Monday, June 13, 2016

Metal Meltdowns: Megadeth, "Risk"

The only reason that I still own a copy of Megadeth’s Risk is because when I took it to the local used CD shop about a week or so after I it came out, the owner already had five in the bin and wouldn’t accept my trade. That story just about sums up the initial reaction to Dave Mustaine’s 1999 effort, in which he perhaps handed too much control to producer Dann Huff, and delivered the band’s least metal album to date.

Megadeth’s trajectory in the 1990s was toward the more commercial. It began with Countdown to Extinction in 1992, which in some ways echoed Metallica’s self-titled album of the year before. It was still heavy, but the song structures were simplified and more melodic. Youthanasia in 1994 went even further toward mainstream rock. Cryptic Writings, which I consider one of the band’s most underrated records, struck a better balance between fast, heavy numbers and the more rock-oriented pieces.

None of those albums, though, prepared fans for what was to come on the appropriately titled Risk. There’s nary a thrash riff to be found on this record, and it also introduced some electronics, synths and almost dance-like beats in places. I, and many other Megadeth fans, immediately hated it.

I’ve not listened to Risk since the week of its release when I wrote a scathing review, now lost to the ghost of internet past, and tried to trade it in. So I blew the dust off of it after 17 years or so to write this review, and what awaited me was a bit of a surprise. This is not a bad record at all. Not a Megadeth record, certainly, but surprisingly enjoyable these many years later.

Things kick off with “Insomnia,” which has a vocal melody very reminiscent of the Countdown to Extinction era, but that’s where the similarities end. The guitar sounds are thin and weak, the pre-chorus features electronic beats, and then you’ve got Mustaine’s very unmetal “insomnia-nia-nia-nia” vocal on the chorus. It’s not the best start.

“Prince of Darkness,” one of the few tunes I liked on the record the first time around, picks things up a little. A dark bass line from Dave Ellefson and a spoken-word intro from Mustaine leads, eventually, to one of the more metallic tunes, but even it has more of a classic hard rock stomp. That classic hard-rock feel is more pronounced on “Seven,” which comes later on Megadeth’s Risk. I wouldn’t have minded hearing this song with a little more warmth and feel. It could have been a nice 1970s blues rocker with those elements, but the guitars sound a little mechanical and distant.

The industrial-tinged “Crush ‘Em” had a brief run as a stadium anthem, and while I absolutely hated it at the time, I don’t mind it so much on this listen. It definitely has a decent groove, largely due to Ellefson’s bass line. In fact, in retrospect, Ellefson had a pretty good outing on Risk overall. His bass is prominent on most songs. “Crush ‘Em” is not cracking my list of favorite Megadeth tunes, but I could listen to it.

The surprise of the record on this round, though, was “The Doctor is Calling.” Sure, it’s slow, but it’s a dark tune with a great catchy melody, better than anything that I remembered from Risk. “Wanderlust” follows a similar theme. I really like the clean guitar licks under the verse, and there’s almost an old West feel to the chorus, that the older me really likes.

While I enjoy Megadeth’s Risk more this time around, there are still songs that suck, primarily the ballads. The vanilla “Breadline” is uninteresting and makes me look for the fast-forward button. “I’ll Be There” tries to reach a little too far — and again, like its counterpart, is fairly boring. Dave Mustaine, only a passable vocalist on his best day, attempts to give emotional performances, but his voice is just not built for that. It’s built for the snarling, sardonic anger that he does best.

All of the ballad-y songs are not bad, though. “Ecstacy,” while far from my favorite tune here, is at least a little more interesting than the other two. Still, we’re talking about a Megadeth record with a whole lot of ballad-type tunes.

Now ignore everything I just said when we start discussing the two-song album finale “Time: The Beginning” and “Time: The End.” “The Beginning” is the slowest song on the record, but it has more depth. Mustaine’s vocals actually work pretty well for it. “The End” crunches things up a bit. Though it still doesn’t cross into the band’s previous thrash territory, it’s perhaps more of what you expect from a Megadeth record than anything that came before.

I admit that I was surprised by this cold listen to Risk, but still not exactly blown away. It’s definitely Megadeth’s most daring outing and more interesting than much of what the band has done in recent years. It’s an album that likely would have been better received and perhaps remembered more fondly had it not been released under the Megadeth name.


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