Ah, Megadeth. I have a kind of a love/hate relationship with them and I have had for a long time. I came along too late to witness the birth of thrash metal, but only just. I found Metallica when Ride the Lightning came out, which was a second album and the same went for Slayer and Anthrax; the debuts were already out and I joined the fray when their follow-ups were released. However, I was able to buy Megadeth's debut when it came out, making them the last of the Big Four for me. It's fair to say that it was a memorable purchase, though, as I'd ordered it from my local W. H. Smith's, a British newsagent chain, with a gift voucher I'd got for Christmas, to the horror of the old lady at the counter. Remember that cover? I bet she does.
I played that first album incessantly and I appreciated the next couple as well. Eventually, I drifted away from them, though, in a way I never did with their peers, even Metallica when they abdicated from their thrash throne with the Black Album. I came to think of Megadeth not as a band but as a combination of snarling vocals and memorable riffs, half important reference point in the growth of the metal genre and half catchy WWE entrance theme. Intellectually, I know that they're a heck of a lot more than the killer first minute of Symphony of Destruction but that became the label I'd stick on all their music in my head.
How justified is that? Well, here's their sixteenth studio album in yet another try to shift them to a different bucket in my head. It's generous at fifty-five minutes, with a couple of bonus tracks on the deluxe edition to take it past the hour mark. Dave Mustaine doesn't mumble on it the way my son keeps telling he does at gigs nowadays, when he goes to see their support bands, even though he does seem to narrate as much of this album as he sings it. Whole sections of Dogs of Chernobyl, Sacrifice and others fit that bill and it's not hard to imagine it becoming mumbling on stage, even if not all of it on the album is him. He's not keen on converting me back to the fold.
The guitars are much more likely to do that. The worst riffing here is capable and there are plenty of excellent riffs to get stuck in our heads. The first one that stood out as a highlight for me was on Life in Hell but Night Stalkers is even better. While I'm not convinced there isn't a set of homages in the lyrics, given how many iconic songs by other bands are namechecked, it's ostensibly about a bunch of fighter pilots at war and the buzzsaw guitar appropriately mimics those planes diving out of the sky. Even lesser songs like, say, Junkie, are elevated by simple but strong riffs and excellent guitar solos. Better ones, such as Mission to Mars and Célebutante, simply start out better and so are elevated higher.
Mustaine is a good part of that, of course, and I've long appreciated him more as a guitarist than a vocalist, but the second guitarist here is Kiko Loureiro who dovetails with him wonderfully. He's been with Megadeth since 2015 but was with Angra before that, a superb power metal band from Brazil. Given that drummer Dirk Verbeuren is a Belgian best known for Swedish melodeath outfit Soilwork, that makes Megadeth pretty international nowadays. Apparently James LoMenzo is on bass again nowadays, having previously left in 2010, but that's not him on this album, because it's Testament's Steve DiGiorgio on bass throughout.
Oddly, such a different line-up to those I remember doesn't really help change them in my mind. I enjoyed the majority of this album, with the downside being that it's too long and could have well benefitted from ditching a couple of the more obviously filler tracks, but I found that enjoyed it in the same way I always do. The strong aspects are the guitars, which are excellent throughout, and the catchiness of some of the songs. My list of favourite songs is identical to my list of the catchiest songs on offer. I'd call out Killing Time and Soldier On! here except that Célebutante arrives right after them and seems like a breath of fresh air every time.
Where that leaves me is an album that underwhelmed but which features a long list of highlights, a contradiction that's at the heart of Megadeth for me. The better songs only improve with every repeat listen but the lesser songs only vanish further. I believe this would have felt much stronger at forty minutes, keeping early gems like Life in Hell and Night Stalkers, but ripping out the lesser material that starts with Dogs of Chernobyl, a bloated track that seriously drags the album down, far enough that it doesn't pick up until Killing Time, at which point everything should be kept. The last few songs are so great that Célebutante feels like a shot of adrenaline that Mission to Mars and, to a lesser degree, We'll Be Back live up to.
And so this is a 7/10 from me, but it's really an 8/10 album that occasionally makes me think about 9/10, especially as it's wrapping up, that happens to be wrapped around a 5/10 album. That means that Megadeth are still able to seriously deliver the speed and power but they're not firing on all cylinders. They need to find enough distance from their material to ditch the baggage and blister.