Every move Megadeth has made over the last 10 years has proved divisive. Their 2013 album Supercollider saw the band embracing a radio friendly hard-rock sound, as opposed to the three heavy albums that came before it. To say it split opinions is putting it mildly, and the album sits at a Metacritic rating of 41%. It seems a lot like Dystopia is intended to be taken as a necessary course correction, and Megadeth have decided to go big and try to make a statement of an album. So, logically, they decided to make a thrash concept album about a science-fiction dystopia.
The best thing Dystopia has going for it is the return to the thrash sound that initially made the band so successful, recruiting Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler, and Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro, whose contributions imbue the album with a sense on intensity and purpose that the band has lacked for years. The album is mostly pounding blast-beats and palm-muted guitar thudding, and it feel tense and menacing. Lead single Fatal Illusion has a satisfying chugging main riff, an almost funky circular bassline, and fast, adrenaline fuelled drums. Poisonous Shadows is the longest track on the album, and it serves as its centrepiece. It’s the only track to have any particularly unique sonic elements, with cooing backing vocals giving the song a mournful atmosphere. Then the strings enter the mix in the first chorus, and whilst they’re unmistakably cheesy, they also reinforce the central vocal melody nicely, and lend the track a suitably epic nature.
One issue that robs the album of some of its intensity is actually the mixing. It seems that vocal comprehension has been the main goal of mixer Josh Wilbur, but this has the distinct disadvantage of taking energy away from the instrumental parts. The drums particularly, in spite of Chris Adler’s impressive technical skill, lack the sense of physicality that would make them sound truly inspiring. The kick drum lacks bass and volume, and the cymbals get lost amongst the guitar squall. The album seems to be geared particularly towards the mid-range, and whilst this is a valid artistic decision, it does mean that the songs generally sound loud, but hollow.
The other problem with the vocals being mixed so prominently, is that it makes it very hard to ignore Dave Mustaine’s lyrics. His lyric writing has never been the band’s strong point, but it seems that the idea of the concept album has encouraged him to double down on some of his more unfortunate tendencies. Whilst stated to be a concept album, Dystopia lacks any discernible story or characters. There’s lots of descriptions of a broken society – “there’s panic and there’s chaos rampant in the streets / where useless thoughts of peace are met with rage” – but little in the way of action or motivation besides despair, and whilst that approach works for a few songs, it quickly grows tiresome over Dystopia‘s running time. Furthermore, some of the phrasing is extremely awkward. Wordy lines like “violence conditioning, cause the nature of the enemy” just don’t fit well in a lyrical context, with Mustaine sounding as though he’s struggling to get all the syllables out by the end of the bar.
The lyrics aren’t a deal breaker, however, and some of the songs on Dystopia are quite solid. The Emperor has a satisfying impact to it, and the lyrics are less lost in the setting, focussing on a bitter critique of an unnamed acquaintance, even as the chorus ends on the very clichéd line “the emperor has no clothes”. Most of the songs are actually fairly satisfying and punishing, mixing issues aside, and it’s promising for Megadeth’s future that this is the sound that they’ve chosen to pursue.