Big Al's Metal Shop

Two of metal?s biggest personalities have released new work recently. Megadeth released The System Has Failed from Sanctuary Records, and Machine Head released Through the Ashes of Empires from Roadrunner Records. Both are comeback albums of sort: efforts to recapture past glory and somehow bury their less-than-stellar recent catalogue. Both are California thrash titans, and both made ill-fated moves toward the mainstream these last few years. One makes a stunning musical move forward, while the other isn?t bad either.

Though it may seem unfair to review one album against another, Dave Mustaine (Megadeth) has a lot in common with Robb Flynn (Machine Head) these days. If any band defines the California Thrash sound of the ?80s, it?s Megadeth (along with Exodus and of course Metallica). Similarly, Machine Head injected new viciousness into the Cali scene with the shotgun blast that is Burn My Eyes. As far as debuts go, Burn My Eyes is one of those rare albums that defines a band as a heavyweight contender after a single jab.

But something happened to both bands in the late ?90s. Mustaine regarded Metallica?s (well, Lar?s) assertion that Mustaine took no risks musically as a challenge, and recorded ?Risk.? This song sucked like you have no idea. There are some gold nuggets, but by and large this is unlistenable alterna-metal. Then Machine Head released The Burning Red, that took the band far away from its classic thrash sound. 2001 brought new albums from both, with Megadeth?s The World Needs a Hero, an earnest return to the fold but sounding like a band at a crossroads in their career. Machine Head?s Supercharger was not the statement their first album was, but not terrible either.

Sadly, Dave severely hurt his arm shortly afterwards, leaving him unable to play, and retired from music altogether. The Head saw their guitarist leave and their label turn their back on them. While Dave slowly rehabbed his arm and learned, effectively, to play again, Flynn and company went back to the drawing board and redefined who they were as musicians. Mustaine, buoyed by the rapid revival of his skills, attempted to record with the classic lineup from the ?Rust in Peace? era for his return to music. Unfortunately, this didn?t work out, so he dug deep into Megadeth?s past and retrieved Chris Poland from the Jazz world. Poland?s unique style shines through, and his solos shred alongside Mustaine?s. ?Blackmail The Universe,? ?Kick The Chair,? and ?Back in The Day? all evoke memories of Megadeth?s great history. Yet, I still see Mustaine searching for a firm musical direction. ?Die Dead Enough? and ?The Scorpion? both divulge Dave?s desire to crack the mainstream with their hooky melody. As a whole, the album feels like a tribute to Megadeth fans who love the band no matter who plays with Mustaine. If this is the last album for Dave under the Megadeth moniker, then it is indeed a fitting send-off.

Machine Head, on the other hand, has produced a visionary album that will stand along classics in the thrash genre for years to come. With their backs against the wall, no American label to speak of, and no lead guitarist, Flynn and company have created a work of art that infuses their sonic palette with unlikely influences. Instead of the usual rap or hip-hop, Machine Head reaches into the ?70s via Rush. With an eye towards complex arrangement, Machine Head produces seven-minute epics that lure the listener to the very last note, with mid-song tempo changes and complex riffs incorporated to dizzying effect. Every section of every song follows a labyrinthine progression that makes perfect sense upon completion. The effect is only thickened by the agony of Flynn?s life experiences revealed in his lyrics.

Initially, Roadrunner USA refused to release this album stateside. To their credit, they released the album in other parts of the world, and were astounded by its success. Metal fans, it seems, know genius when they see it. With a little egg on their face, Roadrunner USA has rushed out the album to American fans who had been buying this album on import. It?s funny how a band has to go overseas to make their point clear.

TTAOE is not just the return of a band to their old stomping grounds, but a worthy contribution to the evolution of metal. As joyous as their live shows have been here in the U.S. in support of this album, their record was meant to be studied with a pair of headphones and a glass of water. Layer upon layer of intricate arrangements reveal themselves as you lose yourself in this work.

As I tap out this review, the next tempo change kicks in on ?In the Presence of My Enemies.? This is the eighth time I?ve heard the song in the past week, and it still knocks me to the floor each time.

Until next week, let freedom ring with a shotgun blast!