Megadeth – “Dystopia”

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Dystopia,” “Death From Within”

I don’t think there’s very many people, at least besides Dave Mustaine, who would argue for present-day Megadeth. Their releases have been inconsistent, and none in many years have matched the band’s late 80’s to early 90’s heyday. I was barely a month old when “Rust in Peace” came out, but I was probably rocking out to it already. So Megadeth are past their prime, and they showed it on 2013’s “Super Collider,” which was, frankly, awful. They had lost that lovin’ feelin,’ and by that I mean the music had been drained of energy in an ill-fated attempt at reclaiming a wide audience. Then the band members suffered a bunch of personal and professional turmoils, resulting in the departure of the drummer and the non-Mustaine guitarist. Armed with half of a new line-up, Megadeth kick it back into high gear on their 15th album, “Dystopia.”

Much of the album, and especially the opening tracks, mimic 80’s thrash metal surprisingly well. It’s sweaty, massive, and makes you want to punch someone in the face. This trend follows across nearly every track, with only small instances where they give way to a different form. The only real departure is “The Emperor,” which is less sustained, although it could just be seen as a point to stop and breath. Mustaine’s riffs are gigantic, and the dual-guitar solos come up strong. The title track is the only one that’s very guitar-heavy, this album’s “Hangar 18,” but the electric crunch throughout runs deep. The addition of Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler is a nice pick-up as well, his drumming can switch from chaotic to restrained to pummeling based on whatever calls. There’s also a two-song set in the album’s middle that, although two separate songs, act as an inspired mini-suite. “Poisonous Shadows” takes a decrescendoing break from thrash, and builds back up into the instrumental “Conquer or Die.” From a musical standpoint, this is one of Megadeth’s best albums in a long, long time.

And that’s where it stops. Megadeth’s lyrics have rarely been Pulitzer-ready, but they’ve gotten worse over time. Megadeth has a Dave Mustaine problem. His awful, corny and racist lyrics ruin all the goodwill “Dystopia” otherwise builds up. “The Threat is Real” is about enemies attacking from within, and sure as hell seems to be pretty anti-Islamic in that belief. It’s also got lines about “vultures coming home to nest.” He sings about American triumph, and the emperor’s new clothes. The theme of dystopia is clearly important to the album, but the super-conservative Mustaine vaguely presents a dystopia that’s really an American utopia. America is the strongest country, join or get out. Which, okay buddy, maybe it’s time to let some other guys do the writing.

Thankfully, when the music is as strong as it is on “Dystopia,” Megadeth becomes like a themed roller-coaster. It’s all about the ride, and the theme (in this case, the lyrics), only serves to feed into the brand. It’s a Superman roller coaster because the track is painted blue and red, and that’s easy to ignore. The real thrill comes in the mechanics, and that’s the music. A new and improved Megadeth bring the ferocity back, even with the consistently garbage lyrics.

If you like this, try: Slayer’s passable 2015 album “Repentless,” although if you like this, you’ve already listened to that album. Also try turning off the Xbox and going outside for a bit.

Deafheaven – “New Bermuda”

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Luna,” “Gifts For the Earth”

Let’s get this out of the way – there’s no such thing as ‘pop-black metal.’ It’s a combination that would go together like salmon and cherry. To call Deafheaven the “poppiest” black metal band is a misnomer, it’s a meaningless statement. The last person to complete a marathon still completed a marathon. Yet listening to Deafheaven is like running a marathon – it’s a test of physical stamina, and not everyone will finish. The black metal band’s third album greatly loosens the grip on shoegaze, but tightens it on the metal, making for an even louder listen.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you already have an opinion on Deafheaven. Anyone even remotely aware of current metal does. I raved over “Sunbather” way back when, and I think “New Bermuda” is an even more intense record. “Sunbather” was split into sections, where the listener was offered a break after every draining track. “New Bermuda” comes without that option, offering solace only in the songs themselves. At five songs, it’s slimmer than “Sunbather” and shorter, too. And it’s because the ear breaks come at shorter intervals.

The album’s breaks in volume are centered in quieter guitar rhythms, soundclips, and fade-outs. Twice the band fade-outs early, leaving the last few minutes of a track to audio clips and stuff you can quickly tune out to. Thanks, Deafheaven. The band grabs hold of the listener early and doesn’t really let go.

Although the band strays much further away from shoegaze, they still find ways to keep it original. George Clarke’s vocals are simply louder than on previous records. Instead of blending him into the music, the band has decided to put him front and center, his screams searing through the guitars like a katana in the rain. His lyrics are deeply poetic, if not entirely unintelligible. Opening track “Brought to the Water” is less draining than the “Sunbather” songs. And closer “Gifts For the Earth” actually features acoustic elements that border more on alternative than metal, much to the chagrin of late-20 somethings in Megadeth shirts.

But still, Deafheaven are here to bring the pain. “Luna” is possibly the most merciless song they’ve ever done. It starts like any Iron Maiden song – with its muted guitar riff and speedy drumming. But it is relentless. The whole album is, occasionally giving the listener glimpses of what life on the outside of Deafheaven is like, a less painful world that they cannot share in. Deafheaven, in their third album, have distanced themselves from their famous roots – they don’t want to be seen as pop-metal famous, and don’t want to contribute to polarized metal. But polarization is a key part of music, even metal, and Deafheaven have proven that they can not only write a record that’s brutal in sections, but one that’s brutal throughout. “New Bermuda” has a wide potential audience, maybe one wider than they expected. But it’s not for everyone, and sour metalheads that made their mind up two years ago aren’t going to be swayed back. Their loss.

-By Andrew McNally

Black Sabbath – “13”

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “God is Dead?” “Methademic” (Bonus Track)

“13” is refreshing, because it proves that bands long past their prime can still make quality records. I was losing faith in this after Megadeth’s awful Collider came out just last week.

“13″ is the first Black Sabbath album to feature bassist Geezer Butler in nineteen years, and singer Ozzy Osbourne in thirty-five. Drummer Bill Ward, originally part of the recent reunion, is not on the album because of a contract dispute, and has been replaced with Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine). Even with positive early reviews and three-quarters of a reunion, fans are most likely skeptical about a new album. Butler, Osbourne and guitarist Tony Iommi are 63, 64 and 65, respectively. But Sabbath brought in legendary producer Rick Rubin, who has done wonders for everyone from System of a Down to Johnny Cash. What resulted from their sessions is an album much more similar to classic, early Sabbath and not the tepid albums that came later.

Black Sabbath have often been misunderstood as a band that sang/sings exclusively about doom and gloom, life and death, heaven and hell (which is the name of one of their more famous songs). But closer listens to their early albums show that they expanded far out beyond those themes, lyrically. Yes, they were embraced and continue to be (like 13′s “God Is Dead?” and “Pariah”). But the band has always sung about more than that, evident in songs like the poorly-titled “Methademic,” that deals with years of drug problems. “13″ has some of the best lyrics in Sabbath’s history.

The biggest surprise of the album might be the quality of Ozzy’s voice. If you’re reading this, then you can probably imagine what Ozzy’s talking voice sounded like on MTV in 2004, and maybe even what it has sounded like on his more recent albums. But those albums were Rubin-less, and Rick Rubin did his best to bring the band back to it’s seventies roots. Iommi’s riffs are there, Butler’s bass is booming, Ozzy’s voice fits nicely, and there is a constant impending sense of doom. It has all the key elements of early works like “Paranoid” and their self-titled debut. Something is lacking, however. It seems like it is a mix of energy and volume. It is certainly loud, but it feels like it should be more so, and with a little more urgency. Still, the album comes as a nice surprise and just goes to show that when the line-up is back, they haven’t lost a thing.

If you like this, try: If you’re exploring this album as a classic rock fan, then Bob Dylan’s “Tempest,” another great album coming out late in the game. If you’re exploring this as a metal fan, then System of a Down’s “Toxicity,” to see both religious lyrics brought in alongside silly ones, and the magic of Rick Rubin.

-By Andrew McNally

Megadeth – “Supercollider”

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

Grade: D

Key Tracks: “The Blackest Crow”

Old age isn’t going to stop Megadeth! Well, they’re going to try not to let it. Rather unsuccessfully. It’s sad to see heroes fall but it can happen to the best. Dave Mustaine’s lyrics aren’t hitting as hard, the band’s volume isn’t as ferocious. Nothing works well on this record, apart from a few acceptable songs.

First, the music. The band is not achieving the heaviness that they once were. The leadoff track, “Kingmaker,” is not a good song, but it does have flickers of the 80’s thrash. It is readily apparent that these flashes are about the most the listener will get. The album as a whole tends to fall closer to a really heavy radio rock work, lesser than the thrash metal that made the band renowned in the 80’s and 90’s. The drums are beating and the guitars are crunching and rapid-fire, but it is all less than before. It is at least entertaining, as it is still heavy and should be recognized as so. It just is not of the same caliber as their previous successes.

Speaking of declines from previous successes, Mustaine’s lyrics are downright awful. His political leanings have always made for awkward and forced lyrics, but they are particularly cheesy on this release. “Dance in the Rain” is the ‘standout’ on the record, as the chorus is supposed to inspire people to dance in the rain and enjoy life, like life lessons from a cool uncle. An abrupt switch/interruption happens during the song when Mustaine begins to sing about the “racist, sexist wars in the middle class” or something like that. It really doesn’t make sense. Mustaine’s lyrics are consistently forced and corny, and often fail to rhyme or fit into any sort of rhythm.

Halfway through this album, I had to put on “Hangar 18” to be reminded of better times. “Supercollider” is tedious and corny, a bad mix for a thrash metal band. One footnote should be mentioned – “The Blackest Crow” is a well-crafted song, albeit not thrash metal. The track starts with an acoustic guitar rhythm and builds intensity around a more haunting sound than the rest of the album. It is far and away the best song on the album. Otherwise, “Supercollider” is a total miss.

If you like this, try: “From Mars to Sirius” by Gojira.

-By Andrew McNally