Ask any fan of Classic Heavy Metal to list their most influential thrash albums, and the chances are that ‘Rust in Peace’, released by Megadeth in 1990 will be high up there. It’s one of the all-time thrash classics, alongside contemporaries like Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ or Slayer’s ‘Reign in Blood’. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at the full story of this piece of Classic Heavy Metal history.
(Maybe Classic Metal Hawk might be tempted to generate some controversy in future with a ranking blog for classic thrash albums – shout out in the comments if you’re interested. But for the here and now, it’s all eyes on ‘Rust in Peace’)
Pure Thrash at its Peak
Why is ‘Rust In Peace’ a classic? In some ways, the subsequent offerings ‘Countdown to Extinction’ and ‘Youthanasia’ are musically superior with better incorporation of melody and improved song writing. On the other hand, some fans will prefer the rawer thrash sound on the predecessor albums ‘Killing is my business … and business is good’ and ‘So Far, So Good, So What.’ But as an example of a record that is still undeniably pure thrash, whilst at the same time pushing that genre to its absolute limits in terms of musicianship, ‘Rust in Peace’ is hard to beat.
(One reason for that being of course the addition of guitarist Marty Friedman as part of Megadeth’s ‘classic’ line up with Nick Menza on drums, of which plenty more later.)
Triumph Over Adversity
When you listen to the quality of the songs, it’s maybe surprising to learn that ‘Rust in Peace’ was a triumph against the odds, but that was indubitably the case. In 1988, the band had seemed to be on a roll – the previous album was selling well, they’d played to a crowd of 100,000 at Donnington, England, and were booked on further Monsters of Rock shows in mainland Europe.
But then everything quickly fell apart. Bassist Dave Ellefson abruptly left the tour to enter rehab for his longstanding drug addiction problems. With no ready replacement, the band had to cancel the rest of their tour appearances. Then, friction among the remaining members saw leader Dave Mustaine fire both guitarist Jeff Young AND drummer Chuck Behler – meaning that only weeks after their Donnington triumph, Mustaine suddenly had no band at all. Even by Mustaine’s standards, this was quite a turn of events.
Some of the missing pieces would be easy enough to replace. Nick Menza was already with the band as Behler’s drum technician and could step up to fill his shoes, and the hope was that Ellefson would re-join after rehab. But the search for a new guitarist was protracted – Mustaine threw the net wide, considered many options, offered the job to original member Chris Poland AND Pantera’s Dimebad Darrell, with both eventually rejecting him. Friedman wasn’t considered at all until Mustaine heard his solo album, ‘Dragon’s Kiss’, but that set the wheels in motion to his hiring, and finally we had THE Megadeth line-up.
Back on track as far as musicians were concerned, Mustaine also had a working title for the next album, gleaned from a bumper sticker he’d seen in California: ‘May all your nuclear weapons rust in peace.’ Cold war paranoia was still relatively high in many quarters, in spite of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s new commitment to openness, so the pro-peace messages of this kind had plenty of traction. Megadeth themselves have a nuclear-war-inspired name of course, and Mustaine had no hesitation in extending that theme into further song material.
‘Rust in Peace’ was a continuation of favourite Mustaine social commentary themes, taking in war, religion, politics, even UFO conspiracy theory. The cover features politicians of the period in addition to the usual mascot, Vic Rattlehead – there’s Gorbachev himself, alongside US president George HW Bush. For political nerds, there’s also Richard von Weizsacker (German President) and Toshiki Kaifu (Prime Minister of Japan), but the artist is obviously emphasizing those cold war themes with the first 2 characters.
Let’s investigate a few of the individual songs. For the nuclear war number, we actually have to wait right until the end of the album for ‘Rust in Peace…Polaris’, which clocks in as the ninth and final song. The lyrics are written as a personification of a Polaris nuclear missile, the type was heavily deployed in the 1980s (Classis Heavy Metal right there – writing a song from the point of view of a nuclear missile). Plus at the time of release, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, leading to widespread uncertainty over nuclear weapons proliferation (and possible use). The chorus section is a great example of in-your-face Mustaine lyrics that played deliciously on those fears:
I spread disease like a dogRust in Peace / Polaris
Discharge my payload a mile high
Rotten egg air of death wrestles your nostrils
Launch the Polaris, the end doesn’t scare us
When will this cease?
The warheads will all rust in peace! ‘
The other massive highlight on side B is ‘Tornado of Souls.’ The lyrics deal with a relationship breakup, which has led to mass speculation over the years that it’s yet another channel for Mustaine to lash out at Metallica for dumping him all those years earlier. To Classic Metal Hawk’s knowledge, Mustaine himself has never said it was about them though, and as he’s never usually shy about offering opinions on all things Metallica, it may be that the speculation is just bollocks in this case. Who knows? Anyway, this song isn’t really about the lyrics, so much as the GREATEST GUITAR SOLO IN HEAVY HISTORY™.
This is not an original view, I know – Classic Metal Hawk very much parroting conventional wisdom here. But c’mon, who’s really going to argue that it’s not up there? Marty Friedman himself once said:
When I finished the solo to this one, Mustaine came into the studio, listened to it down once, turned around and without saying a word, shook my hand. It was at that moment that I felt like I was truly the guitarist for this bandM.F.
So, Friedman was proud of it and Mustaine loved it right away – these are dudes that know a thing or 2 about heavy metal guitar solos. According to Wikipedia, the band have played the song almost a thousand times at gigs. Classic Metal Hawk feels like he’s probably listened to it that many as well, and even now finds the solo section thrilling.
Dave Mustaine – Ever the Diplomat
If those are the 2 big highlights on side B, what are the equivalents on side A? Well, certainly the opener, ‘Holy Wars … The Punishment Due.’ Mustaine dives into full on controversy with the lyrics, which deal with religious conflict, but are thought to focus in particularly on the troubles in Northern Ireland. The story goes that Mustaine once turned a blind eye to the sale of bootlegged Megadeth T-shirts at a gig in Antrim, Northern Ireland, after being told that the proceeds would help to fund the nationalists’ cause, which he became sympathetic to after hearing about it from the bootlegger.
Mustaine, possibly under the influence by this point of proceedings, went as far as to dedicate a performance of their Sex Pistols cover ‘Anarchy in the UK’ to that cause, yelling ‘Ireland for the Irish’!!! This set off a riot at the venue – not an isolated occurrence at a Megadeth show to be sure, but probably the first time where sectarian politics was part of the picture. The band had to leave town in a bulletproof bus to guard against reprisals from the angry unionist side.
Anyway, that experience inspired ‘Holy Wars’, but leaving aside the controversy, the composition is first rate. The twin guitar opening is great, and then merges seamlessly into a classic Megadeth riff. After the first verse / chorus comes the unexpected acoustic guitar solo, then we’re into the even heavier ‘Punishment Due’ section with more great riffing and soloing. The final solo is contributed by Mustaine himself, and is a fast / furious affair compared to the more structured lead work of Friedman, so a nice contrast.
Then we have the next song highlight, ‘Area 51’. Oops, sorry. I meant ‘Hangar 18’. Actually, it’s the same thing. Hangar 18 is an area of Wright Patterson Airforce Base near Dayton, Ohio, and is the area thought (by certain people) to be the location of the alien spaceship that crashed at Roswell and was brought to Hangar 18, a.k.a. Area 51 by the US government. And ‘Hangar 18’ the song does indeed cover the same story – though Mustaine’s dig in the lyrics about the incompatibility of the words ‘military’ and ‘intelligence’ suggests he doesn’t give the story too much credence. (Nick Menza, on the other hand, is apparently of all things alien.)
The video for ‘Hangar 18’ when it came out as a single tells the extra-terrestrial story, with entertaining shots of aliens and spacecraft. Interestingly, it turns the usual alien experimentation story upside down – here it’s aliens themselves being experimented on by evil-looking government scientists with the band ending up in cryogenic freeze, presumably next in line for the treatment.
Lots of people love the interspersed Friedman solos after the verse / chorus sections, which are indeed top class. But Classic Metal Hawk’s favourite part is the hard driving intro, which is an improved version of Mustaine’s ‘Call of Ktulu’, his last credited contribution to Metallica. That leads into a simple but brutally effective 2-note riff pattern before we get to the verses.
Those 4 are probably the best-known songs on ‘Rust in Peace’, but the same song writing quality and musicianship is present throughout, which is why the album in aggregate is generally seen as such a genre defining piece of work for thrash. And again, that’s quite something considering the backdrop. Ellefson did get through rehab successfully, and so was sober during the album’s creation, which helped. Mustaine himself was trying to get clean, though generally not succeeding. He went through several rehabs in total, and credits his later conversion to Christianity as a bigger breakthrough in defeating the inner demons. But at the time, drugs were still very much in the foreground, to the point where the idea for another song, ‘Lucretia’ came to Mustaine while he was driving round in the Hollywood Hills trying to score. ‘Rust in Peace’ is, even today, both a best-in-class example of thrash AND a triumph of creativity over adversity. Every credit to them for pulling that off.
Now, don’t just sit there. Sit there and listen to ‘Hangar 18’. And why not add a comment to the blog while you’re at it?
Megadeth / ‘Rust in Peace’ must be the only band / album combo to muscle in on the Slayer ‘Reign in Blood’ & Metallica ‘Master of Puppets’ ‘which is the greatest’ argument. Where do you stand?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.