Capitol Records, 1997
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/29/1997
For Dave Mustaine, the past fourteen years have all been leading up to this moment.
Since his oft-talked about removal from Metallica in 1983, Mustaine has been leading Megadeth, the "other" name-band of the early thrash scene, through good times and bad. Fighting a public battle with drugs (and winning - he's been mostly winning the battle since 1990) and seeing heavy metal fall out of public favor, he's continued to push Megadeth into new, challenging territories of its genre - often prompting the call of "sell-out" that was more suited for his former band.
Now, after a three-year hiatus from the studio, Mustaine and crew return with their eighth album, Cryptic Writings - and have put out what may just be the best music of their career.
Working again with guitarist Marty Friedman, bassist (and only other original member besides Mustaine) Dave Ellefson and drummer Nick Menza, Mustaine leads his crew through twelve cuts that not only challenge the listener to re-think what this band was all about, but also pushes the envelope and tries to make hard rock/heavy metal a viable force again. Their previous two full-length releases Countdown To Extinction and the underrated Youthanasia were just stepping stones on the journey. (Their last release, 1995's Hidden Treasures, was a compilation of non-album tracks.)
The first single "Trust" speaks volumes on how far Megadeth has come since their balls-out debut Killing Is My Business... And Business Is Good! in 1985. The power is still there, but the guitar work has never sounded more clear and musical ever. Mustaine's songwriting has only grown stronger - at age 35, he's not afraid now to sing about relationships and the pain they can cause. One look at the opening verse says it all: "Lost in a dream / Nothing is what it seems / Searching my head / For the words that you said / Tears filled my eyes / As we said our last goodbyes / This sad scene replays / Of you walking away." Mustaine captures the pain that most of us have felt at one point or another in our lives and makes us feel as if it's happening to Mustaine at that moment.
The following song, "Almost Honest," continues in the dejected lover vein, though both sides seem to be at fault in the lyrics. The guitar work by Mustaine and Friedman is absolutely incredible - I'm sure some of the credit must go to producer Dann Huff, formerly of Giant. Gone are the days where Mustaine and crew had the goal of seeing how many notes they could play in one second. Here, both men show just how good they are on the six-string - even I was amazed.
Mustaine has always been very open about his battle with drugs and alcohol - "Use The Man" turns from the story of a man (another musician? a friend?) succumb to the demons by taking his own life to his own survival of the same hell ("I've seen myself use the needle, seen the needle in my hand").
But just before the long-time fan gets worried about Megadeth forgetting their past, Megadeth shows they still know how to make the aging headbanger give themselves a concussion. "FFF" is a double-bass frenzy (though not as thrash as some of their earlier works) that maintains a level of musicianship throughout the cut, while "She-Wolf" seems to be a return to the Megadeth of old (Tipper Gore, relax - it's not a song that's overly descriptive).
And while the telltale signs of long-term life in a band are occasionally heard (Mustaine sounds extremely hoarse on "I'll Get Even") and other songs drag a little bit ("Have Cool, Will Travel"), these moments hardly weaken Cryptic Writings. There's even a slight tip of the hat to the Beatles - I swear one guitar track on "A Secret Place" sounds like a sitar.
In fact, the only "disappointment" here is the disappearance of the band's long-time mascot Vic Rattlehead - the cover art is quite scarce. (Once inside the book for the CD, however, the artistry of Hugh Syme once again shows its magic.)
Maybe the long-time fans will see the slower side of Megadeth to be a sell-out. Two words: shut up . While there were times in Megadeth's history that the band absolutely shredded while playing fast, it hardly showed off how good of musicians these four men were and are. (I personally would take Ellefson's bass work over Jason Newsted's any day.) And, really, you could see it coming - Youthanasia was a clear sign of things to come (I don't understand how people could call that album a disappointment).
Metal may not be the commercial force it once was, but if Megadeth has anything to say about it, it will never die - only adapt with the times. Cryptic Writings is proof of this, and is easily one of the best albums I've listened to all year.