Since 1981, Dave Mustaine has been a cornerstone of heavy metal as one of the original members of Metallica and the founder of Megadeth. With some of the genre’s landmark releases in “Peace Sells … but Who’s Buying?” (1986) and “Rust in Peace” (1990), Mustaine has consistently churned out thrash metal classics, even as Megadeth has undergone countless lineup changes and controversies. Just one year shy of the band’s 40th anniversary, “The Sick, The Dying … And The Dead!” stands as yet another testament to Megadeth’s work ethic, featuring a renewed vitality that most bands lose before they turn 20. Sure to please longtime fans and excite new listeners, the record, released Sept. 2, does Megadeth’s legacy justice, taking cues from the band’s 80s golden age and incorporating contemporary metal influences.
The first taste of “The Sick, The Dying … And The Dead!” is the theatrical title-track, a mid-tempo anthem inspired by the Black Death. Built on eerie guitar melodies and story-telling riffs, it wastes no time compelling the listener to headbang — a feeling amplified tenfold as the track spirals into a mosh-inducing breakdown and Mustaine chants “Die, die, die!” Though the lyrical themes are dark, each performance is delivered excitedly, as if the band is having too much fun playing breakneck metal to wallow in sorrow for long. “Life in Hell” progresses in much the same way, careening through the theme of addiction with a hard rock euphoria tailor-made for live shows.
Elsewhere, Mustaine’s penchant for diss tracks rears its head again when he puts narcissists (“Célebutante”) and manipulators (“Killing Time”) on blast, as he has since 1988’s infamous “Liar.” Not to be outdone in the dramatics department, Mustaine uses “Dogs of Chernobyl” to compare the aftermath of a toxic relationship to the horrific experience of dogs left for dead after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Relationships and their devastating repercussions have been central to Megadeth’s lyrical approach since their inception, continuing to give listeners a unique window into the tribulations of Mustaine’s personal life.
Even when the subject matter shifts to evil rituals or retrofuturist missions to Mars, infectious energy remains a constant. Throughout the album, guitarist Kiko Loureiro trades blistering, interjected solos with Mustaine, while Dirk Verbeuren’s technical drumwork infuses their rapid-fire riffs with intricate rhythms and relentless flourishes. Of the four instruments, bass is the least prominent in the mix, though that doesn’t mean that studio bassist Steve DiGiorgio doesn’t lay down some tasty interludes in the album’s quieter moments. “The Sick, The Dying … And The Dead!” is the first Megadeth album to feature writing credits from Verbeuren, the longtime drummer of Swedish melodic death metallers Soilwork — a legendary modern band inspired by Megadeth’s back catalog. Similarly, Loureiro hails from the Brazilian progressive metal band Angra, and has served as the lead guitarist alongside Mustaine since 2016’s “Dystopia.” Both are now creating music for a band they once idolized, and their fresh ideas elevate this record beyond a mere paint-by-numbers endeavor. Like Ozzy Osbourne, Mustaine amplifies the talents of the incredible musicians with whom he surrounds himself — and incredible musicians Verbeuren and Loureiro are.
As Megadeth frantically moves from classic-rock anthems to death metal barbarity, the band does their best to keep the listener on their toes — though it can be easy to lose one’s footing across 12 dense, helter-skelter compositions. Chaos might be metal’s calling card, but despite Megadeth’s enthusiasm, the record’s excess of disparate subjects and structures is disorienting, even by Megadeth standards. “Night Stalkers” chronicles the death-defying feats of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment in its screaming barrages of high notes, but unwarranted detours into ambient sections and an awkwardly placed Ice-T feature detract from the track’s bloodthirsty momentum. As the album stretches on, “Mission to Mars” suffers from cheesy voice-overs and head-scratching lyrics, having all the trademarks of a song better left in the rough drafts folder.
Thankfully, lead single “We’ll Be Back” closes “The Sick, The Dying … And The Dead!” with the take-no-prisoners ferocity of thrash metal’s heyday, announcing that no matter what the future holds, Megadeth will never die. Given the band’s tumultuous history, this sentiment rings true: Megadeth’s longevity owes itself many times over to Mustaine’s sheer determination to prove doubters wrong. In what may be the most effective example of Megadeth’s evolution, “We’ll Be Back” ends not with a blitz of face-melting solos or faster-than-light riffs; instead, the band strips back the complexity and settles into an unforgettable groove — the kind that will turn a concert hall into one big mosh pit. Simple, effective and exhilarating, the sound calls back to 1986’s fan-favorite “Wake Up Dead,” boasting an outro only Megadeth could write.
If “The Sick, The Dying … And The Dead!” proves anything, it’s that Dave Mustaine and Co. are still very much alive and thrashing. Their influence upon the last three decades of metal cannot be understated, coming full circle with the contributions of members new and old. While the modern metal scene is exciting, extreme, out-of-the-box and increasingly genre-bending, legacy releases like this remind us where metal came from, and why we love it in the first place.