.
Similar themes slip in throughout the record. “Post-American World” is an incredibly generic thrash song for the most part, and by the time a well-orchestrated outro of solos and arpeggios arrive, the listener has had to suffer through Mustaine quite literally moaning about the possibility of American dominance being disrupted by class warfare and the failure to assert strength. “Lying In State” specifically cites “manufactured [crises]” designed to distract us, recalling Mustaine’s claims that mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary are calculated and staged by the government to get us all to give up our guns. Both this song and the title track have an undercurrent of the reactionary rhetoric that has increased of late as “political correctness” and identity politics become further integrated into American political discourse.
I could perhaps overlook the conspiratorial and jingoistic nonsense – the lyrics would usually be easily ignored by their very nature, Mustaine’s vocals are rarely the main draw of a Megadeth album – but the music is actually quite uninspired for the most part, and as a result it becomes very difficult to pay attention to anything but the lyrics. The singles are pretty solid (“Fatal Illusion” has a great bass interlude), and the instrumental “Conquer or Die” (despite its bad title) is a cool piece of fingerpicked acoustic guitars that escalate into multi-layered solos and riffs. But most of what’s presented is far too familiar for Megadeth and for metal. The most egregious example is “The Emperor”, a display of toxic masculinity and overcompensating aggression that would fit perfectly into a Five Finger Death Punch album. This is not a compliment. Meanwhile, “Bullet to the Brain” is a “black widow” story, and “Poisonous Shadows” is a calculated “epic” song with drop-tuned guitars ringing out as the guitarist travels up the fretboard and through the open strings, and features some of the worst singing on the record. There are no songs that I feel compelled to revisit; whenever something musically interesting surfaces, it’s bogged down by mediocre lyricism, and when there’s not something musically interesting, it’s that plus mediocre lyricism.
When I heard the title of Dystopia, I expected a concept album – the term lends itself to a narrative. I didn’t expect much of that concept album, figuring that Mustaine would stick to Orwellian tech-dystopia without exploring the range of dystopian thought that exists outside of 1984, but I just figured it would be bland. Instead, Dystopia, when not boring, is actively despicable in its intentions. Though most of the record is merely dull, the moments of poor taste, flag-waving, and xenophobia transform it into a symbol of the hollow shell of a band that Megadeth now is, conspiratorial for the sake of being conspiratorial rather than to serve any aesthetic or political purpose, just as Slayer is antitheist for the sake of being antitheist. Perhaps this is appropriate: some key elements of dystopia are defamiliarizing the familiar and fostering dread, and the album has done this incredibly well. The familiar sound of Megadeth is made foreign by its 9/11 Truther mindset, and has done a great job of fostering dread for whatever Megadeth makes next.
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