I was 7 years old when the ’Deth dropped their fourth LP in 1990, and my first experience with the thrash masterpiece was not a pleasant one. It was my friend Jason’s birthday party, and along with the obligatory Nerf products and Stüssy shirts, his gift haul included two cassette tapes: Iron Maiden’s No Prayer for the Dying and Megadeth’s Rust in Peace (inducted into the Decibel Hall of Fame in May 2012, buy the issue here). Looking back, it still blows my mind that his parents were rad enough to let an 8-year-old blast the devil’s music to his heart’s content, especially at a time when shit like Wilson Phillips ruled the airwaves.
Anyway, when the party was over, Jason and I went to his room to listen to his new tapes. I remember staring at the cover of Rust in Peace and feeling a vague sense of unease. The way Vic Rattlehead was holding that glowing pyramid as he caressed an encapsulated alien in front of a bunch of creepy politicians…it just seemed wrong. And then Jason hit “play.” As soon as the opening guitar gallop of “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” hit, I knew I fucked up. I’d heard about this kind of “hard metal” before, but I had never actually encountered it. At that point, even Guns N’ Roses were too chaotic for my sheltered ears. When “Hangar 18” began six minutes later, I actually started to feel physically ill. I asked Jason if we could stop listening to the tape and go outside, but he was too busy playing air guitar and jumping around like a maniac. So I did what any rational 7-year-old would do…pretended like I had to go to the bathroom and sat in the living room until my mom came to pick me up.
It wasn’t until I was 13 that I revisited Rust in Peace, after my seventh grade classmate thoroughly schooled me in the ways of Metallica, Slayer and Pantera. When I listened to the album again, I was embarrassed to think that I had ever been scared by it. It was everything I loved about metal—fast, dramatic and stuffed with guitar solos (I had just started to play three years prior). Along with Master of Puppets and Far Beyond Driven, Rust… was my gateway to a glorious world that I never left, so it’ll always have a warm place in my blackened heart.
And it could have been a total fucking disaster! Megadeth was less than a decade old in 1990 but had already gone through several lineup changes, and their inconsistency was threatening to push them to the wayside as bands like Metallica and Slayer rode the momentum of several successful albums and tours. So when the band introduced another new lead guitar player and another new drummer, fans were understandably wary. Fortunately, the noobs came in the form of Marty Friedman and Nick Menza—two of the most technically gifted players that metal has ever seen. This is the line-up that pushed Megadeth to the next level and cemented their spot at the top of the thrash food chain.
Let’s be real: every song on Rust in Peace rules, but just for the sake of argument (and feel free to argue away in the comments section below), let’s go through and rank them from worst to best.
9. Dawn Patrol
I like this little ditty, but it’s not really a proper song so it has to bat at the bottom of the order. I feel like Dave Ellefson wouldn’t stop playing this bass riff while they were in the studio and Mustaine was finally like, “Fine, we’ll fucking record it, but I’m gonna do some half-assed spoken word over the top. Now pass the blow!” If you’re learning how to play bass, this is a solid tune to start with. Way better than “Runnin’ with the Devil,” anyway.
8. Poison Was the Cure
This song starts with a fairly boring bass line that’s eventually joined by some equally boring guitar chugs, but then about 60 seconds in it snorts a huge line of crank and takes off like a supercharged McLaren. These are some fast fucking riffs, and the main theme is infamous for being insanely difficult to play—so much so that Ultimate Guitar ranked it number five on their “Top Ten Most Complex Riffs Ever” list.
With its fluid pace and deceptively complex riffs, “Lucretia” might be the most underrated song on Rust in Peace. There’s a lot of movement going on with the guitars and bass, but Nick Menza’s steady playing provides the perfect amount of groove to complement the busy nature of the strings. It’s like a music theory lesson you can headbang to. They probably could have done without that weird cackle at the beginning, though.
6. Rust in Peace…Polaris
I’ve always thought this song would sound more at home on Countdown to Extinction, and in that context, it’s a perfect glimpse of things to come. That bluesy stomp riff always reminds me of “Sweating Bullets,” and the pace is kinda reminiscent of “Skin O’ My Teeth.” Regardless, this horrible hymn to nuclear holocaust is the perfect way to end Rust in Peace. Launch the Polaris!
5. Five Magics
I fucking love the two-minute instrumental opening of this song—Ellefson’s bass tone is spot on and the dual guitar harmonies add a palpable sense of dread, like you’re being held against your will by lizard people in an underground bunker. And you gotta love that ascending riff in the chorus, which undoubtedly frustrated countless bedroom players when they tried to follow along. Bonus points for the lyrics being super D&D out of nowhere.
4. Tornado of Souls
It’s hard to think of a Megadeth song with a better chorus than “Tornado of Souls.” Everything just comes together perfectly, from the riffs and vocal phrasing to the ride-heavy drum pattern. This song is also known for being the final proof Dave Mustaine needed to convince himself that Marty Friedman wasn’t just some theory dork who didn’t belong in the band. Friedman’s solo in the middle of the song is an astonishing mix of technical aptitude and emotive flair, which was enough to make Mustaine shake off the butthurt and welcome Marty with open arms (for five albums, at least).
3. Take No Prisoners
Fuck yeah. Since “Poison Was the Cure” has that weird slow opening, “Take No Prisoners” counts as the speediest song on Rust in Peace. This is a perfect example of what can be accomplished with forward-thinking thrash: it’s catchy, technical and fast as balls. Everybody is shredding on this song—even Ellefson gets in there with a sweet bass noodle transition. The call-and-response gang vocals are great, too. Front to back, this is one of the best metal songs ever. Take no shit!
2. Hangar 18
With the possible exception of “Symphony of Destruction,” this is the most iconic song of Megadeth’s entire career. A perfect blend of sci-fi imagery, searing guitars and visceral melody, “Hangar 18” is quintessentially metal. It’s also a hilarious middle finger to Metallica: the opening riff is basically a distorted, sped-up version of that chord pattern in “The Call of Ktulu,” which Dave clearly had no intention of letting go gently into that good night. Also, props for cramming 6,473 guitar solos into a 5-minute song. They must have had a coke-fueled premonition about Guitar Hero.
1. Holy Wars…The Punishment Due
If aliens came to Earth to retrieve the dude who’s captured on the Rust in Peace cover and demanded an explanation of Megadeth, all you’d have to do is play them this song. Apart from “Angel of Death,” there has never been a better way to start a thrash album. “Holy Wars…” is absolutely packed with amazing riffs, flawless transitions (Flamenco guitar!) and top-notch playing from all four members. What a goddamn treat this song is. Play it again!