Sunday, March 10, 2013

Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction


To me, Countdown to Extinction is pretty much the Megadeth album that most accurately and succinctly sums up the band's mission statement.  What would that be, you ask?  For my money, it'd be "Be more successful than Metallica".  Not "be better", not "be more extreme", but "be more successful".  Dave's undying resentment for being kicked out of Metallica for what he perceived as hypocritical reasons (matters of degree is a concept utterly incapable of existing inside a brain as malformed as Mustaine's) has never been a secret, but it seems like a lot of people seem to brush it off or view it as a kind of motivation to make much better music.  Personally, the first three Metallica albums are all better than the first three Megadeth albums, but ever since then Megadeth has pretty solidly had the upper hand.  I will not deny for one second that Rust in Peace blows pretty much everything Metallica has ever released out of the water, and it's a personal Top 10 All Time album for me, but Megadeth on the whole has always annoyed me for being a blatantly one-dimensional band with only one goal in mind, and no album illustrates that better than Countdown to Extinction.

You see, most Megadeth albums have a corresponding Metallica album(s), everything the band has ever done has simply been reacting to what Metallica was doing at the time and trying to beat them at their own game.  Admittedly, they usually succeed, but I just can't bring myself to respect the band (or really just Dave Mustaine, since he's always been the band) as much as their symbolic big brother.  Metallica did the whole sellout thing in 1991, we all know that, but after achieving that monstrous amount of money, fame, and money, they've always just kind of been doing whatever the hell they felt like doing.  They'd reached that point of security where they'd always be famous, people would always clamor to hear a new album, and so they started doing the whole laid back rock thing and whatever the hell St. Anger was.  Megadave on the other hand just seemed to go "Metallica's songs are getting longer and more adventurous?  Well so are mine!  What?  They play commercial hard rock now?  SO DO I!  They're getting heavier again?  Well two can play at that game!".  It's actually really frustrating to me to see a man with such immense songwriting talent and knack for assembling great musicians around him to tie his songwriting to the one-track mindset of "try to do the same thing this one band I have a grudge against does, but do it better than them".  I'd like to see the alternate universe where Dave was never a part of Metallica and instead just had a ton of his own ideas he wanted to unleash.

So around this time, Metallica had become one of the biggest metal/hard rock bands in the world, and so Megadeth of course had to follow suit.  When it comes to the album this was modeled after (The Black Album, obviously), I really like a few songs but overall think the album's just okay.  I think "Nothing Else Matters" is a pretty decent ballad, as is "The Unforgiven", and I really like "Through the Never", and I have a nostalgia-fogged love of "Wherever I May Roam" and "Of Wolf and Man", but I could go the rest of my life without ever hearing "Enter Sandman" or fucking "Sad But True" ever again.  Unsurprisingly, that view kind of parallels with Countdown to Extinction here, as the two big singles ("Symphony of Destruction" and "Sweating Bullets") are pretty far and away the worst songs on display.  It's not necessarily because of how overtly commercial and radio-friendly they are (the other big single, "Foreclosure of a Dream", is most definitely both of those things, and I like that song plenty), but more because they just sound half assed and written in half an hour.  They both ride on the most bewilderingly simplistic mid-paced chugs and place a huge emphasis on the vocals.  This has always been a giant obstacle for me, as let's face it, Dave Mustaine has a fucking wretched singing voice.  His signature snarl is pretty novel at times, and it's certainly recognizable, but as has been posited by people smarter than I, he's a voice you learn to get used to more than actually enjoy.  I've certainly gotten used to his voice I guess, but I still think it's ill-suited to hard rock/heavy metal on display in most of these songs, and is frankly just goddamn annoying.  Some high speed, punk tinged aggression like the first album?  Fine, it fits like a glove.  But for polished commercial mainstream radio metal?  Good god in heaven no!

Apart from the two chuggy, crappy "Sad But True" emulations, Countdown to Extinction also has a bizarro version of "The Unforgiven" in "Foreclosure of a Dream".  The main difference is that the Metallica song features loud verses and a quiet, acoustic chorus, whereas the Megadeth version flip flops it with acoustic verses and a loud, distorted chorus.  Otherwise they're structured pretty much the same apart from the fact that "Foreclosure" moves along at a higher general tempo.  I attribute this to Dave's eternal one-upsmanship, but I prefer this song to its Metallica counterpart so I'll cut it some slack.  The political bent that Dave's lyrics always seem to have is also here in full force, though it ends up being pretty funny in hindsight considering he now stands for the exact opposite of everything he championed on this album.  I guess his reactionary tendencies aren't just contained to writing music based on whatever Metallica is up to, but also to rally against just... whoever is in charge of the United States at the current time.

Past the three singles, I have to admit that this is actually an extremely solid album for a blatant commercial sellout.  I imagine most Rust in Peace fans were disappointed when this dropped since the band's ever evolving complexity has been stunted in favor of a more stripped down and simplistic approach.  The riffwork isn't nearly as creative as the previous four albums on the whole, though it's pretty inconsistent throughout the album ("Sweating Bullets" carries one of the most generic and half-hearted riffsets ever conceived, whereas "Ashes in Your Mouth" could have feasibly sounded at home on the previous classic record).  The guitar work on the whole is actually pretty stunningly hit or miss, hitting bullseye a few times (like the solo on "Skin o' My Teeth" or the chorus melody in the title track), missing the board entirely once or twice (the whole of "Symphony of Desctruction"), but mostly at least hitting 20 or double 15.  That's really what the album is when you pick it apart, it's a mixed bag of elements that they used to do much better, new ideas meant to coincide with the newer direction, and harbingers of some of the utter suckage to come later in their career.

To elaborate on that last part, take a look at "Architecture of Aggression", mainly the chorus.  It's really the first instance I can think of where Dave's lyric writing started being egregiously hamfisted.  I feel like he wrote down those lines as one long sentence, and then tried to find a way to awkwardly fit it into a four line chorus based on this riff he'd already written.  It doesn't match at all and feels like he just starts rambling off words that don't coagulate with the riffs in even the slightest sense.  This problem pretty much reached it's zenith in the mid 00s, with The System has Failed and United Abominations being just absolutely loaded with awkward vocal patterns that mesh with neither the lyrics nor the riffs.  Check out "Of Mice and Men" and "United Abominations" for the most preposterous examples.  This sort of rears its head on tracks like "Captive Honour" and "This was My Life" here, but the aforementioned "Architecture of Aggression" is the most obvious example of Dave trying way too hard to make a point and letting the songwriting suffer by not reworking the music, vocals, or lyrics to match the other elements at play.

I've been pretty negative so far, constantly knocking the band for being Metallica Jr and Dave's increasingly oddball songwriting decisions, but I can't stress enough that I like this album plenty.  "Skin o' My Teeth" is a high speed rocker worthy of any greatest hits collection, featuring an ear catching main riff reminiscent of the very early thrash records like Kill 'em All and Megadeth's own Killing is My Business.  "High Speed Dirt" follows in the same path, though it isn't as memorable (apart from the strangely well executed blues break), while "Ashes in Your Mouth" could well be the most "Megadeth-y" song on display, sounding like an outtake from the Rust in Peace recording sessions with the adventurous riffs, bouncy energy, instantly hooky chorus, and eye melting soloing sections.  Not even all of the dominantly groovy tracks are bad, as "Psychotron" is pretty fun and despite the wretched chorus, I think "Architecture of Aggression" is pretty sweet too.  And then there's the title track, which is somehow really, really good despite having all of the ingredients for a perfect trainwreck.  It's a very simple, almost power ballady paced ode to overt environmentalism with one of Dave's signature awkward chorus, but man they somehow nail this one.  Regardless of the message, usually a track with extraordinarily blatant political messages (not veiled in clever metaphors) are rarely well done enough in my eyes to actually get the message across, but this one manages to be okay by making the song around the lyrics so interesting that I never really need to cringe at the shoehorned message.  The bass line in the beginning is quite memorable and sets the stage for the moody subject matter.  The main draw for me is actually just one simple element, and that's the guitar melody in the chorus.  Holy crap, it's so good.  I have no idea what the lyrics are, I don't care, I sing along to the guitar part instead.  It's incredibly simple yet executed masterfully and ends up being on par with Amon Amarth in the realm of "making very basic, simple riffs/melodies sound fucking awesome". 

The strange thing is that I could also probably say an equal amount of negative things about the album, with the bad tracks alternating between being wholly forgettable ("This was My Life", "Captive Honour") and offensively annoying ("Symphony of Destruction", "Sweating Bullets"), but I really can't help but like the album on the whole.  Really, this is quite similar to Fear of the Dark in the sense that it's really inconsistent and not at all what the band in question is best at, but it was also my first exposure to the band so it'll always have a special place in my heart.  It's very accessible, much more so than the somewhat oddball So Far So Good... or the heavily dark Peace Sells.  At this point in time, Megadeth was doing the whole "do what Metallica do" thing just as obviously as always, and this is probably the most overtly obvious example throughout their whole career with how far removed it is from the previous album, but the popular consensus is correct this time, as it's superior to it's sister album in Metallica's discography.  It's more basic and restrained fairly inconsistent with a few high profile stinkers, but overall you could do a whole lot worse in the realm of commercial metal.  As far as mainstream metal goes, this is definitely a bit of a gem in the sense that the actual singles released into the mainstream mostly suck, but the rest of the album can be pretty good despite the formula not being that much different from said singles.  So basically if you can ignore or skip over the dreadfully boring tracks, it's a pretty solid commercial metal album.  Would I recommend it?  Not really, my love of it is pretty tainted with nostalgia.  Like, I'm sure "This was My Life" is a terrible song, but I like it anyways.  If you've got a hatred for The Black Album, chances are you won't like this instead, and those who say they do are simply being contrarian for the sake of it.  NOT NEGOTIABLE.  NO HYPERBOLE AT ALL.

RATING - 71%

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