Human Metal: An Introduction to Megadeth
I’ve been interviewing a lot lately, and I have been writing interviews a lot these days, and I have been thinking about those interviews a lot too. My favorite part of every one of those, I think, is that moment where an adult musician is asked about that moment in life where music “hooked” them, when the music stopped being something playing in the background and forced itself into their lives, their bodies – quickening the pulse, rushing in a flood of adrenaline, or just stopping you in your tracks. I love those moments because they lay bare something that isn’t always discussed when talking music, and, I think, even more so in metal and heavy music, having to do with a pretty simple yet somehow overlooked question: “What is it that you like?” and another equally important quandary: “Why is it that you like it?”
I can’t, for the life of me, despite being immersed in music and art for most of my life, think of more profound questions than these. They cut deep into who you are, and the things about yourself that you may not even know yet, and some you’ll probably never know. And deep because they provide a clue into the variety of things you like, and what is it that binds that variety into one person. For me that key is Megadeth, because Megadeth represents, or has helped me form, what I consider to be art: the passion to escape pain, and it’s failure. Which is why, as I’ll discuss later, Megadeth is a part of a longer lineage of music than just metal or even rock but to the blues. We’ll get to that.
And how does Megadeth attempt to succeed? Through anger and prowess. I could have said those things separately, but it’s obvious, at least to me, that that would be disingenuous. Dave Mustaine, the man who, for better and for worse, has been steering this ship for almost 40 years, is characterized as a player by those two qualities: he’s trying to outplay you, and he’s being quite angry about it. This is not that dude that fuses those two modes to try and methodically become the best player in the world, this is not Jon Petrucci. He’s trying to be better than you, and he’s pissed. That anger is also the limit of his ability, naturally, but, at his best, it informs the tone and atmosphere of Megadeth’s music as well and gives it its human, fragile, and broken tone.
Megadeth’s lineups through the years have also accented this duality, with, usually, a “shreddy” lead guitar player – the kind Dave could have been had he cared about learning more than one scale – to counteract his anger. The very best lineups, moreover, included that duality as well: a weird and groovy drummer – Gar Samuelson, Nick Menza – and a cool-headed bass player (usually Dave Ellefson).
But trying to be the best in metal while being angry seems to me to be sui generis in metal. Kerry King tries to be the best while angry, as does James Hetfield, and, well, pretty much everyone in thrash, death, and black metal. The secret sauce to Megadeth, as well as the most telling aspect of my own connection to their music, has been how they fail. They fail because their attempt at superhumanity falls short, because they go for it, full throttle, and don’t make it. There are ways in which failing at something is just bad and unenjoyable. There are ways to fail that remind you constantly of what could have been. And there’s failing wonderfully and humanely, all while creating wonderful music, music that is as bitter as it is sweet. And that’s Megadeth.
The usual comparison, one that has become trite and ridiculous at this point, is with Metallica. I’ve been going through that argument in my head since I was 14, I’ve been reading it online since forever, it’s useless and stupid. Which is exactly why I’m going to go there, if only for a moment. Metallica’ fatal flaw, despite being a great band, is their inhumanity. Metallica constructs well-placed monuments, it uses the best possible materials for construction, it polishes that construction again and again, until a shining monolith emerges. If you love Metallica, as I do too, that very description excites you, the notion of achieving the perfection every person seemingly aims for in life. And it is all that – overwhelming, imposing, impressive, and ultimately inhuman, obtuse, and inaccessible. Metallica attempts at and succeeds at building monuments. Megadeth fails at even tying its shoe laces en route to said building of monuments, and yet it’s failure creates significant, affecting, broken, human art. And I know this isn’t much of an argument but, again, that’s not why we’re here. All I can say is that despite the enormous role Metallica has had in my life I rarely find myself reaching for their music as I grow older. I listen to Megadeth every day for the last 25 years, and it has yet to grow stale. And here's why.
FAILING AT METAL
So, where or why does Megadeth fail? First and foremost, I think, it fails with Mustaine’s vocals. There’s nothing cool about Mustaine’s vocals, not by way of sounding imposing or even being always on pitch. More often than not Mustaine sounds like a 70s rock singer who can’t sing, thing, shrill, and in the way of the music. He’s failing, then, not just at singing – which, I guess you could say, he does quite a bit – but he fails at being who he is shooting for. He has the vocal peculiarity of of his idols form Angel Witch, Diamond Head, or even Judas Priest, but none of the vocal quality or range. And worse still when he does succeed in singing (90s Megadeth is good for that) it feels awkward, like watching a chicken fly. He also, famously, failed at being in Metallica, failed at being the kind of cog that would fit into a mega-band (pun intended, I guess). However, this is a significant failure also in terms of what the art is attempting to achieve. NWOBHM bands were not invested in humanity, at least in the terms I'm discussing here, but set the stage for a "beyond the human" trend in metal, whether through an immersion in fantasy, in literature, or any other "extra" narrative meant to break free from the mundane and ordinary into the fantastical and larger than life. By failing to sing or perform like those idols, in other words, Mustaine, again, was failing at transcending his own limits.
Mustaine also fails in his playing, namely in his variety, or the lack thereof. He’s limited as a lead player to one, pretty basic scale – pentatonic – a limitation that stands out even more starkly in today’s metal scene, that seems to shun the blues like the plague. One label-type person I know told his black metal artist to drop the bluesy soloing for it’s “dad-like” energy” (I take personal offense as a dad). As a rhythm player Mustaine is much more varied, and in fact could be credited for being a central figure in what we know as thrash riffing in general. However here too the scope is limited. Mustaine, being the hyperactive nut case he is, excels at either ragers, mid-paced songs, or attempts at melody. That’s a lot, but anything else – peculiar chord progressions, multi-part songs that don’t sound like three songs tacked together – is somewhat beyond his pale.
Now, this all sounds pretty bad, I’ll be the first to admit. But Megadeth’s genius, again, is not in its lack of limits, nor is it in its “transcendence of the human,” which, I take it, is what metal is all about and has been about for quite some time. Humans, we, me, you are limited, and there is a certain joy and pleasure found in said limitation. It’s the joy of Greek tragedy, the joy of a known end (say the film Memento, or a biopic like The Imitation Game, or even a prequel like Revenge of the Sith). And there is that mode of making art that, while perhaps trying to break free, simply fails while gloriously attempting. The art of, to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein “rattling” our “cage”:
This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
Wittgenstein here is talking in his “A Lecture on Ethics,” about the ability to use words to say things about ethics, about what one should or should not do. And, famously, at least at this point in his philosophical career, Wittgenstein thinks language isn’t suited to do that. What he’s saying in metal terms is: you can’t use metal to escape the human, it’s bound to fail, you cannot use a hammer to dissect hammers. However this “document of a human tendency” to try and break free has value in and of itself. It doesn’t break you free, hell, it doesn’t even always earn you respect, but it has value. A value, I would say, that is close to what I mean by the “human music” Megadeth excel at.
THE JOY OF FAILURE
So, we went over, briefly, over the major sources of Mustaine’s failure as a metal musician. Now let’s take a look at some of the things that make that failure into the great art it is.
The first aspect is "trying too hard." Megadeth’s best, most popular song is “Holy Wars,” that one song mentioned as one of the best metal songs ever, and seemingly a staple of YouTube’s budding reactions economy. And yet it’s not really one song, not musically or thematically, it’s at least two different songs, perhaps three, that were slammed together. And those seams are evident, it doesn’t “flow” from one chapter to the next, much like one other standout examples such as “Wake Up Dead” or “Good Mourning/Black Friday.” It’s as if Mustaine crafted these beautiful objects and then ran out of patience and just put them together (a personality flaw I sadly share). But the failed joy of cohesion is replaced with the joy of a lack of cohesion, of moving from room to room, house to house, space to space, not able to guess what comes next. I’ve heard “Holy Wars” thousands of times and it still surprises me every time. Not elation, not perfection, but weirdness, clunkiness, and surprise. “Holy Wars” is a clunkiness masterpiece, the perfect stratum of utter imperfection.
Another aspect of joy, one that is the result of Mustaine’s innate awkwardness, is that his unexpected nature provides, at least up until 2004’s The System Has Failed, moments of just pure, dumb, funny humanity. These include the “bitch!” he blurts out in “In My Darkest Hour,” the entirely of “Liar,” which is basically one huge cuss-fest, songs like “Sweating Bullets” or “Scorpion,” and the absolutely petty and stupid lytics to “Wake up Dead.” However for my money the crown jewel in Megadeth’s treasure trove of “being a person” is in “Lucretia,” with these immortal lines, coming within a dense web of uber-serious reflexive lyrics:
In my place I escape up into my hideout
Hiding from everyone
My friends all say,
"Dave you're mental anyway" hey!
Coming amid all these riffs, all that creepy storytelling, and suddenly a shining beacon of a) self-deprecation and, most importantly b) a call and response moment with the band members, affirming what had just been said. It’s a very funny moment, a very punk (“hey!”) moment, and, to me, the absolute center around which Rust in Peace revolves. Take that out and what you’re left with is a “metal” album about “metal things” – war, nuclear war, more war, and some war. But insert the power crystal that is Mustaine making fun of himself, and his band kicking him when he’s down, along with an actual, honest-to-God, heartbreak song in “Tornado of Souls,” and what you get is a masterpiece of humanity.
Before moving on to the last section of this little essay, I would like to add one other human feature that marks Megadeth and Mustaine, which is politics. Being political used to be a general theme in metal, especially thrash and death, and for that Megadeth is not very unique. Where it is unique is where Mustaine’s “dudeness” plays into how Megadeth were political, which, I think, is best viewed through the purview of punk. Megadeth doesn’t spew politics, not even in its latter conservative phase, from a pulpit, it does so from the position of a very paranoid, very anxious, somewhat spiritual, individual. Yes, Mustaine has been political, and, yes, it has often been, again, awkward. But he speaks of politics via the prism of his own limitations, which makes the message lands differently – not as an ultimate political statement about life, war, morality, god, that should be taken in general terms, which is how I often read Metallica’s brand of politics, but as the opinion of one, limited person.
There are many examples of this throughout Megadeth’s career, with songs like “Foreclosure of a Dream,” “Take No Prisoners,” "Youthanasia," and even “Kick the Chair” But the prime example, and one of the best “I’m being political while being a person” songs ever, is “Peace Sells.” “Peace Sells” is, basically, Mustaine’s political manifesto, one that hinges on the frustrating experience of being treated like an outcast, a nobody, while actually caring and being involved in the world. Mustaine never wanted to live in the Fortress of Solitude, never plays out the role of someone “above” anything. He wants to be involved, he wants to “rattle the cage,” again, and ends up, as always, failing. It’s the kind of failure, though, that produces lines like “What do you mean 'I ain't kind?' Just not your kind.”
Now, before I end this I want to make one last comment about limits and failure vis-a-vis Mustaine and Megadeth, and that comment is related to the way I see Megadeth fusing two very important strands of humanity in modern rock music both of which, I should say, have become obsolete in contemporary metal. The first is punk, both in terms of message (“just not your kind”) and in terms of musical aesthetics, Megadeth has a lot of punk. Hell, even in Mustaine being a bad singer and a limited guitarist and doing the best he can with both, while insisting on limitation and personality, is a very punk thing. The madman who shreds on the pentatonic scale way up the neck of the guitar in an extremely angry, extremely repetitive manner is not punk, per se, but he is in terms of signaling to his audience: “you can do this too.” It’s not the mystical, obscure guitar work of a Marty Friedman or even Kirk Hammett, it’s not the dark, weird style of Jeff Hanneman, it’s doable. Put in the work, do it every day, and you can do it too. Punk works well with Mustaine’s aesthetics, which I guess is why he recorded that ill- fated collaboration with Fear’s Lee Ving, and why he covered the Sex Pistols twice and, more recently, Fear once. But Megadeth is not just punk but also borrows heavily from another tradition of limited, human, broken American music, the blues.
In the grand banishment of politics, feelings, and, just basically humanity, from the contemporary metal sphere – whether through “cosmic” metal, transcendental metal, ritual-worship, death-worship, and so on – a direct victim was the blues. We can talk about the many aspects that influence this attack, racial, cultural, musical, there’s a lot of talk about. But the bottom line is that the blues is anathema is modern metal, and a major part of Megadeth’s sound. Firstly because of the constant use of the pentatonic scale, that shamed emblem of the aforementioned “dad solo” that had become too associated with the 70s blues rock bands that have all but been ejected, influence-wise, from metal, but also in the emotional, first-person address that is the hallmark of much of what Megadeth has done and continues to do. A genre based on one broken-down person doing the best he can to express pain and limitation on a limited instrument in limited song structures. It’s a genre that is about tradition, a tradition of people who had followed the basic pattern of being limited within one’s art, of rattling the cage, that is there in the blues, in Townes Van Zandt, in Virginia Woolf, in country music, and in many forms of folk music.
And the blues is every great music Megadeth and Mustaine have ever created, either sneakily in a short solo here and there, or more significantly in entire song structures, styles, themes, and so on. What of the most telling signs of this influence is the fact that Megadeth actually has, I shit you not, more than a few songs that have a four-on-the-floor disco, yup, I said it, disco beat (disco being the offspring of blues and rock n’ roll). Two of the most prominent are two of the highlights of their 1986 masterpiece, Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? – the title track, and one of the biggest Megadeth hits ever, and one of the most infamous songs on the Megadeth catalogue, “The Conjuring.” Take away the instrumentals in the intro to both, add some keyboards and you have the framework of a basic disco song.
It is, no doubt, blasphemous, to insinuate that metal music uses disco, or even the blues, in today’s “scene.” And yet it is that blasphemy that I cherish in the art I enjoy, one that cuts deeper than the simpler cultural blasphemies that dominate metal and its various subgenres. The blasphemy of making personal, limited art – the human metal that makes Megadeth the great band it was and remains, and such a central part of my own musical experience.
Seeing that humanity, fragility, incompleteness, and limits are so central to where Megadeth was and is artistically successful, it is also the lack of these, mainly in their output since 2004, that has mired them in utter mediocrity. Mustaine never gave up on trying to be perfect, and while it was such a joy seeing him fail so beautifully between 1985 and 2004, his continued efforts are producing less and less musical character. He never liked being limited, and more recently his attempts to make up for said limitations include over-dabbling with production, safe songs, horrible tone, and, repeatedly, going to the musicians that make him feel comfortable as opposed to limited. So, I guess, that goes to saying that this tight-rope of human metal is a difficult exercise to pull off, and that it’s quite easy to fall. However, at their best Megadeth gave the world some of the more glorious artistic and human exercises in limit and pain ever, and a source of constant inspiration. May they find the way back to the human.