It's rarely smooth sailing on the good ship Megadeth, but the period since 2016's Dystopia has been a rough stretch even by the pioneering American thrash band's tumultuous standards. First, Chris Adler — who drummed on Dystopia and initially toured with the band to support the album — had to bow out in mid-2016 over scheduling conflicts with his then-band Lamb of God. (He was replaced by Dirk Verbeuren, formerly of Soilwork.)
Then in 2019, just as work was beginning on the next Megadeth album, Dave Mustaine was diagnosed with throat cancer, requiring him to undergo over 50 radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which further slowed the record's progress — as did the spring 2021 firing of longtime bassist David "Junior" Ellefson over allegations of sexual misconduct, which resulted in Testament's Steve Di Giorgio coming in to re-record his parts.
Now, over six and a half years since Dystopia — the longest wait between Megadeth albums in the band's four-decade history — The Sick, the Dying… And the Dead! finally sees the light of day. Given the troubled and agonizingly protracted circumstances of its creation, one might expect the finished product to be a dour and unfocused slog. But if there's one thing we should have all learned by now, it's that Dave Mustaine totally thrives in the face of adversity, and this thrilling 12-song blast offers further proof of the Megadeth leader's impressive resilience.
From the hard-driving opening track — which invokes plagues of previous epochs while reflecting the darkness and pessimism of the COVID pandemic's first year — to the whiplash-inducing statement of purpose "We'll Be Back," Mustaine (now thankfully cancer-free) sounds not only fully revitalized, but also like he's still enjoying the hell out of his job. You can practically see the sardonic grin on his face as he growls lyrics like "A couple drinks and then you'll feel OK/A couple pills makes the world go away/What the hell you're gonna die anyway" ("Life in Hell") with the finger-popping swing of a malevolent Frank Sinatra, or the bloodlust in his eyes as he sinks his teeth deep into the gritty Black Ops saga of "Night Stalkers," a six-and-a-half minute military epic that features an appropriately fierce rap cameo from the great Ice-T.
Darkness, violence and lacerating social commentary abound on The Sick, the Dying… And the Dead!, with ferocious tracks like "Dogs of Chernobyl," "Junkie" and "Celebutante" serving up their fair share of Megadethian bile. But Mustaine's sly sense of humor also pops up throughout the album, manifesting most notably on "Mission to Mars," a hook-filled astronaut fantasy that finds our hero headbanging on the gangway of his spacecraft and opening its windows to greet the seven sisters of the Pleiades. ("Hello, Moon Man!" they squeal in response.)
Of course, while Mustaine pilots the ship, he needs a good crew to get him where he needs to go — and in Verbeuren and lead guitarist Kiko Loureiro (formerly of Brazilian power metallers Angra, who makes his second Megadeth album appearance here), he's clearly found two deftly creative and fearlessly adventurous cohorts. Loureiro's wildly melodic style meshes wonderfully with Mustaine's manic crunch, and Verbeuren's impressive range is especially apparent on tracks like "Junkie" (which he co-wrote) and "Psychopathy," a short interlude that's based primarily around his tribal pummeling. (Di Giorgio also proves a worthy deputy on bass, though United Abominations/Endgame-era bassist James Lomenzo has since officially replaced Ellefson.) Dystopia co-producer Chris Rakestraw, who returns in the same role for The Sick, the Dying… And the Dead!, also clearly knows how to capture Mustaine and Co. at their vibrant, vicious best.
When a band has been around as long as Megadeth has (not that many have made it this far), there's always a tendency among reviewers to compare their latest album to their most iconic works, or call it "their best since" whatever qualifies as a latter-day high-water mark. But it's way too early to tell exactly where The Sick, the Dying… And the Dead! stacks up in the massive Megadeth discography, and all you really need to know at this point is whether or not this new album kicks ass. Rest assured: It does.