Dave Mustaine breaks down every track on Megadeth's The Sick, The Dying… and the Dead!

Dave Mustaine
(Image credit: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images)

Megadeth’s 16th original studio album starts with the sound of swooping wind and mournful cries of “bring out your dead.” A suitably ominous mid-paced arpeggio sweeps from left to right before the band rips into a chugging riff underpinned by melodic, harmonized and layered hooks.

Augmented with a delicate undistorted midsection, a thrashy middle eight and multifaceted leads, any questions about whether or not Megadeth are still relevant are instantly vaporized by the title track of The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! 

The follow-up to Megadeth’s Grammy-winning Dystopia, the new album reunites the band with co-producer Chris Rakestraw. The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! is steeped in the technical thrash riffs of Megadeth classics like Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? and Rust in Peace, but updated with the pristine sound and production effects of digital technology. 

But the heart of The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! lies as much in its motivation as its sound. Mustaine talked to Guitar World about the life events and thoughts that inspired every song on the album.

1. The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead!

“A lot of people were saying that this was about Covid, but I started it before the pandemic. It’s about the plague. If you read the lyrics, it’s pretty clear. It mentions infected rats and fleas on a ship of people going from the Black Sea [to] Sicily, which pretty much tells you what time period it’s about, how the disease got transmitted and who it got transmitted to. 

“I don’t know that the song was meant to be the first track. I think it came down to the attitude of the song, not so much the performance. If we were going to start with song based on performance we would have used Night Stalkers or Killing Time because they’re so fast. But this album took on a life of its own and The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! seemed like a good way to start it all off.”

2. Life in Hell

“There was a lot of turmoil that took place in the band, and it wasn’t just my cancer. Everybody had something personal going on except for [drummer] Dirk [Verbueren]. He’s rock solid. The song starts out, ‘Busted, you’re caught red-handed again/ You can’t be trusted.’ There were a lot of people I know that were celebrities at the time and their marriages were falling apart from the whole ‘Me Too’ thing. 

“Now, I did not write about the Me Too movement. That was not the intention. But the song has to do with people I know and people my fans may know, but I don’t know. I didn’t call anyone out ’cause I think that there need to be more people that stop to think for a second: ‘Is what I’m about to share gonna benefit anybody but myself?’ ’Cause I know if I spoke a lot about certain things, it would only hurt people [It would] hurt me, hurt them, hurt somebody. 

“If you’re ever saying anything back in retaliation, you’re doing it to hurt people. But I don’t think I’ve ever really had those kinds of problems because there have only been a couple people that I’ve ever had any kind of tension with and I seem to be good with those guys right now – at least I hope I am.”

3. Night Stalkers ft. Ice-T

“I think that’s the fastest song we’ve ever done –190bpm – and it took a while to get working up to that speed. The song just needed that frantic pace because Night Stalker is a secret helicopter division of the military. They fly missions at night and no one knows what they’re gonna do until it happens. Ice-T does some great [acting] parts in the song. 

“I’ve been friends with Ice-T for a long time. When we first met in Los Angeles he told me he was an Army Ranger, so it was only natural that I would get him to do this because I wanted to get a great musician who has cred as a military guy. I asked him if he would do a spoken part and he gave me so many good ones it was hard to pick which one to use.”

4. Dogs of Chernobyl

“That song is based on this cheesy [2012 horror] movie [Chernobyl Diaries]. A guy goes with his girlfriend to an extreme travel agent in Ukraine and they take a trip to Chernobyl. It’s not a good, well-produced thing, but I came up with an idea for the song because I remember scenes of characters going down by the water and these crazy fish floating up in the water. And then these people look across the banks at these dogs. 

“That made me think about how fucked up it was that the people who fled Chernobyl left all their pets behind. In order to leave your dog behind, you need to be made of steel. I couldn’t do it. So there’s a lyric in Dogs of Chernobyl that goes, ‘The girl left me behind like a dog in Chernobyl.’ I was like, ‘Man, that’s harsh, dude!’ You must have really fucked up for her to do that.”

5. Sacrifice

“It has a lot to do with some of the subliminal stuff that you learn when you fool around with dark magic. It could be as simple as something like an Ouija board or divination with a divining rod. Without meaning to, you could open doorways to dark passages because as much as there’s good in the world, there’s bad. 

“There are people who are mean-spirited and Sacrifice talks a lot about the difference between them and other people and how that meanness kind of backfires. I studied a lot about jinnis and jinns, which is really fascinating. So, Sacrifice is kind of an open-minded look at magic but not getting too specific about it.” 

6. Junkie

“That’s a fun song. I was kind of thinking of Eric Church’s Creepin’. I thought Junkie had a cool energy. There were parts in there that seemed like they were easy to write, but they weren’t. I was trying to picture how people who were straight-edge, hardcore or metal might like this song. And the three were so far apart from one another that it really confused me. 

“I thought, ‘Well, now what do I do?’ So I just did what came to me and I think it works. Of course, Junkie is about being addicted, which I know something about. I thought about that scene in [the 1978 movie] The Deer Hunter, with [Christopher Walken] as a heroin addict who plays Russian roulette. 

“What I get most out of the song is that even if you have the lifestyle of a junkie it’s not something you want to live for. You never hear someone go, ‘Oh, cool, a junkie.’ It’s more like, ‘You junkie! What a mess.’ I do have a platform to stand on to talk about it, but then again I don’t because I know what works for me and it sure as heck isn’t someone pointing their finger at me.”

7. Psycopathy

“That’s a really short, simple song. It’s about a war in the brain. And one of the ideas in there is about a doctor struggling with these guys coming in to talk to him and they just don’t tell the truth.”

8. Killing Time

“It’s about waiting for something to take place. It’s not about it being time to kill people. It’s actually more about it being time to die. There are many people in my life that get fear or trepidation when I release records. It’s like, ‘Okay, who’s he singing about now?’ That’s not really what I’m doing here. It’s about a specific person, but because of the nature of this person and how typical being a turd is with a lot of people now, the way that he behaved isn’t unlike what other people would do. 

“So, I would say, ‘Oh, this song is about Bill, but you know what? It’s about Bob, too. And it’s about Bill’s brother and Bob’s brother. It’s about everybody, right?’ But I know who it’s about and I’ve had other people ask, ‘Is that about this person?’ So I’ll just say it’s about whoever you want it to be about.” 

9. Soldier On!

“That’s being looked at as one of the stronger songs on the record. And it’s so funny because it’s the ones that we don’t try the hardest on that usually are the strongest. It was that way with Symphony of Destruction and Peace Sells. For me, Soldier On is about gathering your strength and saying, ‘Wait! Not anymore. This may have happened. It may still be happening. But right now it stops and I’m gonna soldier on.’ I love that sentiment. 

“What gave the song a lot of credibility was having the guys from Fort Campbell come down for the part at the end when everyone’s marching. These guys are amazing heroes. We couldn’t list the names of a lot of the guys because they’re still operatives but they just came and did it for fun. 

“When it was over, we all celebrated and talked and laughed and I actually flew a helicopter simulator. I only crashed it twice. Oh boy, it sure was fun, man – a multi, multi, multi, multimillion-dollar helicopter ride.” 

10. Celebutante

“That’s about some of the overindulged little brats that are blowing around. There’s a huge thing going on with Megadeth right now and a lot of the reality TV people. Recently, I saw a girl who was very attractive and she was wearing this T-shirt material dress and it said, ‘Megadeth’ in big giant logos. I saw her and I went, ‘Hey, hey! That’s me! That’s my band!’ She kept walking. 

“I backpedaled and said, ‘No, no, stop! It’s me on your dress and I just want to get a picture.’ She ignored me. There was a photographer with me and he caught up with her. Then he came back and said, ‘Dude, she’s so fucking rude and she’s an asshole.’ 

“I went, ‘Oh, God, what’s she saying?’ He told me there’s a store down the street and that’s where she bought the dress. But she doesn’t know the band and she doesn’t want a picture. So, I’m kind of making fun of her.”

11. Mission to Mars

“There’s a Peace Sells mentality to the song. I like the irony. A guy from Earth goes to Mars and when he gets there he sees it’s all wrecked and that everybody on Mars has left to go to Earth. It made me think of the Twilight Zone episode where Martians have a giant book they’re trying to decipher and a guy comes and tells them it’s a cookbook.”

12. We’ll Be Back

“That’s a typical metal anthem about the band that’s not going anywhere. When I got sick I had been talking a lot about playing out a little less. Now, if anything, I want to tour more and just carry on until the end when I actually can’t do it anymore. I’m not talking about the time when I don’t want to do it anymore. I mean when it’s not possible for me to do it. When I can’t do it, that’s when I’m not gonna want to do it.”

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Jon Wiederhorn

Jon is an author, journalist, and podcaster who recently wrote and hosted the first 12-episode season of the acclaimed Backstaged: The Devil in Metal, an exclusive from Diversion Podcasts/iHeart. He is also the primary author of the popular Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal and the sole author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. In addition, he co-wrote I'm the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax (with Scott Ian), Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen (with Al Jourgensen), and My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory (with Roger Miret). Wiederhorn has worked on staff as an associate editor for Rolling Stone, Executive Editor of Guitar Magazine, and senior writer for MTV News. His work has also appeared in Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo.com, Revolver, Inked, Loudwire.com and other publications and websites.