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How do you like your controversies? If the answer to that question was “numerous, and usually drug-related in nature”, then I’m sure you’re already more than familiar with the long list of talking points that have accompanied the music of Megadeth and Dave Mustaine. The most recent, the turfing out of bassist Dave Ellefson after his private life became a lot less private, highlighted another eyebrow elevating decision on Mustaine’s part to not stop there, going as far as completely replacing his contributions to their sixteenth and newest album The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead!.
The why’s and wherefores of that decision lie solely with Mustaine himself – the band have been noticeably averse in explaining a lot to do with the firing of Ellefson itself – but I think I have some idea as to why. By creating a complete removal of the whole situation from both the public eye and ear, they’re drawing a line under it so that people can focus on the album itself. It’s hardly a page from the Sherlock Holmes school of deductive reasoning handbook to make that claim on my part, but the question still remains if that is the case – does the approach work, or does the millstone of it all hang heavy?
The short answer – it works. Megadeth are one of the last true flagbearers of “traditional” thrash-metal, one of the Big Four; as long as they’re putting out the goods people want then the behind-the-scenes stuff starts to go back behind the curtain. From the word go, the title track re-introduces us to a Megadeth that could have been knocking around in the 90s, albeit a slightly underpowered one that take more of a confident stride out of the gate than a running start. Life In Hell takes that baton and promptly sprints with it, however, a snarling series of explosive riffs and literal snarls from Mustaine that blows all the cobwebs to shreds and launches an all out offensive on anyone who doubted that MegaDave can still put out a proper thrash track.
Night Stalkers is generous with its claim of featuring Ice-T, given he only gets about six words in, but the long-time heavy metal enthusiast adds a great new dimension to a track that might have been considered silly if it was just the Megadeth part of it on show. It has all the hallmarks – big guitars overlapping, fiery re-introductions of Mustaine’s trademark growling and some of the lowest effort lyrics ever put to music - and we’ll just have to ignore the slightly rubbish theme to continue considering it a great track. Following that, Dogs of Chernobyl is heavier than your nan’s ashtrays and just as grimy in places. It oozes this gorgeous charm, helped in no small part by the incredible intro that leads into a stomping track that holds nothing back. It’s legitimately as good as anything they’ve put out; think early 90s Metallica with some energetic tweaks.
Sacrifice takes that solid metal punch and delivers a rather limp return, which leads us into a rather unceremoniously weak section of the album altogether. Junkie is clearly a semi-autobiographical outpouring from Mustaine and has some killer moments but gets lost in a sort of silly stereotyping mess in others. Psychopathy offers a short, spoken word interlude (which does absolutely nothing to help the pace whatsoever) before we’re caught with our pants down by Killing Time. It explodes with frantic back and forth guitars and the sort of drumming that would get you in trouble with the neighbours, bashing us around the head in punishment for daring to think that things had fallen off into mediocre territory and delivering a solid track in the process. It feels a little metaphorical, in a sense, if you look at the album as a reflection of the entire Megadeth career in that it starts furious and punishing, slows down a little to become more friendly and then redelivers that thumping style just when you thought everything had gone a bit soft.
Soldier On! drops a little pace but gains a little hook, jumping along in a manner that becomes more infectious the longer you listen to it. Again, it’s not a strong track if you listen too closely, but it has enough on the surface to satisfy that urge for more fun, thrash goodness. Celebutante goes for a more direct approach than its predecessor with a pounding, drum-heavy track that smashes your head like a melon first and asks questions much, much later.
Then, hoo boy, we get Mission To Mars. The closest thing I can think of as an analog to this is probably the updated version of A Tout Le Monde from the fantastic United Abominations, in that it mashes together Mustaine’s very distinct voice with a style that it just doesn’t suit. In this case, it’s a stargazing epic in the vein of Rocket Man but with a lot of very distracting rasping going on. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad song whatsoever – it just feels a little off. Thankfully, We’ll Be Back then goes back to the known with a classic thrash anthem; a perfect closing statement that sets the tone for the future better than words – or controversies – ever could.
We seem to be in an upward curve for the band, musically speaking – the last few albums improving on the previous in noticeable ways – and while nobody knows how many more we may get after album number sixteen, we’re getting better and better releases every time, so who knows what we will be treated to next.
So, there we have it – that is The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead, deep-dived and semi-reviewed. But what’s the final verdict, though, I hear you cry? How can I possibly quantify how good this album is without some sort of numerical value attached to it? Rest easy, my rock and metal chickadees, because I’ll tell you – this is a great album. It’s not without its faults, sure, but they’re hardly far away from the faults that you could find in any given Megadeth album that isn’t Peace Sells, the usual issues of a slightly wonky pacing and slightly wonkier lyrics. What we have here that works far outweighs those issues and we’re left with an album that I genuinely think people will look back on far more fondly than a huge chunk of the Megadeth back catalogue. Just try not to think too much of everything outside of the music and you’ll be fine.
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