What a difference two years can make. It was early 2002 when Dave Mustaine suffered a debilitating nerve injury to his arm (literally after sleeping on it the wrong way), bringing his career – and the nearly 20-year history of his band, Megadeth – to a crashing halt. His prospects for playing guitar again uncertain, Mustaine retreated into seclusion, effectively ending the band and leaving behind a ten-album legacy as one of metal’s most important, innovative, and intelligent acts. But the story did not end there, and it seemed undeniable that the long, colorful, and dynamic history of such a relentless and groundbreaking act could be curtailed so abruptly.
Sure enough, Dave Mustaine made steady and rapid progress in his recuperation from his injury, and as he recovered physically, his mind once again turned to what he did best. “It ended up being thirteen months before I picked up a guitar, although I did think slowly but surely about the idea of playing again,” says Mustaine, who initially toyed with the idea of stepping outside the bounds of Megadeth and doing a solo album. But the aggressiveness and complexity of the material ultimately pointed back to Megadeth, with one difference: “This record is the culmination of a lot of frustrating moments over the past twelve, thirteen, fourteen years, of writing music that I really liked and believed in, but that I just really didn’t get a chance to play.”
In other words, The System Has Failed (Sanctuary Records), the tenth studio album released under the Megadeth banner, is pure, unfiltered, uncompromising Mustaine, freeing himself for the first time from all prior concepts of who or what Megadeth is “supposed” to be. Yet at the same time, the album is a virtual compendium of everything that made and continues to make Megadeth one of the most unique entities ever in the history of heavy rock. From opener “Blackmail The Universe,” with its classic, chugging riff, to the politically charged, turbulent “Kick The Chair,” to the painfully personal “Truth Be Told,” this is a record that could only be written by one person, with one singular worldview. Mustaine selected nearly a dozen songs from some 150 that he had compiled over the years, keeping them under wraps for the ideal opportunity. With members of Megadeth’s best-known lineup (which lasted from 1990’s Rust In Peace to ‘97’s Cryptic Writings) either unable to appear due to scheduling issues, or unwilling to meet the demands of Mustaine’s vision for the record, the singer and guitarist cast away all preconceptions and recruited bassist Jimmie Sloas and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Co-producing with Jeff Balding, who had engineered Cryptic Writings and 1999’s Risk, Mustaine took an approach to recording that he found liberating. “I took a real casual pace with this album. We started out working about three hours a night, four days a week. I know this is such a cliché, but it was like being reborn. I don’t have three other guys that I’m gonna disappoint if I don’t listen to their stuff. I was in there calling the shots and it was a lot like when (the band’s first two albums) Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good! and Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? first came out. It was me making my music, I had guys in the band listening to me, and I was the boss.” One amazing surprise for longtime Megadeth fans would have to be the presence of original guitarist Chris Poland, who played on those first two albums and contributed lead work to nearly every cut on The System Has Failed. “It was so much fun having Chris come down and play,” says Mustaine. “He’s a great person and there’s a reason why we took a fork in the road back then. When he came in and listened to this record, I didn’t know what to expect from him. I didn’t know if he was gonna listen and say, ‘I’m not digging this,’ or whatever, because he’s all into his jazz-fusion stuff. But he gave me a really great compliment, because he said somewhere, ‘some of you guys are gonna have to break out your slide rulers, because this is definitely Rust In Peace-type music.’”
1990’s Rust In Peace, Megadeth’s fourth album and possibly most successful after ‘92’s Countdown To Extinction (which charted at Number Two on Billboard’s Top 200), is held by many fans as the gold standard against which all Megadeth releases are judged, for its heaviness, intricacy, and tunefulness. “Everybody’s wanted me to make Rust In Peace 2, and I don’t think I did,” says Mustaine with his usual candor. “But I think what I did was make an album that was a natural progression from Rust In Peace.”
That progression is evident on The System Has Failed. First single “Die Dead Enough” features a stalking rhythm and urgent riff alongside an infectious chorus and a taste of strings adding texture and depth. “Back In The Day” delves into one of Mustaine’s many influences, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, with its galloping guitar work and frenetic tempo. Album closer “My Kingdom Come,” meanwhile, sounds like no other band out there. Its doom-laden, sinister beginning gives way to another vintage, crunchy Megadeth riff, before descending into a haunting, almost Eastern finale. Lyrically, Mustaine is back with some of his sharpest political and social commentary yet, cooking up a nightmare nuclear crisis in “Blackmail The Universe,” tackling criminal justice in “Kick The Chair,” and painting a picture of ticking international tensions in “The Scorpion.” It’s Mustaine at his songwriting best, making electrifying, incisive new metal while refusing to stick to any single formula.
“I think that I’ve been able to transcend some of the pigeonholing that takes place with a hard rock band,” agrees the maestro. “The head of my record company said something to me that really lit a
fire under my butt. He said, ‘Back when you wrote Rust In Peace, you owned heavy metal. That flag was yours. It’s time for you to go back and claim that flag.’ I’m excited that there really isn’t anything out there that I believe can compete with this record. I think I really have a chance of making a statement.” That statement will be heard around the world on September 14th, when The System Has Failed arrives in stores, and after that, when Mustaine takes Megadeth out on the road for the first time in three years. Fans can expect some surprises as well in the touring lineup. “I can’t wait to play again and have it be about fun,” says Mustaine. “Towards the end, the music became a lot about formula. It became so predictable. I’m looking forward to things being unpredictable, and things being fun and just going for it.” The system may have indeed failed, but Dave Mustaine and Megadeth is alive and well and firing on all cylinders.