Review Summary: Light and melodic at times, Cryptic Writings reveals yet another facet of Megadeth's character, thus completing the band's image.
Upon viewing my rating of Cryptic Writings, many viewers will probably exclaim "No way, man, that album does not sound like earlier 'Deth albums at all!" or "omg, dude, that album is not even Thrash! It's way too melodic!". Well, those are the exact reasons why I've given Cryptic Writings an "Excellent, 4 out of 5". The difference is, while some people consider those qualities to be negative, my belief is that they are merely indicators that a band can be flexible and can take more than one shape, in order to avoid redundancy and repetition.
What exactly is it that makes many fans so discontent with this album? The reasons cited most often are the change of style, the band's distancing from its roots. I don't agree with this, and to illustrate why, I will make a brief detour here. Let us try to define what Megadeth is. Megadeth is power, be it raw or not so much. Megadeth is speed. Megadeth is purpose, meaning, and intent. Megadeth is the technical prowess of its members. Megadeth is Dave's snarling vocals. Megadeth is thought-evoking lyrical content. Most importantly, Megadeth is attitude.
In a broad sense, those are the main defining points. Just how well does Cryptic Writings satisfy them? Well, the songs are powerful, alright. Don't forget that "powerful" does not always mean "aggressive". But if we take it to mean "having an effect on the listener", than this definition is satisfied. How about the speed department? The songs may not be as fast as those of previous albums, but in no way does that necessarily make them slow. Though they deal with slightly more trivial topics than before, the songs aren't devoid of meaning, nor have they ceased to make the listener think. As for the musicianship, yes, it is definitely less complex than previous releases. But it is not vulgarly simple. Dave's snarling vocals are present. And lastly, also present are Megadeth's fightful spirit, passionate lyrics, grim worldview, and the tendency to delve in controversial topics.
And so, it appears that the core elements of Megadeth are preserved. A change of skin does not always mean a change of character.
As for the claims that the album is melodic and not thrash, consider this: Countdown to Extinction and Youthanasia are also melodic and not thrash, but they were never held in such low regard. Besides, who cares if it is Thrash or not? It's still metal, right? It is not as though the band has changed to pop or techno, or... country, or something.
Leaving comparisons to previous records aside, it is time to take Cryptic Writings on its own. As early as the intro of the opening track, "Trust"
, which features Nick Menza's drumming, accompanied by eerie strings in the background, and later joined by Junior's bass, the tone of the album is indeed set as cryptic, foreboding something new and unexpected. Soon, however, the song erupts into an awesome riff, powerful and sure to be memorised, thus proving that this is not a radical turn after all. The song then proceeds, crossing a rather bland bridge, only to erupt again with Marty Friedman's wailing solo, over the aforementioned riff, and then closes with multiple repetitions of the chorus. The lyrics deal with a personal relationship gone wrong, a favourite subject of Dave Mustaine. To this day, "Trust" has remained a staple of live performances, proving that the album's material is appreciated by many fans. The next song, "Almost Honest"
lyrically deals with a similar subject to "Trust", but has a much poppier sound. Aside from the solo and a couple of interesting riffs, there is nothing outstanding. "Use The Man"
is a song that reflects the sad state in which a person addicted to drugs finds himself. Dave is sure to have a first-hand experience in that field, which boosts the authencity factor of the album by a notch. Musically, the riffage and soloing manage to complement the hopeless mood, completing the song nicely. The next track, "Mastermind"
opens with a catchy bass riff, which is then dubbed by the guitars. There is a certain mechanical asset to it, which, combined with Dave's robot-imitating vocals, suits the lyrics very well. The lyrics themselves are a look into the potential future, where people are mindless shells, without discerning qualities, brought under the control of an all-powerful ruler. "The Disintegrators"
, the next song, automatically disqualifies any accusations that the album is lacking speed, with its ultra-fast and intent drumming and guitar work. It is a brief description of a band of marauders on motorcycles who go around terrorising towns. "I'll Get Even"
is a song which is very similar to "Almost Honest", both musically and in lyrical content, and therefore is a bit of a letdown. "Sin"
is another subpar song, not leaving a lasting impression, partly due to the overly vague lyrical content and sound that counts too much on effects. "A Secret Place"
is a very atmospheric piece, aided by many ambient sounds, eastern strums and groovy riffs, tailored to go along with the introvert lyrics. "Have Cool, Will Travel"
is a song with an admittedly cool title which seemingly deals with violence among children. Aside from the catchy, wisdom-preaching chorus, it does not have a unique musical definition, though. The next three songs mark the closing trio which proves that Megadeth has not lost its touch with heavy and fast songs. "She-Wolf"
is a song that successfully blends a chugging rhythm, a variety of melodic riffs, speed, and heaviness, all in a relentless arrangement. A testament of its quality is the fact that it is still performed quite often at concerts. "Vortex"
is probably the most cryptic song on the album, sporting an eerie, yet technical riff, combined with lyrics describing disjointed images. Dave sure sounds pissed in this one. At the middle of a song, there is a sudden change of mood which resolves in a solo, followed by a rather anti-climactic closing riff. This song is great, though rather unfulfilling. "FFF"
is a very effective album closer, short, sweet, and to the point. Lyrically, the song is an unambiguous statement of intent, and "Fight For Freedom" is what the letters stand for. In my eyes and ears, the song has a very anthemic character to it, making surprising the fact that the band has not given it a chance for it to establish itself as a frequent concert song. Overall, the spirit of the songs is a nice amalgam of Megadeth's previous works. There's a speck of everything.
My main criticism would be that some of the songs are not well-defined musically; they don't have a distinct sound to them and are not memorable. Especially "Sin", "Have Cool, Will Travel" and "I'll Get Even". Another would be that some of the songs sound a bit too upbeat for their lyrical content, like "Mastermind" and "The Disintegrators".
In the end, Cryptic Writings
is a vital part of Megadeth's catalogue. It was a needed step in the evolution of the band. And let's not forget that it is neither the most intelligent, nor the strongest who survive, but those who adapt with greatest ease. Have Megadeth survived? Indeed they have, both critically and commercially. This album showcases Megadeth's ability to change shape while retaining essence, keeping those core elements that made fans fall for the band in the first place. So, if one should need a light dose of Megadeth, that's the album to go for. Digging the harrder stuff? Well, there's always the first four albums. But it's always Megadeth to the core.
Songs that stand out:
A Secret Place