When Dave Mustaine looks back on making Countdown to Extinction, the 1992 album that propelled Megadeth into the mainstream, he’s thankful for his clarity of mind at the time. After years of alcohol and drug abuse, the eternally redheaded singer, guitarist, and songwriter had gotten sober before the making of the group’s previous album — the 1990 thrash masterpiece Rust in Peace — and that new state led to him exploring more of a simplified and streamlined approach to speed metal on Countdown singles like “Symphony of Destruction” and “Sweating Bullets.”
“When we did Rust in Peace, I was newly sober and had just hung up most of my bad habits at the time and got into the studio and really felt that fire inside,” Mustaine, now age 60, tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t go to meetings. I used to be an alcoholic, and I’m not anymore. I can put it down. And I attribute that 100 percent to my relationship with my H.P. [higher power], but I don’t talk about it too much, because people freak out on that.”
The second thing Mustaine thinks about when he considers Countdown is Eddie Kramer, the recording engineer whose credits include albums by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and who Mustaine recalls as carrying himself accordingly. “He’s the guy that recorded Jimi Hendrix and makes sure that every living organism knows it,” Mustaine says. “He would walk into our control room while we’re working, like he’s some big fucking dude. And I didn’t care who he was. And the more he did that, the more it made me resent him.” The band was recording at the Burbank studio the Enterprise with Max Norman, who co-produced the album with Mustaine, and the frontman recalls bonding with Norman about their mutual disdain for Kramer’s supposedly big ego. “Max Norman has got this wicked vocabulary, so we would try and use really big words on each other,” Mustaine recalls. “So the time came to write the sign on the door for Eddie Kramer to stay out. And it says: ‘No Obsequious Bozophobes — This means you, Eddie Kramer.'”
Largely, though, Mustaine recalls good vibes and a clear mission for the band. Where earlier Megadeth albums focused on virtuosity and headbangability, Countdown played up songcraft. In addition to Mustaine’s trademark snarl, “Symphony of Destruction” bore a bluesy guitar riff with enough space for then-bassist’s David Ellefson’s pulsing bass line. Mustaine even had enough room to sing about Pied Pipers and marionettes swaying to chaos in the lyrics inspired in part by the movie The Manchurian Candidate. “Sweating Bullets,” an ode to anxiety, had a swinging, sweaty groove that paused long enough for Mustaine’s sense of humor (“Hello me, it’s me again”) to pierce all the way through for a change. Throughout the album, the group’s technical skill still shone through — just check Nick Menza’s opening drum fill on “Skin o’ My Teeth” or Mustaine and lead guitarist Marty Friedman’s jaw-dropping solos on “Ashes in Your Mouth” — but in a way that could play on mainstream rock radio.
And while Mustaine had spent a good chunk of the Eighties writing sardonically about sociopolitical strife (“Peace Sells,” “Hook in Mouth”), he cast a wider net on Countdown. “Foreclosure of a Dream,” with its sample of George H.W. Bush’s famously broken campaign promise “Read my lips … no new taxes,” was like a heavy-metal Farm Aid with lyrics about the broken agricultural industry at the time. Meanwhile, the title track lambasted wealthy people who pay to shoot endangered species in cages. The song earned the band the Humane Society’s Doris Day Music Award for raising awareness for animal rights and, in Mustaine’s words, “the preservation of our animal friends.”
In the middle of “Countdown,” a woman who was a friend of Friedman’s who worked at a nearby sushi restaurant recites some facts about the ecology at the time: “One hour from now, another species of life form will disappear off the face of the planet … forever, and the rate is accelerating.” Mustaine, who has recently been contemplating the fate of the white rhino while writing the song “Killing Time” for Megadeth’s upcoming album, still finds that concept staggering. “I can only imagine now, 30 years later, how many different life forms are gone,” he says.
When Mustaine takes Countdown in as a whole, he appreciates the focus and attention to detail he and the rest of the band put into the album. Norman rode them hard to get everything perfect; if Mustaine or Friedman were to bend a note, raising its pitch, it couldn’t be a quarter step, it had to be a half or full step. “Max has, like I said, this really acerbic wit,” Mustaine says. “And I remember one time I was singing my butt off on one of these songs, and I said, ‘Was that good?’ He goes, ‘Not really.’ And I thought, ‘Ugh.’ … I think I’ve gotten a little bit tougher skin over the years, so it’s cool.”
The boot-camp mentality ultimately paid off. The album, which came out on July 14, 1992, sold double platinum and peaked at Number Two on the Billboard chart, a notch below Billy Ray Cyrus’ Some Gave All. In 2017, Rolling Stone ranked the album at Number 33 on its list of the Greatest Metal Albums of All Time (a sentiment echoed by Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows when he made his own list for Rolling Stone). After years of proving himself after his dismissal from Metallica in the early Eighties, and watching their growing success from within Megadeth’s ranks, the success of Countdown to Extinction signified Megadeth’s arrival.
“When I think of Countdown, I think of the live room in the Enterprise, where I started to really come into my own with the songwriting and the melody stuff,” Mustaine says. “All had melody in them before, but we weren’t getting any attention from anybody that wasn’t a super thrash/speed-metal fan. With Countdown, we reached the fair-weather fans that’ll hear something on the radio, people that are at festivals for somebody else. However they stumble across to us, I like when they discover this music and see that we are a horse of many colors.”