Considered one of most important and innovative bands within the heavy metal pantheon, Megadeth have spent the greater part of 30 years creating technically superior speed metal, something which gives the band a better claim than most to being the genre’s defining musical force. Then there’s the added bonus that the man who founded the quartet was originally an integral member of Metallica, the group credited with giving birth to thrash metal.
After falling out with his former charges, the virtuosically gifted guitarist Dave Mustaine emerged with a reconfigured approach to songwriting, and began constructing harder, faster, and more overtly technical compositions with his new outfit, Megadeth. (According to Mustaine, the band’s name represents the annihilation of power; it’s also a misspelling of “megadeath”: a unit of one million deaths, used to predict how many fatalities a nuclear war would cause.)
Unique among Los Angeles’ glam/hair metal scene of the 80s, Mustaine worked up a mixture of high-speed jazz-fusion, loaded with dynamic tones and infectious choruses. The technicality on display in Megadeth’s songwriting was a different beast to his former band’s sonic assault, displaying a greater sense of wild possibilities and controlled fury.
Featuring a revolving-door line-up of rhythm guitarists, including Slayer’s Kerry King, the first Megadeth line-up finally entered the studio to begin recording what would be the first of their many studio albums, issued on indie imprint Combat. Along with bassist Dave Ellefson, lead guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson, their 1985 debut album, Killing Is my Business… And Business Is Good!, was an instant underground smash, thanks in part to its combination of musical styles.
Though a thrash metal album through and through, it brought something different to the table: the musical chemistry between Ellefson and Mustaine, and their love of thrash metal, combined with Samuelson and Poland’s jazz influences to result in a new strain of thrash that was loaded with unusual chord combinations and unconventional shifts in tone, as on the anti-occult “Looking Down The Glass” and Mustaine’s hyper-fast version of “Mechanix” (a song that appears on Metallica’s Kill ’Em All under the name “The Four Horsemen”).
The success of Killing Is My Business… led to a deal with major label Capitol Records and the release of their second – and arguably most iconic – album, Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? By the time of its release, in 1986, Megadeth were touted as one of metal’s hottest new groups. Interpersonal problems began to tear at the seams, however, and Peace Sells’ recording sessions were loaded with unprecedented levels of tension. Perhaps partly as a result, the album boasted some of the most powerful songs from the 80s thrash scene, among them “Wake Up Dead,” “The Conjuring” and the timeless “Peace Sells.”
Yet relationships remained strained. By the time the band began recording their third album, So Far, So Good… So What!, Poland and Samuelson had been fired, leaving Mustaine and bassist Dave Ellefson as the only original members. Legend has it that the band approached ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo to join them, but that he turned the invitation down. Enter drummer Chuck Behler, along with guitarist Jeff Young, to complete the line-up for Megadeth’s important third album.
Released in January 1988, So Far, So Good… So What! spat venom and snarling guitars with an overtly punk approach to the thrash formula. Tracks such as “Set The World On Fire” and “Liar” are laced with snarling rage and crushing riffs; however, it’s the emotionally charged “In My Darkest Hour” that steals the limelight. Penned by Mustaine, the song dealt with his reaction to the shock death of his one-time Metallica bandmate, bassist Cliff Burton.
With internal problems at an all-time high, the short-lived So Far… line-up came to an abrupt halt when Young and Behler were ejected and a new line-up assembled for what would be one of the band’s most successful albums. Released in September 1990, Rust In Piece benefited from the involvement of guitarist Marty Friedman and drummer Nick Menza, who together brought a new level of intensity and musicianship to Megadeth.
Rust In Peace was designed to annihilate the competition with nine tracks of blistering, complex guitar riffs and arena-bothering anthems, such as “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” and “Hanger 18.” A newly sober Mustaine was now fully in control and experiencing a level of success that he had only dreamed of. For the first time in years, the band would release consecutive albums with the line-up intact.
Arguably one of the tightest, straightforward and most accessible albums in Megadeth’s catalogue, Countdown To Extinction took a slower pace to the normal frenzied attack. Tracks such as “Skin O’ My Teeth,” “Symphony Of Destruction,” and “Foreclosure Of A Dream” catapulted the band to the top of the charts around the globe and helped them receive a 1993 Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance.
Megadeth’s success continued into 1995, when their sixth studio album, Youthanasia, reached No.4 in the US charts. Focusing on topics such as death, war, and incest, it offered classics such as “Train Of Consequences” and the dangerously pop-like “A Tout Le Monde.” With three albums under their belt, the Mustaine, Ellefson, Friedman, and Menza line-up undertook a world tour that saw the band perform in many locations that most American heavy metal groups had never ventured to, including Latin America.
With a more mid-tempo hard rock approach, 1997’s Cryptic Writings was almost a full departure from the group’s thrash roots. Best exemplified by “Trust,” it generated impressive sales, if not such strong critical notices, and was the final release by the relatively long-lived Megadeth line-up that recorded it. With Jimmy DeGrasso taking over from Menza on drumming duties, Megadeth’s seventh album, 1999’s Risk, was released amid a storm of controversy, thanks to the group’s use of electronic dance influences, as heard on “Crush ’Em’.” Regardless, it reached gold status in the States, but led to yet another line-up change when Friedman was replaced by guitarist Al Pitrelli.
Megadeth came back in May 2001 with The World Needs A Hero, on which Mustaine returned to a heavier sound. Though not quite a full-on thrash assault, the album had a driving, heavy pace, as heard on “Return To Hanger.” The Megadeth machine seemed set to move forward, until a very unexpected and abrupt termination in 2002, when Mustaine suffered from severe nerve damage leaving him unable to play. After extensive physical therapy, Mustaine and co were back, with a full-on thrash sound, in the form of “Kick The Chair” from The System Has Failed.
Megadeth returned with an entirely new line-up featuring bassist James LoMenzo, guitarist Chris Broderick, and drummer Shawn Drover for the group’s 11th studio album, which was released under the title United Abominations and received positive reviews, in part for effortlessly making the transition between thrash (“Washington is Next!”) to mainstream rock (“À Toute Le Monde (Set Me Free)”).
In 2009, they unleashed their heaviest release since Rust In Peace. Endgame burst forth with Mustaine’s familiar aggression and cutthroat riffs (see “44 Minutes”), setting the scene for 2011’s follow-up, Th1rt3en, which boasted even more of the same (“Public Enemy No.1”). 2013’s Super Collider, though sparking interest from die-hard fans, ultimately left them with mixed feelings; despite including notable moments such as “Kingmaker,” many were underwhelmed, and Drover and Broderick subsequently left the group.
A newly revitalised Megadeth returned to their thrash roots with Dystopia in January 2016. Mustaine and Ellefson’s chemistry had never been more stronger (“The Threat Is Real” is just one highlight among many), thanks in part to the wizardry of former Angra shredder Kiko Loureiro and Lamb Of God sticksman Chris Adler, who completed the new line-up.
Having survived now for many decades, the Megadeth juggernaut keeps moving, preserving a legacy built upon innovation and limitless musical ability.