Second Spin: Megadeth, “Risk”

Today I’m kicking off a new feature I call Second Spin, where I take critically- and publicly-maligned albums, films or whatever, give them a once-over and discuss whether they actually deserve their infamy. For the inaugural post I thought I’d go with a doozy of an item: the 1999 Megadeth album, Risk.

By the late Nineties people were already fed up with the legends of Eighties thrash for diverting from the aggressive speed metal that had made their name. Metallica might have struck gold (well, several-times platinum) with their eponymous 1990 album, but follow-ups Load and Reload did nothing for the fan base with their incorporation of different styles and sounds, further removing the band from its roots. By that point, though, Metallica had streamlined their original thrash metal sound to a smoother, less harsh hard rock with simpler song structures and a greater emphasis on melody and groove.

Megadeth took a similar approach in the early Nineties: after the thrash assault of 1990’s Rust in Peace, they went in a different direction for the 1992 follow-up, Countdown to Extinction. The material took a similar approach as Metallica did in regards to melody and groove while still retaining the band’s intrinsic heaviness and (again, much like Metallica) was a rather massive hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 and scoring sizeable hits with “Sweating Bullets” and “Symphony of Destruction”.

1994’s Youthanasia continued this process with an even greater focus on hooks and less on speed and aggression which, while still mostly successful, didn’t quite catch fire in the same way its predecessor did. By 1997 and the release of Cryptic Writings the complex thrash metal of their Eighties albums was very much gone, which naturally displeased their fans. It probably didn’t help, either, that Dave Mustaine’s gritty vocals had lost their original acerbic edge, despite improving greatly in terms of range and melody. Personally I actually prefer his vocals during this period, but this isn’t about what I think. Well, it kinda is, but… look, let’s move on.

By the end of the Nineties Megadeth wanted to do something different – and something different they did, with the release of their eighth studio album, Risk. That isn’t an arbitrary title, either: this is possibly the most experimental album Megadeth have ever put out, with flecks of alternative rock, world music and electronica cropping up throughout its run-time. For the most part, though, the songwriting itself is simply an extension of the melodic hard rock approach of Cryptic Writings – in fact, songs like “I’ll Get Even” or “Almost Honest” sound as if they’d fit in well on Risk. Not exactly business as usual, but hardly a Kid A style upheaval of their approach.

The contemporary reception wasn’t exactly cold, at least critically. The Los Angeles Times‘s Sandy Masuo gave it three stars out of four, stating that “richer arrangements (strewn with strings and sitar) add an exotic allure, but it’s sharper songwriting that gives this album more bite.” Entertainment Weekly‘s Laura Morgan didn’t mind it too much, either, giving it a B- grade while stating that “the headbangers prove their mettle when they modernize their bone-crushing rock.” Allmusic‘s Steve Huey was a bit less impressed, giving it two-and-a-half stars out of five (in what appears to be a relatively recent review, but it’s always hard to tell with Allmusic) though still commending it for being “more reflective, melodic, and conventional than the Megadeth of old [and its] well-played set of hard rock tunes suitable for metal and AOR fans alike.”

So in terms of critical reaction, you’d think Risk was a perfectly acceptable entry in the Megadeth canon. Ask the fans, though, and you get a very different impression: “risk worst megadeth album” was a recommended Google search and the general theme of the links it threw up seems to be a vehement hatred of the album: MetalSucks refer to it as “infamous” in its supposed badness, while SputnikMusic users gave it an average score of 2.3 from 1130 votes, indicating “average” reception (which doesn’t seem that bad to me, honestly, but what do I know?). Just have a look through some of the links in that search yourself – there are a few standing up for the record, but they’re in the minority.

The band themselves don’t seem too keen on it either: only “Crush ‘Em” was included on the 2000 compilation Capitol Punishment, while no songs from the record made their way on to 2005’s Greatest Hits. No material from Risk is performed live to this day, either, though an excerpt of “Prince of Darkness” is regularly used as an intro tape. One song in particular seemed to cause significant anxiety for Megadeth, and that would be the aforementioned hit single, “Crush ‘Em”, which was built on a pop songwriting structure and even had a disco-influenced bass-line underpinning it. It was Megadeth’s “I Was Made for Lovin’ You“, for better or worse. Even Mustaine himself doesn’t especially care for it – and yet, the video below has an approximate 92% approval rating, going by the likes alone, ergo somebody does. So what gives?

In all honesty, song-wise the album really isn’t that bad. Opener “Insomnia” is a bit weak, although its energy is undeniable and the Spanish guitar inflections are very tasty. Euphoric ballads “Breadline” and “I’ll Be There” are simply lovely with their alternative rock influence, showing just what Megadeth were capable of when they let themselves really stretch out. I’m also going to give props to “Ecstasy“, a personal favourite of mine which has a nice sparse vibe to it, some good contrast of light and heavy and a great chorus to boot. It’s essentially a pop song, especially given its little electronic touches, but a good one nonetheless. Even “Crush ‘Em”, however you might feel about disco music, has an infectious stomp to it, not to mention a terrific, if slightly cheesy chorus – but then hasn’t metal always been a little cheesy?

If anything I’d argue that the songs simply lack not only the inspiration of previous Megadeth material, if not in terms of musical variety then certainly in terms of song construction, but also the consistency. Cryptic Writings may have had a melodic hard rock sound far apart from Peace Sells, but at least it stuck with it throughout. It’s not all experimental, you see: the menacing, demonic march of “Prince of Darkness”, the catchy uppercut of “Seven” and the climactic crunch of “Time: The End” keep things heavy and violent, proving that Megadeth didn’t need speed to conjure wicked things in the minds of listeners. It’s also possible that teasing listeners with these heavier songs soured them further on the more varied material.

I have to admit that, on my first listen, I was disappointed as well, so it took me a little while to appreciate the record on its own terms. An initial gut reaction really can affect your impression of an album, and with metal fans as passionate as they are it probably accounts for such even more so – and of course, an album can’t just disappoint you or fail to grab you on first listen, it has to actively suck. It’s not that we don’t get it, it’s that there’s nothing to get. To a disgruntled music fan, disaffection on the part of the listener becomes inadequacy on the part of the product.

Did the fact there was no big hit single from Risk hurt its long-term appeal as well, I wonder? All the previous albums had at least one: Countdown to Extinction had “Symphony of Destruction“, Youthanasia had “A Tout le Monde” (a ballad, it should be pointed out, and arguably as divorced from the band’s thrash sound as could be, released five years before Risk) and Cryptic Writings had “Trust“. The closest Risk had to a hit were “Crush ‘Em” and “Breadline” (both of which, to be fair, did reach an impressive #6 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in the US), and neither of them were what you’d call standard Megadeth material, so they don’t really mesh in with the band’s other hits. If “Prince of Darkness”, which Megadeth fans generally tend to have much warmer words for, had been released as a first single instead of “Crush ‘Em”, might the story have been different? (Also, you’d be surprised how much more willing critics are to give an album a positive reception if it has at least one big hit on it, even if the other songs aren’t up to scratch.)

Also – and this is just a personal theory – it seems as though there were some steps made on previous album Cryptic Writings to return to a faster, more aggressive sound that Risk didn’t quite pick up on. Songs such as “She-Wolf“, “Vortex” and “The Disintegrators“, along with the breakdown of “Use the Man“, are tighter and more visceral than pretty much anything on Youthanasia or Risk. Perhaps people didn’t care for what appeared to be one step forwards and two steps back? Maybe in that sense we should also consider Mustaine’s lyrics, which lacked the frothing polemic of earlier releases and focused on broader emotions and sensations. Metalheads like them some angry, after all.

I don’t know, you know. If anything the argument is there to be made that the songs don’t go far enough in terms of experimentation. The softer flourishes give the record more colour than the relative gloom of previous releases, but there’s still that heavy bedrock on which it all floats over. This isn’t an album to punch walls to but nor is it a piece of music you can really lose yourself in: it seems to be aware of just how far it should go and, as a result, never goes any further. Mustaine said himself that releasing the album under the Megadeth name probably hindered its chances from the off: “I could have put this out under a different name and many people would have loved it,” he claims in the liner notes of the 2004 remix/remaster, also claiming that “people who loved those types of songs wouldn’t be scared off by the name Megadeth.” Do you agree? I’m not sure, but I can definitely see his point. There’s also an amusing symmetry to be found in the fact that the band’s 2004 comeback album, The System Has Failed – widely hailed as a return to form and one of their best records in recent memory – was originally planned as a Mustaine solo effort.

Perhaps if they’d stuck to their guns and tried not to stick too close to their roots, they might have come up with something really out there? Sure, it would have annoyed even more hardcore fans (as if that’s ever a bad thing), but it might also have been a more respectable release just for its sheer cahoneys. As it is, though, there’s always going to be that crowd of metaldom, the purists that every genre has to put up with, who won’t accept anything beyond their narrow understanding of “true” metal; and even to this day people lament the end of the “real” Megadeth, even if, by their own odd logic, that band surely died about seven years before Risk came out.

As it happened, both Metallica and Megadeth tried to return to an earlier, harder-edged sound with their follow-up efforts: Megadeth released The World Needs a Hero in 2001 which, while not bad exactly, tries too hard to recapture the streamlined hard rock of Countdown and, as a result, never ends up being more than average; while Metallica’s St. Anger, released in 2003, aimed to replicate the band’s Eighties thrash sound but just ended up enraging their fan base even further (though there are, of course, various other factors to consider there, which I may have to go deeper into in another edition of Second Spin). By the millennium, it seemed, neither band could win no matter what they tried – but hey, at least neither of them went nu-metal, which is what fellow thrash pioneers Anthrax came dangerously close to doing with 1998’s Volume 8: The Threat is Real. I wonder why nobody ever brings that up? Is it because they’re all still trying to figure out what “Cupajoe” is supposed to be?

In the end, Risk was exactly that: a big leap for Megadeth that didn’t really pay off. Personally I think it gets too much flack for its experimentation and I could defend any one song on here if I liked (except perhaps “The Doctor is Calling“, probably the one song on Risk I never quite got), but the arguments against it have their points. Final verdict: a thumbs up from me, but that’s just my opinion.

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