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Dystopia Dean Brown , January 28th, 2016 09:54

Megadeth seriously needed to refocus after the massive misstep that was 2013's Super Collider. The fourteenth studio album by the thrash metal pioneers highlighted the periodic carelessness of guitarist/vocalist/band leader Dave Mustaine, as he managed to sabotage the momentum he had gradually regained across a number of solid albums since the much maligned Risk (1999). The problem was that the majority of songs were lifeless, trite and cringe-worthy. The title track was a weak attempt at an arena rock anthem; 'Kingmaker' unashamedly ransacked Black Sabbath's 'Children Of The Grave'; 'Burn's sleaze rock was enough to make you lactose intolerant; 'The Blackest Crow', a banjo-led number, had no place on a Megadeth album; and the only tune of any real worth was an impotent run-through of 'Cold Sweat' - and that was just because the song was written by seminal Irish rockers Thin Lizzy. It was the second major creative nadir in Megadeth's storied existence, arriving at a time when you could not browse a metal website without seeing reference to another ill-advised rant from Mustaine.

As bad as Super Collider was, Megadeth have shown in the past, over the course of their many line-up changes and albums of varying degrees of quality, that you can never write them off. And album number fifteen, Dystopia, just so happens to be a timely - and necessary - return to form: it's the kind of record they should have made directly after 2009's Endgame, one of the finest releases in Megadeth's extensive back catalogue.

Bringing new blood into the fold in the form of Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler and Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro (they replaced Shawn Drover and Chris Broderick in their respective positions) has played a significant part in revitalising Megadeth. The aggressive, precise and groove-orientated playing of Adler and the dazzling soloing of Loureiro work extremely well within the paradigm Mustaine and bassist Dave Ellefson established in the mid 1980s and perfected on thrash metal milestones - Peace Sells… But Who's Buying?, Rust In Peace, and Countdown To Extinction. Overall the technically sharp musicianship and the hook-laden, yet acerbic vocals – all of which are highlighted by a pristine production job - make Dystopia, stylistically, most comparable to Megadeth's highest charting album, Countdown To Extinction.

Like on those aforementioned classic albums, Mustaine's lip-curled snarl spits venom - a million miles away from his toothless performance on Super Collider. 'From Peace Sells…' to 'Holy Wars…', Megadeth are at their best when Mustaine is antagonised and disgusted by socio-political issues, and his lyrical commentary on 'The Threat Is Real' - which surely deals with modern day terrorism - adds a suitable dimension of reality in light of recent atrocities. Mustaine may be conservative in his political stance but his lyrics appear to come moreso from the view of a concerned humanitarian (albeit a fantastically-minded one) on socially-minded songs such as the opening pairing of 'The Threat Is Real' and the melodic jolt of the title track - a technology-used-for-evil anthem, musically aligned to the pristine model favoured for Megadeth's 'Hangar 18'.

'Dystopia', with its classic thrash tempo changes and supreme control of groove, rolling through stunning solo trade-offs, is not the only song here to channel the spirit of a past Megadeth neck-wrecker. 'Post American World', for example, recalls Countdown… hit 'Symphony Of Destruction' during its verses; most strikingly, it utilises an iron-clad marching bassline from Ellefson together with chugging riffs similar in effect to the Megadeth mainstay, or even Youthanasia's 'Angry Again'. Yet neither song does so in a contrived fashion. In that respect, their song-writing approach here is similar to how Carcass – a band heavily influenced by prime Megadeth – hit upon the strongest musical traits of their most lauded albums for their 2013 comeback album Surgical Steel, the best metal release in a year that saw Megadeth hit a huge creative low.

In order to get back on the rails and win past fans' trust after a sizeable blunder, it is essential to capture the essence of what made your music connect with the masses in the first place. Megadeth have done just that on Dystopia, and the songs benefit greatly. Another highlight, 'Fatal Illusion', deals with the death penalty with a fantasy tale that could form the basis of a DC series. Musically it's suitably aggressive for its lyrical theme - think Peace Sells era - with the frantic double bass-led assault that follows the sound of a life support machine flat-lining being one of many serotonin shots throughout the album. 'Lying In State' avoids using the kind of mood-setting intro that sets up the majority of tracks here, giving the song a startling and furious forward surge. While the expertly paced and extremely dark 'Poison Shadows' works best because of its slight embellishments (which include a piano coda at the end) and its melodic chorus contrasts nicely with its verses, which barrel forth with the forward momentum of an armoured tank.

Another notable point is that the solo sections are also greatly improved on Dystopia - easily Megadeth's best since guitarist Marty Friedman was in the band. Broderick, while certainly competent, did not have the natural flair that made Friedman, or even the jazz-inspired Chris Poland, the ideal partner for Mustaine. Loureiro has similar virtuoso talent as that of those two former 'Deth shredders and his playing also complements Mustaine's. Yet he has his own style, influenced by the bombast of power metal, and he refuses to show-boat garishly, even when he has the opportunity to totally out-class Mustaine during the solo sections of the instrumental 'Conquer or Die' – a reined-in song that leaves the impression that there was more room to explore different movements, a la 'Into The Lungs Of Hell', if given more time.

Interestingly, the tracks that fail to scale the same heights as those mentioned above don't take away from the general value of Dystopia, as there is enough underlying merit to be found. For instance, 'Death From Within' was primarily written as a vehicle for the vocals, so the instrumentation is serviceable at best. However, the song is saved from mediocrity by a strong, hook-laden chorus, the quality of which helps cement the comparisons to Countdown…. Elsewhere, there is quite a bit of glam metal throughout the sexually-charged 'Bullet to the Brain' that would not have worked so well if the musicianship was not as vehement; the whiplash-inducing riffs and rhythmic thrust hold all the power, and the solos are a sight to behold. And while the punk/hard rock-influenced 'The Emperor' does not fit in with the thrash-centric songs that precede it, it does form a succinct, fitting pair with the energetic cover of Fear's 'Foreign Policy'.

Because of those slight stylistic inconsistencies, Dystopia may not be a perfect Megadeth album in the vein of, say, Rust In Peace. Yet the fact that Mustaine, Ellefson and the two new hire guns have gelled together so fast and created an album this strong so soon is extremely encouraging for the future of Megadeth. If this line-up is maintained, which is a complete uncertainty when it comes to Mustaine's track record, Megadeth's current ascent may continue steadily without further calamities. For now, the only thing definite is that it's once again an exciting time to be a fan of this legendary thrash band – and that's something you'd be hard pressed to state back in 2013.