Review Summary: Megadeth's attempt at streamlining their sound makes for a record that's less raw, technical, and interesting, but still successful at maintaining melody and aggression.
In the early '90s, many bands that were formerly ballsy thrash metal softened their approach, either to adapt to a changing musical climate or because they were tired of doing the same stuff over and over again. Metallica released their self-titled album in 1991 to huge
commercial success. It lacked the speed and progressive elements of their earlier stuff, but still retained that furious, aggressive metal attitude, only now the songs were more built around hooks and featured only a few riffs on average. Many of these attempts weren't so successful. Testament's 1992 release The Ritual, which toned down their classic thrash approach, would become their highest charting album in the States until twenty years later. However, while it certainly had its standout tracks, it was still inconsistent with some songs that sounded alike, and still failed to garner them the large mainstream success they sought.
Have no fear, because Countdown to Extinction is definitely an example of a band streamlining their sound, without a sacrifice in dignity or too much quality. It's no Rust in Peace; technically orgasmic riffage and soloing instead takes a backseat to making memorable, catchy music that you can often still play air guitar to. But Dave and co. were still on a songwriting high, so the music is mostly pretty damn good.
Notice that I said "Dave and co." That's right, Countdown to Extinction features writing credits from the entire band. Ashes In Your Mouth, one of Megadeth's finest achievements, was apparently a fully collaborative song composition-wise. This stands in stark contrast with their earlier records, where pretty much all the music and lyrics were penned by Mustaine. He still has the highest amount of songwriting credits by far, with contributions to each and every song's music and lyrics, but now, the other members' influences shine through. The production to this album was the band's best yet, too. At time, though, the album can sound slightly thin. The remastered edition brings forth a thicker sound and a new drum sound, but it's once again super loud and the different sounding drums really only benefit certain songs, while others now sound less powerful. But it has nifty bonus tracks, and Sweating Bullets has a slightly longer introduction. Lyrical topics here deal with topics like animal rights, the negative after-effects of war, and frustration with Reaganomics. (See Foreclosure of a Dream.) Who'da thought that this guy would go on to like Rick Santorum?
For once, I won't go into intricate detail about every single track here, but I shall point out the album's variety. Some songs, like what's possibly the band's most well-known song ever, Symphony of Destruction, the pummeling Architecture of Aggression, and the absolutely crushing Psychotron, take on new territory as pounding, slow, and monstrously heavy tracks reminiscent of what would later be found on Youthinasia. Others, like Foreclosure of a Dream and the title track, take on more melodic territory. Yet others, such as Skin o' My Teeth and High Speed Dirt, give particular focus towards catchy riffage that you can't resist air-shredding to. The album really hits its stride, though, towards the end. Captive Honor starts softly, with incredibly cheesy vocals from Dave (who otherwise gives a rather good performance on this album), but then things pick up with heavy and very memorable riffage.
Captive Honor gives an excellent example of one of the album's greatest strengths; huge and incredibly infectious hooks and choruses. "No escaping pain, you belong to me..." "Just like the piiiied piper/Led rats through the streets..." "Praiiise your architecture of aggression!" "Captive honooor ain't no honooor!" I could go on with these oddly formatted and probably cheesy snippets of the albums' choruses, but the point is, if you're somehow hearing this album for the first time ever, these will all be stuck in your head for days.
And then there's the "proper" closer, Ashes In Your Mouth. If this album's not heavy enough for you, don't fret, because this track's fantastic guitar work will give you all the lethality you need. Succulent and freaking wicked riffs are topped with Dave snarling his way through the lyrics with more grit and venom than most of the album combined. "If you're fighting to live...it's okay to die!
" Mustaine and Friedman's playing might not be as technical or shred as much on this album, but at about 3:40, they launch into what I can only call absolute ***ing dual guitar heaven
The remastered edition comes with four bonus tracks. One is a leftover type track that sonically resembles Youthinasia. It's called Crown of Worms, and it's got a very cool main riff. It has this lovable, up-tempo '90s sound to it, too. The other three bonus tracks are demos, which sound really awesome for demo recordings. On them, the drums sound exactly as they should on this type of release, the bass is as loud as Ellefson's usually is, and the guitars are thicker. I actually prefer the demo version of the title track to the "official" version. There's heavier riffage and very cool dual guitar interplay in there. The final version was softened up because Dave wanted to be more sad instead of angry with it. The Symphony of Destruction and Psychotron demos have slightly different and more interesting arrangements, and benefit from a thicker, rawer sound.
Countdown to Extinction isn't perfect, though. This Was My Life tries to be heavy, but ends up plodding and boring. The album's streamlined sound makes it a less interesting overall record than Peace Sells or Rust In Peace. Toning down some heaviness when there's still some pummeling to be found along with fantastically memorable melodies sounds like it makes for another great, if different, release. And it really is a great album. But in some ways, this record doesn't do it as much for me. I just miss the fury of Good Mourning/Black Friday, Take No Prisoners, and Last Rites/Loved to Death sometimes, y'know? But not being as good doesn't mean the album isn't still great in its own right, and flashes of brilliance, like the absolutely ***ing deadly crushing riff in the midsection of Sweating Bullets, the chorus to Captive Honor, or the dual-guitar harmony in Ashes In Your Mouth, more than carry the album. Countdown to Extinction might not be Megadeth's most lethal or completely brilliant album, but there's still heaviness and memorable stuff here. Excellent album. 4/5.
RECOMMENDED TRACKS/BEST OF:
Symphony of Destruction
Ashes In Your Mouth