In “Sweating Bullets,” a song from Megadeth’s canonical Countdown To Extinction, Dave Mustaine narrates the inner life of a paranoiac, describing that character’s struggle as a “war inside my head.” Dystopia, Megadeth’s latest, creates a similar state of conflicted confusion. The music is ferocious, catchy, and arguably the band’s best since the early ’90s; but many of Dystopia’s lyrics have nauseating connotations. Although the riffs and drumming might induce hypnotic states of headbanging, Mustaine’s lyrics will make you stop and think, “Wait, what did he just say?”
Melismatic female vocals flutter in “The Threat Is Real” before Mustaine blasts into a frenetic thrash riff. As the rest of the band joins, the singer-guitarist unleashes a virtuosic lead that nimbly dances across the Phrygian dominant scale. But, considering the song’s title, the use of these Middle Eastern modes has unsettling implications before Mustaine even utters a word. Then, in the first verse, the singer hisses, “The messiah or mass murderer / No controlling who comes through the door.” While Mustaine might be singing about a speculative world, it’s clear that his version of a dystopian society is shaped by xenophobic politics.
“Dystopia” channels the metallic rock of early Megadeth, and its lyrics present a fruitful ambiguity, leaving room for listeners to fill in the gaps of its 1984-esque narrative. Three minutes in, Megadeth hops into bluesy death ’n’ roll that sounds like a lost section of Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good! Fans of old-school Megadeth will continue to rejoice throughout “Fatal Illusion,” a track that moves with a goliath trudge and features guitar licks so sweet they could erode molars. David Ellefson then leads the band into cartwheeling thrash with a dexterous bass solo that deserves a place alongside Geezer Butler’s “Bassically” and Cliff Burton’s “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth.”
Again using the stutter-step chug of early Megadeth in a way that feels fresh, “Death From Within” also tells the story of the Greeks invading Troy. Considering the earlier portions of Dystopia, not to mention Mustaine’s notorious conservatism, this narrative takes on a queasy, cautionary bent, indirectly arguing that America will get destroyed by an enemy that we’ve willingly let in. Similarly, “Post American World” pulses with an infectious drive, but the music gets muddied by Mustaine’s jingoism when he asks, “Why cower to all those / Who oppose the American world?”
The instrumental “Conquer Or Die!” (which, in the context of this record, would’ve benefited from a different title) starts with intricately layered acoustic guitar work that pays homage to Randy Rhoads’ classic intro to “Diary Of A Madman.” The song quickly embarks upon a warpath of symphonic metal, illustrating that, at this point, Megadeth would be better as an instrumental band.
With Lamb Of God’s Chris Adler infusing a new ferociousness into Megadeth, it’s almost tragic that Mustaine has tainted the masterful instrumentation of Dystopia with his offensive politics. Some might argue that the frontman has a right to sing about his beliefs, but there’s simply no room in our already fear-laden culture for any more xenophobia.