Of thrash metal’s Big Four, Megadeth has always been the one with the flashiest guitars. When marshalled to the crackerjack songwriting of 1990’s Rust in Peace and 2009’s Endgame, bandleader Dave Mustaine’s guitar heroics act as ecstatic elaborations; when not, they overcompensate. After the miscalculated radio-rock pandering of 2013’s Super Collider, though, Dystopia’s sustained virtuosity, with riffs sprouting like fractals, feels like a form of reparation: Mustaine’s breathless promise that he’ll never let Super Collider’s Crossfit-ready dad metal happen ever again.
Dystopia follows another of many lineup changes, and the band is as fleet-footed and barrel-chested as Mustaine’s aggressive arrangements demand. Founding member David Ellefson and Lamb of God’s Chris Adler combine elephantine basslines and double-stroke kick drums, respectively, to give groove-metal heft to “Bullet to the Brain” and “Poisonous Shadows,” while Mustaine and power-metal guitarist Kiko Loureiro, trading lead and rhythm duties, play off each other nicely on the twin lead harmonies of “Bullet to the Brain” and “Death from Within.”
But Mustaine’s songwriting undersells his personnel. Dystopia is in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal-inflected mode of Megadeth’s last decade (Super Collider excepted), which has meant a greater emphasis on melodicism and grandeur, and diminished interest in progressive structures, albeit not to the extent of their late-’90s AOR turn. On the epic title track and vampy “Bullet to the Brain,” the approach yields sturdy tunes. Elsewhere, Dystopia is marred by repetitive phrasing and turgid hooks; the riffs here are high volume, low value.
The main attraction on any Megadeth album is high-velocity technical bravura, and Dystopia makes a good first impression: Opening with the heartrate-spiking gallop of “The Threat Is Real,” the album yields often to the intricate roulette curves of Mustaine’s soloing. But after kicking up a lot of arpeggiated dust, the solos rarely leave much of a mark. For someone so famously disdainful of whammy overuse, Mustaine leans hard on transitory dazzle.
If age has spared Mustaine’s fingers, it’s ravaged his voice, which has never sounded so guttural or monotone. Worse still are his words: He was one of thrash’s more literate lyricists, but you wouldn’t know it from, say, the hilariously awful “The Emperor,” which borrows the chorus from the Spice Girls’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” and culminates in a certain cliché about a monarch wearing invisible garments. On Dystopia, Mustaine, who titled Endgame after an Alex Jones documentary, treads familiar apocalyptic terrain to nigh reactionary ends.
It’s hard not to think of Mustaine’s comments from 1988 about erecting “a great wall along the Mexican border” in “The Threat Is Real,” which describes an authoritarian state at once led by a “messiah or mass murderer,” and indifferent to “who comes through the door”; said intruders are wisely unidentified, but unambiguously compared to lepers. “Post American World” calls for class solidarity, only to ask, “Why cower to all those who oppose the American world?” The first line of “Lying in State,” meanwhile, leaves little to the imagination: “What we are witnessing is the decline of Western Civilization.” Considering two covers are already included (Fear’s “Foreign Policy,” and Budgie’s “Melt the Ice Away” on the Spotify edition), a Skrewdriver song could’ve fit right in.
There’s always room for classicism in metal, whose elders enjoy rather unusual longevity and reverence for popular music. And to be sure, it’s no overstatement that every metal subgenre in existence was borne of thrash’s crosspollination of heavy metal’s brutal technique and hardcore punk’s speed and working-class politics. A small but vital cabal of young bands continue to find inspiration in thrash’s template. Dystopia, on the other hand, illustrates a trajectory uncomfortably true to its name: Metal’s premier conspiracy theorist grows up to be metal’s resident Republican, confusing xenophobia for meaningful dissent, and stasis for devotion to tradition.