Megadeth, "United Abominations"
Megadeth returns with another slab of thrash which – just like the last three albums – is promised to be "the best Megadeth album in years." Sadly, we've all been burned enough to know that hype is cheap and PR cheaper, so we enter this album with a healthy dose of trepidation.
Also, we should recognize that Megadeth has gone through several phases: The frenzied junkie-Dave years that ended with Rust in Peace, the Megapop years that saw the band singing ballads on MTV and most recently the reborn-again years, which floundered like a drowning man on "The World Needs a Hero" but came roaring to fruition on 2004's "The System Has Failed." My unabashed admiration of the recent Megadeth style should be taken into consideration while reading this review.
That said, how's the album? Well, with some qualifications, Dave, the brothers Drover (Eidolon) and new bassist James Lomenzo (ex-Black Label Society, ex-White Lion) deliver. Like its predecessor, "United Abominations" melds Megadeth's classic semi-technical thrash with exotic solos and Dave's increasingly proficient vocal hooks to create a sound that manages to be both fresh and retro, complex and catchy, often at the same time. It's not as manic as their best work, but Dave's not strung out on heroin anymore, either. At the very least, we can be thankful that the band's unfortunate reach for mainstream success has been left in the dust of Ellefson's unceremonious ouster.
Dave's riffing oscillates between choppy, keyless grinding, quick-wristed harmonized runs, and skeletal, insidious hooks. His song structures are refreshingly complex again, stocked with subtle details and rich little passages connecting larger blocks of the song. His renewed vigor as both a writer and a player has made "United Abominations" a 100% full-out guitar album with gobs of solos, overdubs, harmonies, melodies, textures and noodles, all of which are audible thanks to Andy Sneap's excellent mix. The sound jumps out at you, tight and punchy, but somehow still warm and easy on the ears. That he accomplished this with the most heavily-layered Megadeth album to date is incredible. Then again, that's why he's Andy f'ing Sneap and we're not.
If there's one thing that's going to turn a lot of people off, it's the spoken word passages. Dave's always had stuff like this on his records, but with "United Abominations" it's everywhere and – furthering the turn-off – much of it comes off as pro-war / fundamentalist-Christian political ravings ("A roaring lion is about to be unleashed on earth; Hey, Jihad Joe, guess what? We're comin' to get ya!"). It's hard to discern if these are earnest proclamations or satirical commentary, but regardless of the sentiment, they're distracting and undermine a lot of good material ("Amerikhastan," in particular).
Still, it's hard to get hung up on stuff like that when a song like the insanely catchy "Never Walk Alone...A Call to Arms" or the twisting, slinking groove of "Amerikhastan" comes on. Even the re-recording of "A Tout le Monde" (originally heard on "Youthanasia") is worth a listen out of curiosity (and I've always hated the original). Say what you want, but Dave still knows how to write twisted little anthems that crawl inside your ear and burrow deep into your brain.
And what would a Megadeth album be without gonzo guitar solos (*cough*Risk*cough*)? Almost every song has quick little flashes here and there, but there's no shortage of full-blown shredding with several tracks offering extended trade-offs between Mustaine and Drover, a'la "Hangar 18". Mustaine is at his noisy, manic best, while Drover counters with controlled, intelligent compositions. The solos on the last two tracks - "You're Dead" and "Burnt Ice" - are the best of the bunch.
If 2005's "The System Has Failed" hadn't been so surprisingly good, it'd be easy to call this the best Megadeth album since "Rust in Peace," but "System..." was a damn fine album and its quality raised the bar of expectations considerably. High bar or not, though, "United Abominations" is a thoroughly enjoyable album and if the worst criticism I can muster for it is "Less talk, more rock!" it's hard to see it as anything but a winner.