In the six years since Megadeth released their last album, Dystopia, Dave Mustaine has survived a cancer scare, a global pandemic, and his 60th birthday. This summer, the steadfast speed-metal pioneers will put out its 16th album, The Sick, the Dying … and the Dead!, a typically breakneck thrashathon that musicians a third of Mustaine’s age would struggle to keep up with.
Did Mustaine have any reservations about the album title, a Black Plague reference he picked before Covid-19 became the new plague? “No,” he says on a Zoom from Switzerland, where the band is on tour. “For me to let the occurrences in modern current history tell me what I’m going to do and what I’m not going to do is not going to sit well with me.” Is there any particular reason he’s still writing speed-limit–crushing ragers today? “Well, I still have a couple of bands in my crosshairs that I’m going after,” he says, leaving the groups’ names up to readers’ imaginations.
Regardless of his motivations, Mustaine has fashioned The Sick, the Dying … and the Dead!, out Sept. 2, into an unrelenting exhibition of Megadeth’s prowess with songs about storming military helicopters (“Night Stalkers,” which features a guest appearance by Ice-T), coping with abandonment (“Dogs of Chernobyl”), vapid fame-seekers (“Celebutante”), and the perils of addiction (“Life in Hell,” “Junkie”). Musically, the album recalls Megadeth milestones Peace Sells and Countdown to Extinction. Mustaine co-produced the record with Chris Rakestraw, who also worked on Dystopia. That album’s lead guitarist, Kiko Loureiro, and drummer, Dirk Verbeuren, reprised their roles while Testament bassist Steve Di Giorgio handled four-string duties on the album following the ouster of longtime Megadeth bassist David Ellefson. Former Megadeth bassist James LoMenzo has since rejoined and is on tour with them.
The album, which is now available for pre-order, will come out digitally as well as on CD, vinyl, and cassette. A limited-edition double-LP version on heavyweight vinyl, available only on Megadeth’s website, will come with a lenticular vinyl lithograph, a 12-inch by 24-inch lyrics insert, and a bonus seven-inch containing the album’s “We’ll Be Back” and a live rendition of the Peace Sells track “The Conjuring.”
The group is introducing the album with a video that will be the first in a trilogy by director Rafael Pensado, who made the group’s videos for “Dystopia” and “Conquer or Die.” The first installment highlights “We’ll Be Back,” Mustaine’s middle finger for Megadeth’s doubters, though that’s not exactly the plot. “It starts off with this guy who’s got to go to work in his job at the military plant,” Mustaine explains. “Little does he know that these mercenaries have come to kill him and his family. He finds out, and he goes after these people. He’s with his army guys, and he ends up getting into hand combat with this main guy who’s got this dirty bomb, and he risks his life and swims out into the ocean with it and dies.” And if that feels like a spoiler, Mustaine says it isn’t, because the protagonist’s story will continue after his death in the second chapter.
When Mustaine speaks today, his voice beams enthusiasm. Two-and-a-half years since the artist announced that his throat cancer was in remission, he’s still feeling good. “I feel healthy,” he says. “I am absolutely loving life, singing the best I’ve ever sang. I’m playing the best I’ve ever played. I can tell you that when we play live, we sit in our jam room before we go out there, and we study the songs now, like I used to back when the early stages of Megadeth.” He sums up his health status with three words: “feisty as ever.”
“I have a pretty solid relationship with my higher power now,” he says. “And it’s gotten cool for me, where I don’t have to use vulgarity on my album. Not that I’m square, because I say ‘fuck’ all the time. And I’ve been asking God to remove that. He’s taking His time with it because it’s still there.”
He dreamt up the title for The Sick, the Dying … and the Dead well before Covid while thinking about the children’s rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie.” “I wanted to add that [rhyme] into a song, like we did in ‘Go to Hell,’ where I said, ‘Now I lay me down to sleep,’ which oddly appeared on a Metallica song at the same time,” he says, pausing comically to add, “That was weird.” The rhyme’s morbid imagery about posies of flowers covering the stench of bodies decomposing and how the “ashes, ashes” part of the rhyme seemed to relate to cremation struck a chord with him.
“I thought, ‘Wow, the irony of something as innocuous as ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ being something so dark was interesting,’ and it made me curious about the Plague,” he says. (The song’s connection to the plague has long been a source of debate, with many folklorists noting its first connection dating back to 1961, several hundred years after the plague.) Shortly after that, he watched Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and drew inspiration from the imagery, which inspired both the title song with its intricate, undulating rhythms and the album art for The Sick, The Dying … and the Dead!
When he writes music these days, he feels like he experiences a “Benjamin Button thing, for lack of a better reference, because I feel like I’m young again.” For as aggressive as the new songs sound, he says his main focus is melody and he likes writing lyrics “that bring awareness and attention to things that may need our help.” The title of “Dogs of Chernobyl” is a red herring for a song about coping with feeling left behind. Mustaine had watched a horror movie about people visiting the site of the infamous Ukrainian nuclear meltdown, where people had fled without their canines. “The part that bothered me was that the dogs were just left,” he says. “I don’t know that if I went anywhere, that I could leave my dog or our horses.” He felt it was a universal feeling.
“I have spent enough of my life watching our fans struggle, and my heart just bleeds for them,” he says. “And I watch how our opportunities become less and less. And to think that that’s based on the music that appeals to you is just fundamentally wrong. I try and take a lot of those things into consideration and sing about them, and in a way that will present the yin and the yang of the situation.”
He has less compassion for people who are not his fans. When asked about “Celebutante,” a brisk thrasher about name-dropping women who’ll “do anything for fame,” he doesn’t hold back. “I just saw one of those little monsters just the other day,” he says. “I was walking down this cute little pass in Eindhoven [Holland], and I see these two young girls, walking, and one of them had a dress on that had Megadeth logos all down the front of it. And I went, ‘Oh, wow.’ I said, ‘Hey, that’s my band.’ And she looked at me like, ‘Get away from me, you pervert.’ And I looked at her and I went, ‘No, no, no, no. That’s my band.’ And she puts her hands up and starts waving me off, like an airplane coming into the jet way too fast.” When Megadeth’s tour photographer asked the girls for a pic, they told him, “I don’t know the band. We just got this in a boutique down the street. We don’t want to give you our fucking pictures.”
“I said, ‘She was probably just one of those little celebutante chicks that got it when the Kardashians were wearing Slayer’s T-shirts,” Mustaine says, still sounding disgusted.
He’s equally dismissive of people who question his motivations, such as when discussions of releasing the album’s “Killing Time” as a single came up and a label employee misunderstood the title. “I thought, ‘Buddy, if you think I have to hold back my songs based on shootings in the world and the terrible occurrences that happen with mankind trying to dominate mankind, you better pack a fucking lunch because I’m not going to change my mind,’” Mustaine says. “These things are not going to stop until people start learning how to love one another. And I’m not one of those persons that goes out and exacts violence on people when they do stuff that they deserve to have violence visit them. I consider myself to be a very peaceful person.”
Midway into recording The Sick, the Dying … and the Dead! bassist David Ellefson found himself embroiled in a scandal when sexually explicit messages he sent to fan leaked online. The band dismissed him and he subsequently wished them luck with their 2021 tour. “With everything that had taken place over the past, 10, 20 years with my relationship with our past bass player,” Mustaine says, possibly hinting at the lawsuit Ellefson filed against Mustaine and then reconciling, “it just became time to… it’s so uncomfortable for me to talk about. It was hard on me letting him go. And I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.” He decided to find another musician to re-record the bass parts on the album and asked Testament’s Steve Di Giorgio because he is “one of those just really amazingly talented players.”
After Di Giorgio returned to Testament following the recording session, Mustaine approached LoMenzo, who was a member of the band from 2006 to 2010, about joining the band on the road. Now the group finally feels complete to Mustaine. “It’s a different camp now, and I’m really happy,” Mustaine says. “I feel totally invigorated. I feel like I’ve hit my stride, like my best years are ahead of me right now.”
The Sick, the Dying … and the Dead! Track List
1. “The Sick, the Dying … and the Dead!”
2. “Life in Hell”
3. “Night Stalkers”
4. “Dogs of Chernobyl”
8. “Killing Time”
9. “Soldier On!”
11. “Mission to Mars”
12. “We’ll Be Back”