10. Cryptic Writings (1997)
Symphony of Dissection: Megadeth spent much of the ’90s exploring rock over metal, attempting to court radio airplay to try and follow the same trajectory Metallica proved was exceptionally lucrative at the turn of the decade. This was Megadeth’s third stab at more concise and radio-friendly material, following Countdown to Extinction and Youthanasia, and while the law of diminishing returns certainly applies, the wheels are still more or less on the cart on Cryptic Writings.
Kudos to the band as well for largely frontloading the record with their bolder experiments, from the proggy post-punk suite-like opener “Trust” to the blues rock of “Have Cool, Will Travel”; even if not all of the ideas worked, the band committed and didn’t try to bury them mid-record like other groups might have. It is unfortunate then that, with the fullness of time, we saw that it was the worse tendencies here on Cryptic Writings that were expanded upon for the following studio album. It’s hard not to let that knowledge shape the experience of this record. At its best, the rock songs sound almost like Megadeth does ’90s Rush, but the less successful experiments and riffs of the record combined with some cloying and at times corny vocal decisions mar the record.
Holy Worth: The band ends the record with a strong one-two punch, with “Vortex” standing out as the most memorable song. Structurally and melodically, it sounds eerily similar to “Tornado of Souls” from Rust in Peace, and while that might have weakened the track on other records, here it is a strength. Having that kind of rich, complex, prog-lite thrash in the midst of an otherwise fairly direct record felt like a strong reminder of the Megadeth we all love at their best.
Tornado of Slop: “Almost Honest” sounds like the light and carefree hair metal that thrash initially countered. Megadeth dabble with rock timbres elsewhere on the album to good effect but here it feels like a betrayal, with the band undercutting everything that made them compelling and interesting to fans and musicians in the first place. The fact that it’s the second track is especially confusing and nearly sinks the album before it even really starts. — Langdon Hickman
09. The System Has Failed (2004)
Symphony of Dissection: After 2001’s The World Needs a Hero, it appeared as though Megadeth were done. Not only did Mustaine announce he was disbanding the band, but it sounded like it would be permanent, since he accidentally severely injured his hand – which seemingly would prevent him from ever playing guitar again. But through therapy, he was eventually able to miraculously shred once more on his Flying V.
So, for his next project, a solo release was planned… until the record label demanded it be issued under the “Megadeth” banner, due to contractual obligations. Mustaine relented, and as a result, 2004’s The System Has Failed was released as a Megadeth album… despite Mustaine being the sole member left over from The World Needs a Hero. However, long-time Megadeth fans will recognize that the guitarist from the group’s first two classic albums, Chris Poland, provided lead guitar on nearly all of the album’s tracks (rounding out the line-up for the album was bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta – serving as the first-ever Megadeth album to not include David Ellefson).
With all the material penned solely by Mustaine, no songs truly register high on the “Mega-meter” – as far as being a true Megadeth classic, on par with say “Wake Up Dead”, “Holy Wars”, or “Symphony of Destruction.” But that said, “The Scorpion” is an oft-overlooked thrash gem, while a pair of melodic tunes, “Die Dead Enough” and “Of Mice and Men”, sound akin to yer expected latter-day Megadeth fare.
Holy Worth: While “Die Dead Enough” and “Of Mice and Men” were obviously aimed more squarely at radio, “The Scorpion” oozes with attitude – especially when the guitar and vocals combine together for the song’s verse. Also, the tune is one of only three that Mustaine supplies lead guitar for (the other two being “I Know Jack” and “Truth Be Told”) – making it possibly the most truly “Megadeth sounding” tune of the bunch.
Tornado of Slop: The lyrics in “Shadow of Deth” are not sung by Mustaine, but rather, are a spoken word bit over a mere two minutes and fifteen seconds worth of music. All in all, the tune comes off as an obvious “Let’s fill up a few minutes on the album” maneuver, and is one of three tracks that contain spoken word bits (“Blackmail the Universe” and “I Know Jack” being the others), which tends to be same-sounding after a while. — Greg Prato
08. United Abominations (2007)
Symphony of Dissection: By now Megadeth had completed their rebirth as a heavy metal band. The System Has Failed saw the band return to prior form, hinting at Rust in Peace levels of thrash. Still, Mustaine was forced to build another lineup for the follow-up album, United Abominations. The band’s old guitarist Chris Poland had served only as a session musician on System, so Eidilon and King Diamond shredder Glen Drover would step in to fill the vacancy on lead guitar.
Drover and Mustaine work nicely alongside one another on United Abominations. Their layered guitar-work drive a steady selection of metal songs that aim to be even heavier than the previous record. A digital sheen indicative of 2007 hamper some of the guitar tones, but the performances stand up well and have a kinetic thrill that was lacking with the piecemeal lineup on The System Has Failed.
The lineup for United Abominations toured together prior to recording the album, and it shows. Megadeth simply couldn’t pull off a “Sleepwalker” in the Risk era, but they’d been hinting at a full-blown metal revival for a few years. The “live” energy of this lineup got them there, overcoming the synthetic production aesthetics that also affect Megadeth’s next three albums.
Holy Worth: In Megadeth’s discography, “Sleepwalker” is slept on. The album’s ferocious lead track is surely enough to perk the ears of the cold-hearted thrashers that gave up on Megadeth after Risk. Drover’s background with King Diamond comes through, as the songs has a soaring build and tinges of minor melodies in the chorus. It’s no-frills speed metal, and Mustaine sounds comfy on the cacophonous opener.
Tornado of Slop: With the emphasis on a heavier, more riff-centric approach, there’s far less memorable melodies and hooks throughout United Abominations. Some tracks don’t have anything memorable to cling to, exemplified by the formulaic “Play for Blood”. Despite the controversy of Megadeth’s softer songs, they showcased Mustaine’s maturity as a vocalist and melody writer. It’s an inherent trade off, with the band further deviating from those overly pop inclinations on this album. — Jon Hadusek
07. Youthanasia (1994)
Symphony of Dissection: With the success of Countdown to Extinction, expectations were high for Youthanasia — and fans were not disappointed. Youthanasia was almost the continuation of Countdown to Extinction and followed in the same radio-friendly but still heavy direction. What was most refreshing is that Megadeth was undeterred by the onset of grunge and kept doing what they did best, which by this point was a mix of hard rock and metal sometimes dubbed “thrash n’ roll.”
Yes, Megadeth continued to experiment with more commercial melodies, but they were one of the rare exceptions among their peers who didn’t attempt to acquiesce to the new sound from Seattle. As hard hitting as it is emotional and melodic, songs like the heavy but accessible “Train of Consequences”, the crunchy “I Thought I Knew It All”, the engaging “Reckoning Day”, and the cleaver “Victory” (where Mustaine works a bunch of past Megadeth song titles into the lyrics) showed that Youthanasia was the logical progression of the band’s sound.
Again produced by Max Norman and featuring the same lineup as Countdown to Extinction, Youthanasia peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart, and was certified platinum. And, despite its slower and more accessible qualities, the album still features thrashy elements that had become synonymous with Megadeth since Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying, including heavy bass lines, palm-muted guitar chugging, blistering guitar solos, and booming beats.
Holy Worth: “A Tout le Monde,” (which is French for “To all the world”) is as beautiful as it is heavy. This song will always prompt a room full of metalheads to sing along with their lighters in the air. The songwriting and guitar work on this track is stellar, especially the solo. The song is about death and saying goodbye, but Mustaine claims it is not about suicide as it was mistakenly labeled. This caused quite a controversy upon its release, and what is metal without controversy?
Tornado of Slop: Though “Elysian Fields” has some interesting subject matter (the Elysian Fields are an ancient Greek conception of the afterlife), this song is mediocre at best. It is a bit slow and plodding and fails to find its footing among so many other stronger songs like the title track or “Addicted to Chaos”, making “Elysian Fields” feel a bit like filler. The “ahhhs” of the backing vocals also throw the track off. — Colette Claire
06. Dystopia (2016)
Symphony of Dissection: The exit of Chris Broderick and Shawn Drover, plus the blowback from 2013’s Super Collider, made Megadeth’s future feel uncertain at best. Combine this with the increasing scrutiny over Mustaine’s personal politics, a topic he’s never shied away from, and the outlook for 2016’s Dystopia was dim.
It turns out these anxieties were for naught; armed with Angra’s Kiko Loureiro and Lamb of God’s Chris Adler, the two Daves put out one of the best albums of their career. Dystopia takes clues from the machine precision of the parent bands of the two new players, giving Megadeth the modern flair they’d struggled to incorporate for several albums prior. It would be improper to refer to the Broderick years as a failed experiment, given that it did produce some strong material, but it’s hard to view Dystopia as anything but an improved second pass on that modern metal concept.
Holy Worth: The clean guitars and ride bell groove make the title track “Dystopia” feel almost like peak era Queensryche, something no one expected Megadeth to pull out of their bag of tricks. There’s also more than a handful of “Hangar 18” in the riffs and structure while the solos approach power metal. Combine this with the gruffness and grit of Mustaine’s modern vocals and you have a song that can comfortably go toe-to-toe with the band’s best. In fact, it won Megadeth their first-ever Grammy.
Tornado of Slop: Dystopia largely keeps things vaguely post-apocalyptic, leaving the political specifics to be filled in by the listener’s imagination even if we can fairly accurately guess how Mustaine meant things personally. But on “Post American World”, that veil is dropped, and worse it is married to a track where Mustaine seems to be struggling to keep up with the music around him, resulting in a nearly narrated screed that disrupts any otherwise strong return. — Langdon Hickman