Review Summary: Dave delivers the goods, but is it enough?
The story of Megadeth could have easily been written by one of the masters of Greek tragedy. Here is a band born of misfortune, fueled by envy, never given the respect or attention that they felt was deserved. Dave Mustaine has been nothing if not a tragic figure, spending large portions of his career so bitter about his termination from Metallica that he was unable to see the success that he built for himself. He was able to pen one of the handful of greatest metal albums of all time, Rust In Peace, was able to score a number two record on the charts, and yet could only find peace if he was able to outshine his former band mates.
When Dave suffered nerve damage in his arm and thought his career to be over, it was a blessing in disguise for all Megadeth fans. Their hero finally had the opportunity to look at his career from the outside, and understand that he had accomplished so much, and torn it down to keep pace with men he had been tied to twenty years previously. When he was able to return to action from his injuries, Dave set about rectifying the mistakes that he had made in sullying the Megadeth name. Bringing back a familiar face from the past, Chris Poland, Dave was able to produce an album that fused together everything that Megadeth had done to that point. The System Has Failed was a wake-up call to the metal world that Megadeth was back, and that Dave Mustaine had only lost his way, not his mind.
Moving forward, Dave assembled a new band, and kept the Megadeth train rolling. United Abominations came next, and introduced the conflict in the third act of Megadeth's career. An attempt to return to their roots, the album was an ad-hoc collection of recycled thrash and clumsy politics. Even the re-imagination of "A Tout Le Monde" signaled Dave's creative well running dry. The album was still praised by sycophantic critics, but Megadeth had put themselves in need of another comeback.
Perhaps fueled once again by his envy of Metallica, Endgame comes to us a year on the heels of Metallica's epic comeback, Death Magnetic. That album was a return to the glory days of the 80's, filled with the thrashiest riffing since ...And Justice For All, as well as the most metal attitude of anything since the seminal Master Of Puppets. The album was flawed, but gave the world enough reason to remember Metallica for what they were to be a success beyond anything people could have imagined. Endgame attempts the same revival, digging deep into the past to bring together an album that wants once and for all to bury the legacy of Metallica.
As "Dialectic Chaos" pours from the speakers, one thing is clear; Dave has pulled out all the stops to make this the best record he can. The production is monstrous, a sonic assault that stretched beyond the one sense. Here, we have the best guitar tone Megadeth has ever recorded, stunningly clear while still heavier than it has any right to be. The character is straight out of Rust In Peace, and if not for the improvement in amp technology, would be a dead ringer for that classic sound.
The song is a short burst of instrumental carnage, thrashing its way through the two minute running time with bursts of shredding virtuosity from new guitarist Chris Broderick, a true freak of nature. His playing is jaw-dropping to watch, though less interesting to listen to. The speed continues into the first real song, "This Day We Fight". Dave snarls a lyric over the grinding guitars, even throwing a distant keyboard low in the mix before the chorus kicks in. The melody is non-existent, but this song is not meant to have any. The album needed to open with a kick in the teeth, and Dave provides just that. The only downside is his decision not to turn all the solos over to Broderick, who's talent makes Mustaine's pentatonic licks sound like mere child's play.
"44 Minutes" is next, slowing the tempo slightly, but not much. After an unnecessary voice over introduction, the song rides along on it's groove, finding it's footing in a melodic chorus that brings to mind the best aspects of the band's 90's work. The trend is continued with "Bodies", a song that sounds like an outtake from the Youthanasia sessions. It's a classic piece of ultra-heavy hard rock, and a brilliant illustration of the ear for melody that separated Dave from almost every other thrasher.
The thrash influence doesn't end there, as Dave and the band kick up the tempo throughout the record, reminding the listener of where Megadeth came from. "1,320" bridges the gap between the 80's and 90's, opening the doors for "Endgame" and "Head Crusher", both ripped straight from the thrash playbook. The title track even treads new ground, trading in the chugging power of thrash for a classic Iron Maiden styled galloping riff. A simple change, but it does a world of good in making the record sound fresh. As does the closer, "The Right To Go Insane", a more modern take on the band's more melodic sound. A bass intro segues into a heavy descending muted riff, recalling "In My Darkest Hour", soaring into the best chorus on the album, the only moment of real melody to be found. The song is everything that a Megadeth song can be, and is by far the best track on display here.
Dave even manages to stretch his songwriting a bit with "The Hardest Part Of Letting Go...Sealed With A Kiss", a styled mini-epic crammed into four minutes. Broderick provides a beautiful acoustic introduction, showing a tenderness and feel to his playing that is otherwise missing on the album, as Dave struggles to find the melody in his voice. The song explodes two minutes in, another galloping riff taking over, before the song drops out and the acoustic guitars carry the song to the end over the military drumbeat.
There are still problems with Endgame. Bringing in a player of Broderick's level is a coup for the band, but he does very little with these songs. Rather than use his awesome skills to take the songs to a new level, he falls into the trap of mindlessly shredding his way through the instrumental sections. He has the skills and tone of Marty Friedman, but not the ear for phrasing. Dave's vocal phrasing has gotten no better since United Abominations, his lyrics still the clumsy constructions of a stunted teenager, his melodies absent on much of the album. His vocals have improved dramatically as the band's career has gone on, but he has regressed as a writer. Whereas "Holy Wars" and "Rust In Peace" were saying something in a moderately intelligent way, age has dulled Dave's skills to the point of self-parody. Writing a song about drag racing sounds ridiculous coming from a man his age, as do lines like "when it's dog eat dog you are what you eat" and "TV dinners and beer". The band has done such impressive work with the instrumental portions of the record that it is disappointing to see Dave put in such little effort to make this record what it could be.
Now the question that's important: is Endgame a better record than Death Magnetic? The short answer is no. Endgame is a more compact, more focused, and more ferocious animal, but it never strives for greatness in the same manner. Nothing on Endgame is as useless as "Suicide and Redemption", nor is anything as laughable as Hetfield's vocals on "The Unforgiven III". There's also the fact that Endgame was not produced by hacks and turned into the worst sounding record of the last ten years. But still, Endgame doesn't produce any tracks that stand out as being future Megadeth classics. Death Magnetic, while a bloated piece of misguided creativity, contained songs that rival some of their best work. Endgame has no "All Nightmare Long", and the lack of anything that really stands on its own and knocks out the listener is its failing. Megadeth was aiming for the bulls-eye on this album, and they miss the mark every time.
Endgame is nothing to be ashamed of, but Dave is going to be looking up at Metallica for years to come.