Megadeth – ‘Holy Wars / The Punishment Due’ (1990)

So in this post I’m really just going to gush about a song that I’ve been into for [thinks] most of my life, now. However, it’s only recently that I have been hit by quite how masterful a song it is. Anyway, before I go any further it’s probably best for those ignorant of the greatness to take a listen to it for themselves, and for those in the know to revisit it:

Megadeth – ‘Holy Wars… The Punishment Due’

Right, we’re back. Yeah, I’ve always liked this song a lot, but for some reason viewed Rust In Peace as some kind of no-man’s land between the classic ‘In My Darkest Hour’ era and the streamlined pop-metal brilliance of (the first half of) Countdown To Extinction. However, this song is an absolute classic. The kind of genre-transcending thing that Metallica used to do so well.

The first thing that hits is the mania of the piece. Guitar notes descending like someone who’s running so fast down stairs that they’ve lost control of their legs and are now just falling. And on top of that we get the bizarro lead melody which sounds like someone learned to play it backwards before they learned it forwards. And it’s all more punk rock/hardcore than metal in its delivery, especially for 1990. There’s an immense aggression to it that even goes beyond what Slayer were doing at the time with their excellent Seasons In The Abyss.

What will undoubtedly be a sticking point for many is Dave Mustaine’s voice. It’s very high-pitched and weird. However, I reckon that works really well on the best Megadeth music. The very fact that he is not some gruff, masculine Hetfield/Anselmo/Thomas lends an emotional fragility to the bluster – the listener really gets the sense that this talk of holy war and general mayhem is not just something to get righteous about, but is actually very real. And scary.

Then we get that Spanish guitar breakdown (which I guess is supposed to sound Middle-Eastern), which leads directly into the more traditional realms of macho staccato metal. It’s a really rhythmic segment, with strangely phrased lines about ‘know-it-all scholars’. And it goes crazy, because that doesn’t last either. Classic riff kicks in (‘wage the war on organised crime’), and the emotional poignance is there once again. No idea what he’s singing about this time – Mustaine seems to have turned himself into a super-soldier, and there is a sadness in his voice when he sings ‘either way, they die’.

The song seems to have settled in now, as Dave tells us about ‘their’ mistakes – killing his wife and baby for a start. He prefaces the first solo with the warning of ‘no more mistakes’. And then it all breaks down again, into a thrash-fest that is punctuated by some ejaculation-delaying palm-muting. Then the proper nutty solo that Thrash of the time was so happily full of. And it’s a really good solo, too. Marty Friedman goes all-out in showing why he’s comfortably a peer of the likes of Kerry King and Kirk Hammett.

Oh, it turns out that the lyrical content of the second half of the song was inspired by the Punisher comics – explaining the ‘Punishment Due’ part of the title, natch. That lends more sense to the superhero lyrical content of this portion, as I thought it had just gone completely off-kilter. What was it with Mustaine in this era, and his dual songs? We have this one, as well as ‘Rust In Peace / Polaris’ and ‘Good Mourning / Black Friday‘… it’s actually a good idea, lending a sense of dynamic and variety to a type of Metal that can get samey in the wrong hands. Either that, or he had some kind of alcohol-fuelled ADHD.

Anyway, by the end of that it’s really roaring along. We get a really energising and heavy conclusion to a song that is a really fucking great six and a half minutes. So yeah, vague lyrical content aside this is a top notch song from the turn of a decade, and Megadeth really do deserve more props than they get. While I am generally very modernist in my listening to heavy music, I do wish more of the big modern metal bands had songs like this – most of them have nothing to compare. I suppose the closest would be System Of A Down with their excellent ‘Chop Suey!’ (though that doensn’t really get great until the second half). Worryingly, a very real modern equivalent would be ‘We’re All To Blame’ by Sum 41. I always hated them, but I’ll be damned if that’s not a great song.

It’s a shame Mustaine was so deranged due to drug intake during this time. He once said about the song: ‘It’s revolving around the way that war is imminent and it doesn’t really matter what country it’s in… Khadafi [Libya]… Khomeini [Iran]… It’s funky (sic) how these guys have weird names, these idiots that lead different countries. But it shows you… war’s war, no matter where you’re at.’

A bit bigoted there, but anyway, it’s sad that sixteen years later, Jihad is still as real a threat as it ever was, whether the ‘idiots’ in power are in Iran/Iraq/Afghanistan or England/America/Italy. I didn’t mean for this to turn into a political blog post (and it won’t), but it’s sad that people in power within each major religion never seem to learn from past mistakes.

‘Next thing you know, they’ll take my thoughts away’, indeed.

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