Doing It to 'Deth

'Deth be not proud: Megadeth return to respectability by "getting sick again"

Punk's egalitarian vision lured many Seventies kids away from metal's pomp forever: Fans stashed their Sabbath records in the recesses of their closets and never looked back. But others saw no need to forswear their allegiance to studded wristbands and faded Iron Maiden T-shirts, preferring to listen to new punk elements with a familiar hard-rock structure. Speed metal, the mongrel offspring of the two mangy (if lovable) genres, is a classic case of different kinds of loud guitars making strange bedfellows.

"Speed metal--thrash metal--is really a combination of the intricacy and the thick tones of heavy metal [and] the snottiness of punk rock," Megadeth bassist David Ellefson says over the phone from Los Angeles a few weeks before their Tuesday, October 2 show at First Avenue. By this, Ellefson means that Megadeth's intricate dual guitar parts can resemble Judas Priest's chug sped up to amphetamine tempos. And guitarist/songwriter/lead growler Dave Mustaine can still emit a phlegmatic trill worthy of Johnny Rotten when he sings, "Whaddya mean I can't be president? It's 'we the people,' rrrrrrright?"

Like counterparts Anthrax, Slayer, and Metallica, Megadeth took this speedy hybrid to a substantial audience outside the underground. Despite heavy-metal signifiers that sometimes drove punk dilettantes nuts--multitudinous tempo changes, skeletal mascot Vic Rattlehead--Megadeth's first five albums still stun with their fierce intelligence and ferocious playing. Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good! and Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?, are coated in punk venom. So Far, So Good...So What! careens like the out-of-control car of its DUI epic "502." Rust in Peace is a concept album that is as musically corrosive as its nuclear-war theme. Polishing up and slowing down on Countdown to Extinction, the band went double platinum. This was an impressive feat for 1992, when its musical precision and articulate fatalism stood in contrast to grunge's sloppier apathy.

But if Cobain and Co. didn't do Megadeth in, developing a people-pleasing streak nearly did. As self-pitying self-deprecation became fashionable, they were stuck between retiring to the rock 'n' roll nursing home or donning rabid porcupine costumes à la Mudvayne. Their bid for a "mature" audience garnered mixed results. By the time 1999's Risk was released, the band had added tablas, string sections, and power ballads in a bid for radio-readiness. Not only did Risk not cross over, but online metal reviewers with handles like Death and Abyss shunned it, a fate worse than any low SoundScan sale figures. Lead guitarist Marty Friedman soon left. The band split from Capitol Records in one of those not-really-mutual decisions, and they signed with the aging but still ambulatory hard-rocker label Sanctuary.

While Megadeth's latest, The World Needs a Hero (Sanctuary), is all about "getting sick again" (in Ellefson's words), it doesn't discount the eclecticism or introspection the band developed during their search for suburban respectability. "Disconnect" couples an airy but ominous guitar hook with a sneering chorus--"Turn off your conscience/Leave the world outside"--that (contrary to first impressions) is a statement against amorality. And "Promises" succeeds where previous lovey-dovey 'Deth songs have failed, mixing a delicate string section with a chorus that sounds like a dozen partied-out headbangers crying in their beer. If this seems too much like a noisier Up With People, there's also the scabrous "1000 Times Goodbye," in which an anonymous woman cold-bloodedly utters platitudes like "I love you like a brother" and "I met someone else." There's a big, snarly guitar sound on that one that pleases Ellefson.

"When that song was coming together, and Dave Mustaine started playing that riff, me and [new Megadeth guitarist] Al Pitrelli were throwing our heavy-metal devil signs at each other," he says. "Like Al said, this is why I joined Megadeth!"

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