Megadeth looked like a legacy band after the release of their disastrous Super Collider album in 2013, but then they got back on track with 2016’s excellent Dystopia. It left us revaluating whether Megadeth were not only the best and most consistent of the big four but also the most relevant in the twenty-first century. Let’s not forget that Megadeth enjoyed the 1990s while Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer wilted. Admittedly, the 2000s and 2010s saw some mediocre albums, yet you can say the same for their contemporaries. Ever since 1990, Megadeth have shown an admirable stubbornness for staying in the mainstream, much to the fury of the art-school alternative press and pop culture tastemakers who cannot understand why a libertarian social conservative with a motor mouth and tendentious personality continues to sell records. The fact is Dave Mustaine is a metal god and might be the greatest axeman the genre has ever produced.
We never know which Megadeth to expect when Dave follows up a critically acclaimed LP, but album number sixteen avoids the mistakes of lapsing into hard rock and chasing radio hits. Instead, Megadeth open The Sick, the Dying… And the Dead! with three thrash offensives before you can catch your breath. The title track reminds you that Megadeth always had the most sophisticated melodies of the big four, yet it also throbs with battle scars and achieves a genuine pathos in the way Dave describes the onset of the Black Plague in his lyrics (no doubt with a plethora of modern metaphors in mind). ‘Life in Hell’ scalds like a flesh-ripping blanket of ash with its razor-sharp riffs and unconventional d-beat drum patterns. Is there a better sound in metal than Dave Mustaine throttling his guitar strings in a fast alt-picking motion, like on the excellent single, ‘Night Stalkers’? So far, so good… so what? you might say at this stage.
Like most of the band’s catalogue post-1997, Megadeth often lose focus in the middle of their albums, and a couple of inconsequential songs like ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Psychopathy’ don’t help matters here. Both would be the best songs on 1999’s dreadful Risk LP, but that probably says more about that awful record than the quality of these tracks. Fans will wonder why Dave decided to revisit ‘Dread and the Fugitive Mind’ from 2001 on the puzzling charm of ‘Killing Time’. You could even say the entirety of the middle third is the same experiment they tried on 1994’s Youthanasia by seeing how often they can build a conventional verse-bridge-chorus song on the foundations of a technical thrash riff. When it works, it’s breath-taking. ‘Soldier On’ is an anthem in waiting with its battering rhythms and marvellous change of key for the chorus. If only Dave had the range to execute some of the choruses in his head. The aforementioned ‘Killing Time’ reminds you that a snarling head voice lacks the power to deliver a chorus. Dave’s vocals need more aggression to match the ferocity of his riffs on ‘Junkie’. (On a side note: How much would these songs sparkle with somebody like John Bush on the microphone?)
Repeat listens to The Sick, the Dying… And the Dead! will remind you of Cryptic Writings in the way new delights appear on closer inspection. But make no mistake: this is a thrash metal album. The final two tracks – ‘Mission to Mars’ and ‘We’ll Be Back’ – capture the best aspects of Megadeth. Rapid guitar rhythms and shredding solos vie for supremacy with pounding drums and an urgency that will remind you of the unpredictable brilliance and self-destruction of their 1988 classic, So Far, So Good… So What! The way Mustaine and Kiko Loureiro operate their instruments like deadly artillery guns is nothing short of jaw dropping towards the end of ‘We’ll Be Back’.
Nobody doubts that their best days are behind them, but Megadeth show here that they still matter in contemporary metal. Of course, they will never produce another Rust in Peace, but they could slip at least five of the songs from The Sick, the Dying… And the Dead! into their live setlist.
Release Date: 02/09/2022
Record Label: AG Records
Standout tracks: Life in Hell, Night Stalkers, Mission to Mars
Suggested Further Listening: Megadeth – So Far, So Good… So What! (1988), Megadeth – Youthanasia (1994), Megadeth – The World Needs a Hero (2001)