After 17 years, four platinum albums, and revolving lineups, heavy-metal titan Megadeth had ventured into a new direction — and pissed off old fans.
On the grounds of Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, on a muggy 90-degree Saturday afternoon, the Arizona State Fair is in full swing. The Ferris wheel slowly rotates, offering festivalgoers a panoramic view the surrounding desert. The Tilt-A-Wheel tilts and whirls, and the carnival booths teenagers deal out dollar bills like playing cards in the hopes of winning miniature stuffed animals. But the fair’s main attraction is currently resting backstage inside the arena. Megadeth, titan of all that is heavy-metal music, is about to perform the first show if its American tour, and the first of three gigs scheduled in two different states over the next 24 hours.
The band takes the stage around 4pmand delivers and explosive set featuring four songs from its new album, Risk, and a dozen from its back catalog. Front man Dave Mustaine clad in a black muscle T-shirt and faded jeans, snarls and spits as he claws at his Jackson guitar, switching off between gravelly, hummable vocals and primal howls. Lead guitarist Marty Friedman approaches his craft with more finesse, caressing unearthly wails from his fret boars, while bassist David Ellefson stands stage left, looking decidedly un-metal with newly shorn locks. Recently recruited drummer Jimmy DeGrasso (ex-Suicidal Tendencies, Alice Cooper, Y&T) keeps the rhythms solid, bashing at his kit with the precision of a marksman,
While the requisite number of tattooed, body-pierced head-bangers speckles the area, there are just as many clean-cut wide-eyed teens, and a surprising number of them are girls. These are kids not angry enough to embrace the hateful rhetoric of Korn but to savvy and iconoclastic or dog the Backstreet Boys or Ricky Martin. And instead of thrashing their limbs and violently colliding into one another, as Megadeth fans have done in the past, these kids are shaking their asses and wiggling their bods to the beat.
No doubt if Megadeth were still specializing in the thrashy, combustive metal that garnered it four platinum albums over its first 12 years of existence, these wiggling youngsters would be elsewhere. It is the group’s musical evolution over its last two albums, Cryptic Writings ( 1997) and Risk ( 1999), that has attracted the new breed to the party. No longer relying on rage and volume, Megadeth now emphasizes melody and experimentation. Risk is sprinkled with electronic beats and samples, strings and bubble-gum hooks alien to most metal bands.
The change has won over not only new young fans but also legions of jocks, drawn by the song “Crush ‘Em,” Mustaine’s mixture of sports and rock. The surging anthem was used last year in Universal Soldier: The Return, which starred martial-arts heavyweight Jean-Claude Van Damme, and was then adapted as the theme song of World Championship Wrestling champion Bill Goldberg, who appeared in the “Crush ‘Em” video alongside Van Damme. “Crush ‘Em” has also been played by numerous sports-stadium music programmers during various N.H.L., N.F.L., and Major League Baseball games.
Relaxing backstage after the Phoenix gig, the ever-voluble Mustaine muses on his band’s new direction and new fans. “Our audiences don’t come to our shows to get all aggroed out anymore,” he says. “They just want to forget about their troubles and have a good time. It’s kind of like sex. It’s about making love, not getting impaled. I think the music should be like a really good orgasm. We think of ourselves as orgasm donors.”
Perhaps, but not everybody is experiencing aural ecstasy thanks to Megadeth’s new sound. To hard-rock programmers who regularly play Limp Bizkit, Rob Zombie, and Korn, Megadeth is passe. Meanwhile, alt-rock stations reckon the band isn’t alternative enough, and MTV and VH1 continue to be put off by the group’s name. In fact, MTV has screened the “Crush ‘Em” video only once, and that time only because Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich requested it while guesting on Total Request Live.
“It’s unfortunate that the world still judges a book by its cover,” says Mustaine, running a hand through his untamed blond hair. “ ‘Megadeth’ is a very raunchy word, but it doesn’t mean for a million people to die; it represents an extreme amount of power. It comes from a comment about nuclear disarmament made by [the former Democratic] California Senator Alan Cranston in 1982. He said, ‘The arsenal of Megadeth can’t be rid.’ I thought, What a fantastic name. So, with extreme lack of foresight, I decided to go with that, not knowing what a professional setback it would be.”
“A lot of bands have controversial names, but ours is pretty extreme,” agrees Ellefson, who formed Megadeth with Mustaine in 1983. “People can get upset about a name like Bush, but every guy looks forward to getting some bush. No one wants to get death.”
The name may be an obstacle on radio and TV, but it doesn’t explain why many old schoolers are fleeing the Megadeth camp like rats from a sinking ship. “I think Mustaine lost his mind or something,” gripes Jeff Wagner, associate editor of Metal Maniacs magazine. “Risk is like a diet-Megadeth album, and as far as I know, there’s zero demand for a ‘lite-metal’ metal subgenre.”