Dear Dave Mustaine,
Hey, man. It’s been a while since my last letter. Hope everything’s going well for you. I don’t know if you remember me (and if you do, you’ve probably torn this letter to shreds by now), but I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time now.
Hell, that’s not even close to saying it right. I know I’m going to get shit from the “serious music fans” who read this site, the ones who agreed with me about Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom (and I hope right now you’re saying, “Who the hell are they?”), but your music changed my life. When I was 15 years old, I thought you were the best musician in the world. Seriously.
I look back on it now, and I know it’s kind of silly. Even you must see the humor in a band name like Megadeth. I know, I know – “Megadeath” is a real term, coined by Herman Kahn in 1953, and it means one million deaths. It’s the kind of word only a civilization with the frightening ability to destroy itself in a matter of minutes would come up with, and I like to think that’s why you chose it, but I don’t get why you misspelled it. That’s the kind of thing that 15-year-old me thought was cool, but it makes 32-year-old me grimace.
But you know, as you said once, it’s not the size of your pencil, it’s how you sign your name. The first four Megadeth albums are – and forgive me, serious music fans – awesome. Still, today, they hold up. They are fast, aggressive, explosive, complex, sneering and hilarious. You were young, you’d just been kicked out of Metallica for being a bigger badass than they were, and you were determined to make the best metal albums you could.
Rust in Peace came out when I was 16, and it knocked me on the floor. You should take this as a massive compliment – I was at the height of my teenage metalhead phase, and I’d heard it all, and I thought, honestly and sincerely, that Rust in Peace was the best album ever made. I know the last thing you wanted at the time was to make hummable music, but I would walk around humming the amazing opening guitar lick to “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due.” (And I would get a lot of strange looks for doing so.)
And then… well, I’ve written about this a number of times, and it’s never less depressing. Your music fell into a downward spiral that just has to be heard to be believed. Countdown to Extinction was pretty good, easily the best of this new melodic direction you’d gone in, but by the time Cryptic Writings came out in 1997, you were going through the motions, it seems to me.
I was fresh out of college, living in Maine, and the release of that album sparked the first of these Dear Dave Mustaine letters. It opened with me telling you I’d just heard the album, and asking you, “What the hell was that?” Because Cryptic Writings sucks. You know, I went back and listened to it again recently, in preparation for writing this letter, and while it’s a little better than I remembered, it’s still a half-assed Megadeth album. I mean, “Mastermind”? “She-Wolf”? Really?
But little did I know how good I had it in 1997. By 1999, when Megadeth hit its nadir with Risk, I had my own column (the print version of this puppy right here, published by Face Magazine), and I felt it was time for another letter. This one started a little differently, if you recall: “Dear Dave Mustaine, fuck you.”
I am such a fan that when EMI remastered the Megadeth catalog, I ran out and bought them all again, including Risk. (You’re welcome.) And I read your liner notes for that record with a smirk – you all but disowned it, detailing what you called the hijacking of your band from under your nose. I hated the same things about it, especially the WWF-inspired disco-metal of “Crush ‘Em,” although we disagree on “I’ll Be There” – I think it’s one of the worst pieces of crap you’ve ever written. The Megadeth I loved at 16 would never have written a song called “I’ll Be There.” Never.
Honestly, it was almost a relief for me when you injured your hand in 2002 and called it quits.
It should be obvious at this point what I want from you, Dave, and I hope you get other letters that ask for the same thing. I want aggressive, powerful, tricky, challenging metal, music that sounds like shrapnel exploding, music that makes my ears ring and my nose bleed. You must have noticed by now that other, younger bands are kicking your ass – Mastodon, Lamb of God, In Flames, and a dozen other acts are regularly producing heavy-as-shit metal that makes your mid-period music sound like Hall and Oates.
I admit, I was skeptical when you re-formed Megadeth, apparently having healed from your debilitating injury. I didn’t expect much, and yet, like the dutiful fan I am, I bought the album – number 10, in fact, called The System Has Failed. The cover is great, depicting longtime mascot Vic Rattlehead giving out pardons for cash to a long line of familiar faces, including Bush, the Clintons, Condi Rice and Ted Kennedy. Still, I wasn’t optimistic, and I braced for the worst as I pressed play.
And 48 minutes later, I breathed a sigh of relief. Holy shit, Dave, this album is great. You weren’t lying, you weren’t kidding. It’s the heaviest and best Megadeth album in more than 10 years. And maybe I’m just getting old, but the slower, more melodic ones really did it for me this time, too, especially “Truth Be Told.” I was sad to see Dave Ellefson go – he’s been with Megadeth since the beginning, providing great bass work – but it seems like you’ve really taken control of the band now, and you’re inspired, for the first time in ages.
I’m happy to report that I also like the follow-up – it lives up to its very Megadeth title, United Abominations. The front cover even reminds me of the classic image that adorned Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying, all those years ago, and while the music inside is a far cry from the speed-metal genius of that album, it ain’t bad at all. This record’s of a piece with The System Has Failed, and in fact sounds like the second part of a trilogy. Am I right?
The other thing that makes me think we’re dealing with a new trilogy is the lyrical content. This is the second album in a row that focuses on the state of the world, politically speaking, and it takes aim at some worthy targets. I disagree that the U.N. should have supported our illegal and immoral war in Iraq, as the title track says, but tunes like “Washington is Next” show that the guy who served as MTV’s political correspondent for the 1992 elections hasn’t lost that social conscience.
It’s not all good news, Dave. This album is a bit of a step down from the out-of-the-box excellence of System, and there are a few clunkers. Oddly enough, you seem to have sequenced them all in a row, dragging down the middle of the album with slower, less exciting numbers. There are a few too many places here where you just let the power chords and endless solos ring out over mid-tempo, repetitive backdrops, which is all the more depressing when you contrast these bits with the best stuff, like “Sleepwaker” and “Washington is Next.”
You also, for some reason, have included a new version of one of your finest songs, “A Tout le Monde,” off of the otherwise lousy Youthanasia. Can I tell you that you’ve done this song no favors with this new version? Sure, you share vocal duties with Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil, and she has a nice voice, but in all other ways, this is a lesser effort than the original, which had the textured work of guitar god Marty Friedman. Nothing against you or new guitarist Glen Drover, but there’s no magic here, just a straight rendition of the tune, like a local cover band might do.
But hell, this song deserves to be heard, and United Abominations is a better record than Youthanasia, all told. You pull it out at the end, too, with three superb, angry songs with wonderfully metal names. (“Amerikhastan” is my favorite, but the directness of “You’re Dead” shouldn’t be understated, either.) Overall, it’s a lesser effort when compared to the first part of this new trilogy, but it’s pretty damn good, especially for a guy I’d all but written off.
Yeah, that’s you, Dave. I’d almost given up on you, more than once over the last decade. I’m still not sure why I didn’t, or why your work remains so important to me. You’re still the only musician I’ve chosen to address directly like this, and I’m not certain why that is. I definitely have more to say to someone like Brian Wilson, or Ben Folds. But I’m not as invested in their careers as I am in yours. I want you to succeed, I want you to produce the best, heaviest, most ass-kicking stuff you can, and keep challenging yourself.
Don’t ask me why, but it’s important to me that Megadeth survives, and remains awesome.
You sound like you’re on the right track, Dave. You’ve curbed that pop-metal urge, and you sound invested in the music you’re making again, which is a very good thing. You’re 45 now, as hard as that is to believe, but I’m glad to hear you’re not giving up and turning into Elton John. I guess what I’m trying to say is this – five years ago, I danced on Megadeth’s grave, rejoicing at the news that you were throwing in the towel after a decade of increasingly horrid records.
I was wrong. And I’m glad you’re back. And my inner 15-year-old is even more glad.
Keep it up, Dave. I’ll talk to you when the trilogy’s complete. (I am right, aren’t I?)
Sincerely, your fan (still), Andre.
See you in line Tuesday morning.