Review Summary: Mustaine's original sin
One of my most prized CDs is the original, 1985 Combat issue of Megadeth’s debut. Not remastered. Not ***ed with in any way, this album wears all the flaws and seething rage of one Dave Mustaine, ousted from Metallica, full of dizzying talents, boiling anger, and a voracious appetite for illicit substances.
The Band That Dave Built has a lot of lost ground to recover, his Bay Area archrivals releasing not one but two
groundbreaking thrash records before this release. But Megadeth is a different band, and Mustaine makes the statement from the very beginning, laying down a style more rooted in the guitaristic zigzags of Mercyful Fate than the incessant crunching rhythms of his nemesis. Some of this is undoubtedly due to economy, but I would venture to say aspects of the bewildering midrangey mix were more than likely a cryptic choice of our forward thinking, freckle-faced hero.
The absence of crunching rhythm guitar opens up the sonic door, exposing intricacies, in many ways head and shoulders above other thrash and speed metal bands of the era. Consider a specimen like “Skull Beneath the Skin”, the band snaking through knotty changes and shred workouts, Dave spit-snarling while he and Chris Poland juggle spidery leads that evolve into iron-wall chugs, Ellefson’s bass stout and strong, Gar pounding away with a snare tone that stings on every hit. Not thrash, just wild, unpredictable metal that could go anywhere at any time. “Rattlehead” is pure forehead-bruising thrash mayhem, the main riff a pretzel-twisting nightmare. But even that one
shifts to a cool midpace for the bridge. The band doesn’t get enough credit for their grand molestation of Nancy Sinatra’s “The Boots”. It may seem like an odd pick compared to say, covering something by Angel Witch. But reworking the strutting Vegas-style song into a speeding, bass-pumping hellride shifting in and out of bluesy breakdowns fits perfectly with the vengeful yer-gonna-get-yours
motif of the record, subtle as a brick through the window.
Those cascading hard-panned guitars in “Chosen Ones” are simply gorgeous, that pentatonic-based Mustaine/Kill ‘Em All riff style in all its glory, soon falling through Gar’s rhythmic trap doors, stops and starts leading up to a blistering solo and that exceptional bass breakout near the end. Ellefson wasn’t the world’s greatest bass player, but these songs are recorded (and constructed) in a way that his short blasts of virtuosity are like a shot in the arm. For all the complaining online about the ‘absent bass’ on Metallica’s AFJA record, very few emphasize how the open rhythms of this record showcase the instrument so well.
There’s a penchant for creepy intros at this point, like the piano/bass workout of “Last Rites”, but it’s particularly effective in the layered guitar chimes of “Looking Down the Cross”, another song that gravitates to racing leads against that pulsing bass. Lyrically this one is so strong, reminiscent of Sabbath’s musings on Christian lore, Mustaine’s lyrics much sharper than some of the smack-dulled fare of later records, even some that have become beloved. His flair for the twisted comes through loud and clear in these odes to war, torture, assassins, dark arts, and of course the killer bunny in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (for Chosen Ones)!
Closer “The Mechanix” is one of the most interesting tracks on the record, impossible not to compare it to the dark, magnificent wall of sound that is Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen”. It’s a great representation of the out-of-control persona of Megadeth Mk 1 and reflects the original aspiration of the song, guitars revving like chainsaws, oddly libidinous lyrics seemingly at odds with the heady necro poetics of the rest of the album – almost like a sleazy hair metal piece.
While Megadeth’s debut can’t match the icy, dark chugging of “Ride the Lightning”, it’s aged remarkably well. The 2002 and subsequent remasters bring forward some originally buried elements (“Looking Down the Cross” sounds a little better), but the bleeped-out segments of “The Boots” are unforgivable. I could never find any reason to upgrade from the original master.
For all the negativity about the album’s production, (particularly Dave’s) and attempts to re-craft the sound of the record in remasters, the album’s only real sin is sounding like a single-guitar record. What’s missing comparing it to other mid-80s thrash records is that wall of crunching rhythm guitar. Like many debuts, it may have failed to capture the frenzied live energy of the band’s early days, but Mustaine is one of the only ones complaining. Sometimes an artist is just too close to a recording to view it objectively, and in this case “Killing is My Business” is an incredibly strong, unique, and intricate record that sounds great 30+ years after the fact.
Rattle yer goddam head!