Friday, February 7, 2014
Revenge Is a Dish...
Dave Mustaine--vocals, guitar
Before we get started on the music, we have to discuss the origins of Megadeth.
Dave Mustaine wanted to kill his former bandmates. Musically, I mean, not literally (if they were dead, listeners would have no way of knowing how much better he was). After having the peach-flavored gonads to send him packing, Metallica released their debut--with a couple of his songs, no less--and caused a sensation in the metal underground. Sitting and sulking on the Greyhound bus headed home, Dave noticed an anti-nuclear pamphlet issued on behalf of California state Senator Alan Cranston referring to the "arsenal of megadeath," a "megadeath" being the equivalent of one million human deaths at the hand of a nuclear weapon.
Death plus lots of death plus nasty way to die equals fucking metal.
Before we get started on the music, we have to discuss the original album cover. Let's converge peacefully and speak rationally.
If I were a metal fan in 1985, scouring the racks of record shops for new music, and I happened upon that, I would snort and skip on to the next. I would see a plastic skull decorated with tinfoil and decide instantly that this "Megadeth" were a gaggle of mere glands who thought it would be fun to spend Mommy and Daddy's cash on some instruments yet none of it on artwork. Yes the Fistful of Metal cover is terrible, but at least it doesn't look like the drummer's five-year-old half-brother was entirely responsible for its concept and creation.
I wouldn't have known that the guys in the band were actually hard-living, dog-dick-broke addicts of superlative talents. I wouldn't have known the juicy backstory. I wouldn't have known that the rampaging incompetence of Combat Records was to blame for the pathetic Halloween decoration above, as it was they who lost the original artwork sent to them by the band for the desired cover and thus took it upon themselves to slap together a cheap-ass version of Dave Mustaine's envisioned "band mascot," the truly inimitable Vic Rattlehead.
As it turned out, I got into Megadeth late anyway. Aesthetics were not to blame, but simply the relatively limited opportunities afforded me by my brother's record collection (my preferred source of music after I deemed long-time hook-up MTV to be a lost cause). He was a late convert to the 'Deth train and thus so was I.
"Last Rites/Loved to Death"--Dave Mustaine's memorable musical accomplishments actually do outnumber his non-musical ones (although the gap has been narrowed considerably since the beginning of this century). Yes he was kicked out of Metallica for drinking too much, yes he ingested enough drugs for every single man that's passed through his command. Of course he tried to poach Kerry King from Slayer, of course he became born-again. Naturally he accused the President of staging mass murders to enact new laws that would further handcuff the American people.
He's an asshole and he can be an asshole. If you're dazzling at what you choose to do with your life, you can make a damn fine living.
Metallica goes acoustic for their unorthodox song intros; Megadeth brings pianos. Which is nice. But "Loved To Death" is the money track, babies. "Raw" and "thrilling" are the two words most prominent in my mind here, but those overused adjectives do a double disservice to the unique experience of hearing early Megadeth for the first time. Even at this point in time, Mustaine and Co. are writing and recording tracks that are more structurally complex and lyrically eclectic than those by their peers. "Loved To Death" concerns the classic "If I can't have you no one else can, bitch" trope. Slayer ain't caring about all that.
Then there are the vocals. Mustaine clearly had/has a love/hate relationship with being a frontman (a role he only took on reluctantly, after months of searching for a suitable singer proved fruitless). His wizened voice has been a dealbreaker for some since day one (source: middle school). I may have been a little put off at first, but I got used to it.
"Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good!"--What endears me to this song--this album--is not the long-ass title. I dig how it's obvious Megadeth are some painstaking craftsmen but the production is just not on point. It's like a really good recording of a garage rehearsal…from the other side of the door.
"Skull Beneath the Skin"--Christ, what is with the yelling? Make it count one time, Dave.
I can't imagine that describing a song as "an electrifying flight down endless dungeon chambers on the back of a steel-backed, sapphire-eyed dragon" would ever be negative. Bless 'Deth for possessing sense enough to realize that enunciating fantastical doggerel only plagues the adventure.
"These Boots"--One of the most audacious moves made by any metal band, much less a legendary one. Not an especially smart one, in retrospect.
The original is a sly, grooving feminist statement; this alleged cover is a crass guy calling out sluts over unspectacular rawk that doesn't even let super Dave Ellefson shine. So why bother? I'm sure Dave related to Nancy Sinatra, both of them being singers of marginal talent with other, stronger assets to carry them through (hands are to Dave as legs were to Nancy). It's worth one good listen, but that's all.
"Rattlehead"--The brutal barrage of notes is a loving mimic of the frenzied audiences, the lackluster mix a tribute to the fans' aversion to hygiene.
A "fuck-yeah-metal!" anthem that is very good but not terribly memorable (needs extra salsa). If you're alone in your room, craving volume and weight, put on "Whiplash."
"Chosen Ones"--Death by rabbit? (King Kong Bunny!) Narrator Dave the Disenchanted is here to help us make sense of the madness. A rare early example of Mustaine attempting melodic singing without resorting to the safety zone of strangulation on every last syllable. Good one to sip a beer too, but no big swallows recommended.
"Looking Down the Cross"--Surprisingly bloodless for a song from the betrayed JC's POV. Then I remember, it's his dad who is the cold-blooded murdering prick.
Reason 23 to be in a metal band: you get to put the words "putrefying pestilence" in your song and no one bats eye one.
The start is riveting, with a crystalline bridge running above a leaf-dotted lake. Those who cross will find an old man, croaking. Turns out he was one of the wait staff at the Last Supper and boy howdy does he have some stories to tell.
"Mechanix"--What a frenzied li'l dumbbell session this is.
All those metalheads with balls enough to attack hip-hop lyrics for being "incomprehensible yelling," and meanwhile here's immutable documentation of a future icon opening up his mouth just for rotting trash and half-dead small animals to fall out. From the fellow who penned the stunted-sexuality masterpiece "Jump in the Fire," I expect no less.
The first recorded "Mechanix" appeared on Metallica's No Life Til Leather demo. It was later re-imagined for their debut as "The Four Horsemen." The main riff is undeniable, however, and in the hands of its creator is even faster and nuttier-sounding. But unlike Metallica's more thoughtful version, Megadeth keeps it simple and stupid. No abrupt mood swings, no neck-snapping breakdowns…it's just "Mechanix." Because fuck you, band that fired me.
The "X" is here 'cause this track is a cars/sex metaphor 'cause holy wow I love it when dudes compare chicks to large loud things that depend on someone else to go anywhere in life. The lyrics are terrible ("made my ball bearing melt from the heat"? Kill my soul, please) but again, the music is so batshit and Mustaine is so intent on not being understood, you can enjoy the song without cringing too hard.
The lackluster production values of Megadeth's early albums made them sound relatively puny compared to their brethren--please note I said "relatively." For their debut, the guys blew their budget on the good stuff in life and had to chuck their original producer. A band behind the boards for their first album is a bit like the defendant who acts as his own attorney during trial, but shit happens. The songs were essentially good enough, and this becomes even more apparent if and when you listen to the remasters released in the early 2000s. For the Killing reissue, you also get the intended album cover, which is worlds more metal and would have had 1985-me snatching that shit up and running to the cash register.
You also get an edited "These Boots." Seems that songwriter Lee Hazelwood--after a quarter-century signing royalty checks--decided he suddenly disapproved of Mustaine's lyrical monkeyshines, and the only way Killing could be reissued with its most infamous track would be sans profanities. Thus, the track many fans still refer to as "These Beeps."
I would rate this the least-impressive of the Big 4 debuts, as it has a couple songs I always skip. For an eight-song record, that is not great. But Megadeth's attitude and ability bleed all over the other six tracks, and it's clear that with time, effort, and enough money to pay a decent producer while still having some left over for drugs, they could go farther.