Guitar heroics carry uncomfortably relevant Megadeth at Roy Wilkins

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Dave Mustaine leading a reinvigorated, polarizing Megadeth through their Roy Wilkins Auditorium show Tuesday. Deb Freytag

With the right twisting, it's easy to swing heavy metal tropes into alt-right rallying points. The inherent distrust of authority, the aggressive proclamations of personal freedom.

But with Dave Mustaine -- metal god and noted birther -- it's not a leap.

Megadeth's prolific leader, a onetime Rick Santorum supporter, has a history of making controversial to outright objectionable statements that have landed him in some people's basket of deplorables -- a track record he joked about during the thrash heroes' Roy Wilkins Auditorium show Tuesday.

“I'm just as entertained with the shit that comes out of my mouth as you are,” quipped Mustaine, recalling the 1988 gig in Northern Ireland where he started a riot after drunkenly shouting “Give Ireland back to the Irish! This one's for the cause.”

Supposedly he had no clue “the cause” was an IRA euphemism.

Love him or loathe him, Mustaine's touring on Megadeth's sonically best and most relevant album in years. The thrash titans' 15th studio record, January's Dystopia, echoes the contempt for the establishment and bleak worldview anyone following American politics might have.

But lyrics like “No controlling who comes through the door” from “The Threat is Real” or “Why cower to those / Who oppose the American world” in “Post American World” seem to draw party lines. (The Bill O'Reilly fanboy has described himself as an independent.)

Less divisive were the night's openers, starting with hard-rockers Butcher Babies and reunited '80s thrash/power troupe Metal Church. Thrash/skate punk vets Suicidal Tendencies followed with a surprisingly unstale set, boosted by one of metal's most revered drummers, Dave Lombardo of Slayer fame.

But none matched the might of viking metal bastions Amon Amarth, who took the stage equipped with a delightfully cheesy giant viking ship. The grizzled melodic death Swedes awoke the crowd with galloping battle anthems “First Kill” and “On a Sea of Blood” off this year's impressive Jomsviking.

Between the goofy sea vessel and the viking horn dangling from singer Johan Hegg's hip, it's a shame the seasoned marauders weren't tapped to plunder U.S. Bank Stadium on Metallica's undercard.

“Is this viking country or not?” asks Hegg, emerging on the ship's bow in a Minnesota Vikings horns-and-braids hat, leading the crowd in a “skol” cheers (it was BYO horn mug) before “Raise Your Horns.”

Whether fans agree with Mustaine's, um, uncomfortable politics mattered little to the two-thirds full auditorium as Megadeth came out with a blazing “Hanger 18,” the fan-favorite anthem off their magnum opus, Rust in Peace. This tour's seen the band's current reinvigorated lineup mining heavily from the 1990 classic and Dystopia. Their St. Paul stop proved no different, with “The Threat is Real” sliding seamlessly between “Hanger” and another Rust gem, the thickly grooving “Tornado of Souls,” out of the chute.

Early on, Mustaine seemed afflicted with vocal malaise, the end of his lines sometimes tailing off without a fight. But vocals have never been the strongest component in the guitar god's songwriting. The barrage of killer leads was enough to cover any vocal quibbles, salvaging even sluggish newbie “Poisonous Shadows” as four giant accordion light panels descended and recoiled above the quartet.

In interviews, Mustaine's come off school-boy giddy when discussing the group bromance he and bassist Dave Ellefson (a Minnesota native) are in with their current lineup. The Megadeth co-founders are joined by guitarist Kiko Loureiro and drummer Dirk Verbeuren, formerly of Swedish vets Soilwork. The Belgian-born kitminder has Minnesota ties of his own, playing with retooled local metalers Powermad (featuring Surly brewer Todd Haug).

It's not yet clear what Verbeuren's new job means for his Powermad role. But his steady blasts anchored the efficient riff factory that is contemporary Megadeth. Loureiro easily went shred for shred with Mustaine all night, especially during the dueling solos of “Hanger.”

Oddly enough, some of the new stuff had more punch than their most recognizable '90s hits. “Symphony of Destruction” and the schizophrenic MTV fave “Sweating Bullets” were satisfying crowd mandates, though neither quite matched the grim intensity of Dystopia's title track.

During a roundabout introduction to “Post American World,” Mustaine somewhat out of the blue made a case for why he's not a racist. Those accusations stem at least in part from comments he made about how starving African women with multiple children should “put a plug in it.”

His unprovoked self-defense (a black guy was in his band once, he says) was a little odd for a guy who's tried to temper his polarizing statements since the last presidential election -- or at least thinly cloak them in song.

Either way, the crowd didn't much care by the time “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” ripped open the encore. The Rust classic sparked the night's biggest circle pit, as its epic groove barreled down into locomotive shreddery.

However one feels about Mustaine's problematic mouth, it's clear Megadeth is having a creative moment, tapping polarizing sentiments pervasive in this country. For old-guard metal dudes, staying relevant is half the battle, right?

At least the riffs are as vital as ever.

Notes on the openers: See above.

The crowd: Generations of mostly male metal nerds.

Over-smelled in the crowd: Stale cigarette smoke clinging to well-worn denim jackets.

Random notebook dump: Early '00s hardcore and basketball shorts -- comfiest fashion statement ever?

Wondering what that wacky Amon Amarth viking ship looked like? Check out more photos from the show here.


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