Review by Ben for Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction (1992) Review by Ben for Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction (1992)

Ben Ben / December 13, 2018 / 0

Megadeth once again follows in Metallica's slipstream with an album that's probably more entertaining, if nowhere near as successful.

This period was an extremely busy time for Megadeth and in particular frontman Dave Mustaine. Not only did their 1990 Rust in Peace album send their popularity soaring, with plaudits all through the metal scene, Mustaine also got married to Pamela Anne Casselberry in 1991, which was followed by the birth of his son Justis in February the next year. When you consider all of this additional responsibility was swiftly dumped upon Mustaine’s shoulders, it’s probably not surprising that dollar signs were starting to flash before his eyes. Metallica had just done the impossible and cracked the mainstream in a huge way, selling over twenty two million copies of their self titled album worldwide. It’s hard to blame Mustaine for wanting a piece of that very rich pie, and given the negative history between the two bands, there was added incentive to try to beat them at their own game. Victory was unlikely of course, but the only way for Megadeth to attempt it was to follow a similar pattern to Metallica, rid their sound of any remaining extremity, and produce an album of radio friendly tunes. If they could do so without alienating their existing fans altogether then even better. Could lightning really strike twice or would Megadeth’s commercial accessibility experiment end in disaster?

Countdown to Extinction took four months in Enterprise Studios to create. The main driving force behind the new direction was co-producer Max Norman, who pressed the band to generate shorter, less complicated and more easily digestible tracks than what had appeared on previous albums. The thrash heroics that made classics like Peace Sells... But Who's Buying? and Rust in Peace so exhilarating were removed and replaced with much more traditional verse/chorus/verse/chorus structures. The earliest hint for fans that a significant change had taken place was that Countdown to Extinction didn’t feature mascot Vic Rattlehead on the cover (he’d been the focus of all four albums to this point) when it was released on July the 6th 1992. It certainly didn’t deter them from rushing out to purchase it, with the album debuting at number 2 on the charts in the United States, but typically that was one place behind the number 1 position Metallica achieved a year earlier. It would eventually sell over two million copies and is still today the most successful Megadeth album from a sales point of view. There’s no doubt that the band achieved their financial and popularity goals, and the album would even be nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy in 1993.

Strangely enough, that’s not the only nomination Countdown to Extinction would receive, as the title track would pick up an unexpected honour when awarded the Doris Day Music Award by the Humane Society of the United States, for “spotlighting species destruction and the horrific sport of canned hunts”. This probably amused Mustaine greatly as it is rumoured he wrote the song as an attack on his old rival James Hetfield, who has a passion for hunting. Otherwise the lyrical content of Countdown to Extinction doesn’t stray too far from the political and military themes that were present on Rust in Peace. Symphony of Destruction, Architecture of Aggression and Ashes in Your Mouth all put a negative spin on war, while Captive Honour is about the prison system and Foreclosure of a Dream concerned with economic ideologies. All this serious content matter is juxtaposed by Sweating Bullets’ apparent piss-take on schizophrenia and Psychotron’s rampaging cyborg killing machine (apparently based on the Marvel comic character Deathlok) makes sure there’s still an element of fun to be had. Probably the only thing I haven’t actually talked about yet is whether Countdown to Extinction is any good. The answer to that question is yes, but Megadeth’s fifth album is certainly not a flawless affair.

Despite making drastic changes to their overall sound, the band didn’t manage to rid themselves of the inconsistency that mars pretty much all of their albums. There are without question some highly entertaining tracks to be found, with Symphony of Destruction, the title track and Psychotron in particular showing that Megadeth don’t need to play at high speed to produce the goods. Unfortunately, for every one of those high points there’s a low one that threatens to undo all the work. Mustaine is in reality a pretty ordinary singer, but he somehow found a workable style over the years that negated his significant inadequacies. The fact that Countdown to Extinction is more of a traditional heavy metal album than a thrash one, and consequently has additional reliance on vocal melodies, makes for some rather awkward sections, with the unfortunate Sweating Bullets and Captive Honour suffering the most. At the same time, it’s actually this willingness to break from the norm and have some fun that results in Megadeth’s mainstream-seeker being a more compelling listen than the comparatively clinical and sobering Metallica release it coat-tailed. Countdown to Extinction can’t compete with Megadeth’s best works, but it gave them the massive hit they were after without staining their legacy. Mission accomplished I guess.

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