Fight Fire With Fire: ‘Metallica’ vs. ‘Countdown to Extinction’

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Fight Fire With Fire is an ongoing series on our site where we pit two classic genre albums against each other to definitively figure out which one is better. “But they’re both great!” you’ll say. Yes, these albums are the best of the best. But one is always better. Plus, we love these sorts of exercises, and also love watching you battle each other to the death in the comments, so how could this possibly end poorly?

On August 12, 1991, Metallica upended the entire metal world with the release of their self-titled album. The release of The Black Album was one of the most significant events of my teenage years. It’s the most polarizing album in the history of heavy metal, it’s sold an unbelievable amount of copies around the world and metalheads will never stop talking about it.

On July 14, 1992, Megadeth—long playing catch-up with Metallica and sometimes beating them when they do get there—dropped Countdown to Extinction. Its release was slightly more subdued than Metallica’s, but I spun it more after it came out. These two albums signified a huge shift in metal—it was thrash trying to grow up, trying to reach the next level.

This year, Metallica celebrated 30 years of their record with re-releases and box sets and covers records and all manner of things, but, like many of us who now spend time in more extreme corners of metal, I didn’t check it all out. But it did get me thinking about the record again, which in turn got me thinking about Megadeth’s record again, which led to me talking to my editor about how even though we’re probably a bit tired of hearing about these albums—especially The Black Album—we should probably have a Fight Fire With Fire to figure out which of the two is actually the better record.

So here we are, one more look back at when thrash titans dominated the earth, and a detailed analysis and showdown of the records that drove longhairs mad with rage and excitement, and a deep dive into the grooves that shook the world, at least for a brief moment in time.

Metallica – Metallica

So, a while ago I was driving down the road, zoning out hard to SiriusXM, and I could tell I was listening to a Metallica song but I just couldn’t place it. Not like how no one can place anything from any of their last five albums or whatever, but, like, I had this song memorized but couldn’t tell what album it was from. It was just a weird brain melt, so I started trying to figure it out based on the riffs and song structure.

Please bear with me here, but I kept thinking, “This must be something off Justice, and I’m going to feel like a fool when I realize what it is.” And although today as I type this I forget what song it was, I do remember this: it was off The Black Album.

Now, I realize no metalhead ever got anything off those two albums mixed up, but in my semi-comatose state (yes, I was driving, but, hey, happens to the best of us) I was able to realize the similarities between those two records in a way I never had before. I couldn’t believe it, but it was true. The song from The Black Album was just a more economic version of a Justice song.

Anyway, cut to yesterday, and I’m driving, listening to SiriusXM, and thinking about this very story I’m writing, when on comes “Don’t Tread on Me” from this album, and I’m pretty sure that was the song from before. I tried to re-enter my comatose state and tried to strip away absolutely all context, and there it was, hitting me in the face as sure I was veering on to the sidewalk and hitting pedestrians: this song made sense as being something that came after, say, “Eye of the Beholder.” We were just too busy being outraged to really ever see it before.

Anyway, just wanted to say that, doesn’t have much to do with today’s task, but it’s of note as we dive into this record, one that we all kinda feel like we never need to hear again. Like, it’s a bit of a tough sell listening to “Enter Sandman” for the millionth fucking time in my life but actually trying to tune out all the noise and boredom that comes with that and just listen to the damn song. Here’s the thing: it’s an okay song. I dunno, “Symphony of Destruction” is kinda the same thing but better, but it’s hard to say “Enter Sandman” is a bad song. Kill the context and, yeah, it’s fine, like if COC had this on an album in their peak hick era I’d probably go fucking crazy every time I heard it. There’s just so much baggage attached to Metallica playing “Enter Sandman” that it’s hard to even have an opinion on the song anymore.

So, moving on, “Sad But True” absolutely rules and we all know it. That huge pause is the best, this song is basically a NOLA sludge tune with arena-rock ambitions, and the chorus is completely massive. Total classic mature-thrash masterpiece here.

“Holier Than Thou,” this is sort of a weird one: it’s only 3:47, making it the album’s shortest track (many of these songs go on a bit too long and the album as a whole wears out its welcome, no question about it). Really, it’s just a high-octane NWOBHM-style rager, Papa Het talking about gelatin, fun riffs everywhere, Ulrich most likely having a blast back there.

I’ve always defended “The Unforgiven” and I’ll continue to do so here today and will continue to do so down at the old folk’s home and will continue to do so from beyond the grave. I defend its position as fourth song here, and I defend its cool video. It could be a bit shorter, but it’s a killer song, man. No other thrash band can pull off an almost-ballad like this and have it be so powerful, and so moving. The tempo and open spaces show off the killer Bob Rock production sound, and Hetfield’s vocals sound incredible with this amount of restraint. This song is just huge, the solo is just huge, it’s all just huge.

“Wherever I May Roam” is either a brain-dead Spinal Tap song about the touring life that goes on for three minutes too long or a clever and sobering look at the touring life that goes on for three minutes too long, I’ve never been quite sure. It is, of course, an extremely catchy and memorable song, it’s heavy, it sounds great live… Maybe half the songs on this record are legit Metallica classics, like it or not, and this is one of them, despite the exhausting length. The intro is pretty goofy, but Ulrich’s mammoth snare hits getting the song going always make up for it.

“Don’t Tread On Me” also rules, and as the first half of this album comes to a close I’m struck with an alarming and sort of embarrassing revelation: I’ve spent like a quarter of a century insisting this album is really quite boring, but today as I dive deep into each song I realize, without context, the first half of this album is actually pretty great. “Don’t Tread On Me” takes labyrinthine thrash riffing and cuts the fat, sends it to the stadiums and creates the soundtrack to the world we always wanted: the world where thrash won.

But here’s the trouble with this album: it’s totally front-loaded, the second half starting off with not bad but still pretty tossed off thrasher “Through the Never,” which is, like, okay, then going right into “Nothing Else Matters,” which, admit it, is a really good song.

But I just can’t help but zone out at what comes next: “Of Wolf and Man,” “The God that Failed,” “My Friend of Misery” (all 6:49 of it) and “The Struggle Within.” I mean, you walk down the road, find some schmuck with long hair and demand they sing a verse of any one of these songs to you, and it’s just not gonna happen (alright, might not happen with deep Countdown cuts either, but it’s a funny thought regardless). This album has sold like 90 billion copies but no one seems to want to admit it falls apart in the last half, these songs really neither here nor there, all actually heavy enough, but just this sort of relentless plod with not much reason to love them. To be fair, they have moments that are way heavier than we tend to remember—“The God That Failed” is crushing, and also has a great vocal line—but “Of Wolf and Man” is annoying, “The Struggle Within” foreshadows how damn hard this band will try and never quite get there over the next 30 years and why the bloody hell is “My Friend of Misery” almost seven minutes long? Aside from those four words in the chorus, no one can remember a damn thing about it (here: verses are actually kinda cool, chord change into the chorus is grating).

The playing on this record, well, the riffs are flying fast and furious and they’re generally awesome, the band is—obviously—locked in at this point, Hetfield sounds great, Ulrich does a good job keeping it simple. They did what they needed to do, and it obviously worked for them. As mentioned, the production is, as we all know, about as solid as it gets, and I always liked the cover art.

So, man, lots of conflicting feelings here. First half of this record is way better than I remember when I’m thinking about The Black Album and not listening to it, which is a lot of my life, and better than the bitter metalheads who dismiss it give it credit for being. Second half is pretty spotty, songs having moments but the plod endless and… how did this thing sell so many copies? In a sense, I’m impressed something that contains so many legit heavy riffs sold so well. But on the other hand, as always, I walk away shrugging my shoulders and feeling a bit disappointed at The Black Album.

Megadeth – Countdown to Extinction

I’m glad that “Skin O’ My Teeth” starts off with a drum roll and nothing else because here we have it, folks: easily one of the best drum sounds in the history of metal. This album’s production, courtesy of Max Norman, is absolutely perfect, the bass drum and toms having just the right amount of punch, no more and no less. I lose my mind whenever I hear this album, for this very reason.

Now, uh, clearly I have a thing for drum sounds, so let’s just say “approved” and talk about this song, a frantic speedy thrasher that kicks off this album, kinda stoopid like not much else on Countdown except “Sweating Bullets” but it works as an economic, almost NWOBHM-inflected opener, memorable chorus for the ages, the band tight and ready to rock. It’s not unlike “Holier Than Thou” from The Black Album in that it’s there to thrash and thrash it does.

Then it’s right into “Symphony of Destruction.” Man, like a lot of songs that we maybe heard one too many times, you kinda glaze over after a while, but when you cut out the context and just listen again… it’s a revelation. This song is enormous, the band hitting that sweet spot between thrash, mainstream metal and groove and good shit that sounds horrible, but do Megadeth ever do it right here, this song absolutely an anthem that will go down in metal history. Amazing. Better than “Enter Sandman,” the spiritual counterpoint from this album’s competitor today. Like, way better. Screw “Enter Sandman”: this is the song that should have become ubiquitous.

“Architecture of Aggression” lays down killer Rust in Peace-style riffing over a decidedly more restrained tempo, the band showing us now that we’re three songs in that things aren’t going to get to the speeds the band usually dwelled in before. But here’s what will happen: incredible songs. The chorus here totally rules, but that’s no surprise, everything totally rules, from the melodies to the quick-now-go! lead work.

Then we have “Foreclosure of a Dream,” a bit of a lost classic, in my eyes. This song, about bassist David Ellefson’s family’s farm being foreclosed, is perfect melodic ’92 metal. This is the stuff stadium dreams are made of. Sure, I suppose it’s not as good as “The Unforgiven,” but it’s an incredible song, and the double-bass part leads you to contemplation, not to the mosh pit, which is no small task. I absolutely love this song, and the lyrics are excellent too, the band taking on issues that you imagine would just leave the dudes in Metallica ’91 scratching their heads.

So, I absolutely love “Foreclosure,” but I do not, however, absolutely love “Sweating Bullets.” The song itself does that goofy jazz shuffle that I wish this band would just forever avoid, the lyrics are embarrassing and the video was traumatising. Of course, the song is also constantly stuck in all of our heads, so mission accomplished there, I suppose. Man, it bugs me, though. I like the intro part before things get goofy, and it does climax very smartly, I can’t deny that. Interestingly, there is also a bit of a darkness to it all that I never really got when I was younger, and I can appreciate that now. Still, annoying.

“This Was My Life,” here’s a deep cut you may not have thought about for a while, but it was always one of my favorites on this album. Dave Mustaine’s vocal performance is passionate, the melodies are perfect, the pre-chorus is total perfection. The song itself rides a mid-tempo chugging metal/rock train of zero consequences, because there is zero risk in putting a song this solid on an album this confident. The pre-chorus of this one is one of the greatest moments on the record and, therefore, one of the greatest moments in the band’s catalogue.

The title track is another winner, another amazing chorus, more incredible melodies, at this point in the record the band settling into a very comfortable mid-tempo pace, mastery of song structure clear, the writing sharpened to a point, every climax exactly where it should be. Plus, you don’t often hear title tracks of thrash records rallying against hunting like this (take that, Hetfield).

“High Speed Dirt” is kinda the same song as “Skin O’ My Teeth” in my head, right down to subject matter (this one is a stoopid song about skydiving). This one is kinda cool, kinda annoying with the awkward guitar bit shoehorned in there, but the frantic, four-on-the-floor thrash is welcome, especially at this point in the album. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s totally fun.

“Psychotron,” if there’s a song on here that I always kinda tilt my head at when I see the title, it’s this one. Kinda forgettable, kinda annoying with that name, the song itself is actually a cool and—yup—concise mid-tempo rocker, some serious vocal line/solo/vocal line/solo stuff going on, like “Hangar 18” all grown up. Another great chorus, even if Mustaine is going on about cyborgs.

“Captive Honour” is another big win, after you take out the lame-o courtroom script stuff, that is. Another massive, unforgettable chorus, huge yet restrained thrash riffing, and this sense that, man, something important is happening here.

“Ashes In Your Mouth” is a great closer, and at 6:14 is the longest track here, although it never drags for a second. I love how as this song starts it’s actually one of the fastest and thrashiest on the whole record, the band just picking the mania up as things wind down. Then that weird sideways riff into a perfect mid-to-speedy-tempo gallop to the finish line, the band smooth and steady, knowing damn well what they’ve done here. The sideways riff returns, Megadeth the heroes of the day here once the sudden, dramatic melodies of the pre-chorus and chorus come in. Should we really care where we go from here? Well, no, it turns out we shouldn’t.

Every player on the album does a fantastic job, obviously toning things down from Rust but still playing to the best of their abilities. You can tell they’re focusing on song, not shred, but still managing to play like seasoned pros as well. There’s more flair to their playing than Metallica: it’s by design from both bands but ‘deth’s design is forever more fun to listen to.

This album is nothing short of a masterpiece, simultaneously cold robotic thrash steel and very human, mature emotions battling youthful chaos in a coming-of-age crisis that worked out remarkably well. Throw a jaw-dropping production sound around it, some tasteful artwork, and, there you have it: metal as art, thrash as soundtrack to moving through life, an album that is both conflict and resolve, a band managing to be at the height of its powers for two very different albums in a row.

 

The popular narrative in metal lore is that Mustaine is always chasing Metallica in a lot of ways, and, sure, he kinda had been, at points, anyways. But here’s the undeniable truth that we found last time we pit these bands against each other: Rust in Peace is better than …And Justice for All.

And here’s the undeniable truth we’ve found today, record sales and cultural impact be damned for all time as we scream this one into the blackened night: Countdown to Extinction is better than Metallica.

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