‘And they’ll set me free…’
Given the more commercially-inclined, tamer and safer nature of Countdown to Extinction compared to its predecessors, along with its somewhat scattershot and transitional nature, it would only make sense that Youthanasia would be a more concrete change in direction, which is very much the case. Youthanasia is a more consistently accessible and streamlined effort than its predecessor, but this move did in fact pay off both quality-wise and on a commercial level. Youthanasia is not only a stronger effort than its predecessor, but it outshines nearly all of the stylistic diversions other ’80s metal mainstays underwent in the ’90s. It’s a remarkably successful experiment and shows that the band was capable of making good and even great music that didn’t rely solely on aggression and complexity. I’d even say that to this day it remains Megadeth’s last truly high-quality album; Cryptic Writings has enough good material to be worthwhile, but nothing they’ve done since comes close to even that.
Youthanasia takes the most melodic, mid-tempo heavy metal strains of Countdown to Extinction and runs with them for the entire album; there are no leftover thrashers like ‘Ashes in Your Mouth’ or ‘Skin O’ My Teeth’, this is a heavy metal/hard rock album the entire way through. The songs here are some of the simplest, traditional and most stripped down they’ve been up to this point; but not stripped down in a fashionable ’90s alternative rock sense – more by having very orthodox ’80s hard rock tendencies. Verse-chorus structures, groovy metal/hard rock riffs, straight beats and simpler drumming all around, classical and melodic soloing and a very traditional sense of melody underpin the meat of this album. It would be easy to see this as a regressive, tepid and dated attempt at commercial hard rock based on that description but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Underpinning this album’s success is that *every last riff* here manages to be excellent. Despite, or perhaps due to, sticking to such a tried and true, traditional sound, every last riff is simple yet effective – evocative and ear-catching melodies are all over these songs, as are the memorable grooves these riffs have. For all their simplicity, the riffs here are remarkably intelligent in their construction, to the extent that they have the same sense of being crafted to perfection like the guitarwork on Rust in Peace does. Possibly the best example of this is the principle verse riff and chorus riff of ‘Addicted to Chaos’ – it’s as if they were crafted with keen attention paid to the classic metal and rock riffing styles from years gone by. The leads throughout the album are rather old school; with a keen ear for melody and being flashy without overdoing the technicality or going on for too long, they consistently form excellent contrasting sections within songs or act as interesting details when scattered throughout tracks. The drumming is a similar story too; it seems simple on the surface but it complements the grooving of the riffs and is laden with interesting patterns here and there – this is evident from the very first seconds of the opener ‘Reckoning Day’. The drums sound heavy and powerful and the guitars have a thick and meaty tone that serves this style of less nimble, heavier and more percussive riffing well.
Another consistently remarkable quality of the album is that every last song manages to be very catchy – in their adherence to verse-chorus structures and by writing the best hooks possible these manage to be easily some of the catchiest songs in the band’s discography. Critical to this quality is that Dave Mustaine’s singing here is genuinely good, possibly the best it has been and would ever be. Up until now his voice has never been good but it managed to work on the early Megadeth albums as thrash really just needs attitude, power and energy from a vocalist, while on the more vocally orientated and melodic tracks Countdown to Extinction he definitely sounded quite odd, though anyone at this point is used to his strange voice so it still wasn’t an issue. Here however, no such excuses have to be made; while his distinctive snarling and kooky nasality is still present he can really hold a tune and pulls off plenty of great vocal melodies here. The album also shows off a new found emotive range and versatility to Dave’s voice, with him pulling off gritty anger as well as he has before but also more sorrowful and passionate moments too, all while not relying on attitude alone to get by. The verses and especially the choruses here make great use of this, and while some hooks stick more than others every single song has memorable lyric after memorable lyric and excellent vocals all around.
While most of this album does sit firmly in the realm of mid-tempo heavy metal/hard rock, there are a couple of outliers to give a little variety. ‘À tout le monde’ is the token ballad here, and while it can be considered a shoot for radio play (one which paid off) what results is a very poignant and touching ballad. Dave’s lyrics while simple, hit hard and his singing is genuinely emotionally compelling; this song is perhaps the best example of the versatility he displays on the album. The song features an earworm of a chorus along with lush acoustic guitars and excellent soloing as ever, and despite its lack of reliance on heavy and hard riffs the song remains engaging throughout. ‘Victory’ is a more up-tempo track and the closest thing to a thrasher here – it’s a fun little song that displays the same strengths as everything else, and its lyrics refer to numerous titles from the band’s back catalogue up to this point. It’s a more blood-pumping track that makes for a good note to end on.
It’s easy to write off this album as yet another commercial effort in the wake of Metallica, or just Countdown to Extinction but with no holdovers from the old days. However, I think a better way to look at it is a refinement of Countdown to Extinction‘s formula to produce a more consistent work that succeeds where its predecessor sometimes fails. It’s the sound of a band using their raw talent as well as learning from the past to fully transition into a new genre, while sacrificing none of the music’s quality or personality as well as improving in some regards. Do not skip this one out, if you’re after a really good heavy metal album this is it.