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Fret Dreams

More so than any other high-profile traveling metal festival — Ozzfest, Blackest of the Black, Unholy Alliance, Contamination, etc. — Dave Mustaine's Gigantour arguably draws upon a more conscious sense of metal history. Another way to put it is that Mustaine (who has been unabashed about Gigantour as a showcase for guitar-shredding and who personally hand-picks all the bands), likes guitarists whose tastes span the past three decades. Virtually all of the acts headlining this year's lineup feature guitarists who blend influences from the hard-rock of the '70s, the balls-out thrash of the '80s, the death metal of the '90s, and today's more extreme forms of heaviness.

So the guitar is a big focus here. But how is Gigantour truly different? When you stack Megadeth, Lamb of God, Opeth, Arch Enemy, and Overkill together in one back-to-back-to-back sandwich, don't you get the same, um, overkill as these other heavy package tours? Not necessarily. Mustaine has gone to great lengths to ensure sophistication on top of heaviness. Another important distinction with Gigantour is that it celebrates thrash metal, which had very nearly vanished by 1993. Just as the movement's bands seemed to be hitting a collective stride, the music mysteriously gave way to the more narrowly-focused death metal craze that, just as mysteriously, has never really faded since.

Mustaine agrees with the popular notion that grunge and alt-rock killed thrash. When asked why bands like his, Metallica, Anthrax, Exodus, Sacred Reich, Voivod, and Celtic Frost all abruptly migrated en masse to a more straight-ahead sound, he answers with one word: "Nirvana." Closer inspection, however, reveals the flaw in this logic: the rise of alternative and grunge brought more attention to metal, not less. Could these bands have jumped the gun too soon, then? The ones that stuck to their guns — Slayer, Pantera, Sepultura — all reaped great rewards amid the alternative revolution, if not to the same degree that Metallica and Megadeth did with shockingly commercial records.

"It was a definite bum-out," says Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler. Adler, who describes himself and his brother, Lamb guitarist Willie Adler, as "speed metal freaks," was profoundly moved by this phenomenon and to this day feels at a loss to explain what happened.

"That's why we started the band," Adler says. "You'd go to the record store with 20 dollars, and you'd leave with 20 dollars. There was that few years where it was like, 'Man, all the veterans are letting me down — what the fuck is going on?' I don't point fingers at those bands. They had to keep their lights on and keep their career going. But that's the stuff that we sharpened our teeth on. We were in love with that old stuff and we're trying to keep it up now."

Even with thrash bands reuniting by the bushel in the past few years, the style has yet to resume anything like a natural evolution, with many classic bands choosing instead to present their work with a kind of mothball sensibility, as if they're handling a relic preserved in time.

To some extent, Gigantour's lineup — Lamb of God and Arch Enemy in particular — offers a remedy for this, taking the thrash rhythm style Mustaine helped invent and attempting to apply it in new directions, rather than just specialize in the latest form of sub-genrefied extremity.

"A lot of guys get together and say, 'Hey, me and five of my buddies are Slayer fans and we're going to start a band,'" Adler muses. "Well, you're probably going to sound like Slayer." He goes on to point out that Lamb of God, which writes via a five-way collaboration process, endures open contention between band members in order to bring varied influences together, including punk and country.

Although the members of Arch Enemy remain focused on staying within the limits of death metal, their sound is the result of a constant balancing act between testing, pushing, and respecting those limits. It's important to remember that Arch Enemy guitarist/leader Mike Amott was a member of Carcass, easily the most storied grindcore band of all time. Meanwhile, Arch Enemy vocalist Angela Gossow has threatened to join a choir someday so she can have a forum for her singing voice.

And then there's Opeth, which takes more liberties with metal than any other band on Gigantour. A death metal act with overt progressive and '60s psychedelic pop leanings, Opeth only gets to play a four-song set for Gigantour. That's because, on average, Opeth songs can last an entire afternoon or so. Opeth draws from singer/songwriter Scott Walker's 2006 album, The Drift, for inspiration.

"[Walker] used to be like a Sinatra-type of singer," guitarist Peter Lindgren explains. "But he had better tunes, more depth than standards. But now, as he's grown older, he's exploring. What he's doing now, it's like horror music but with his Sinatra-style voice over it."

Lindgren encourages metal bands to look outside of metal and classical for creative stimulation. "You can spend a lifetime exploring jazz," he offers as an example, "and you're never going to be able to grasp it all."

Regardless of how fans might feel about Megadeth's post-1990 output, one of Gigantour's biggest thrills is seeing Mustaine's formidable rhythm chops fully intact even after doctors declared his career over for good in 2002, when he sustained a serious arm injury. Of course, with Mustaine, half of the fireworks come directly from his mouth. Mustaine, who refuses to comment on his newfound Christianity and recently condemned the United Nations' ineffectiveness so strongly that he decided to title the next Megadeth record United Abominations, told New Times: "The worst thing for our country is to lose its military might. If I were president, anybody that's here right now as an illegal alien, hey — you got in under the wire. Anybody that comes in after that, you need to take an oath of citizenship. Our borders are gonna need to have fences."

Mustaine voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but with reservation, preferring McCain instead. (He also supported Perot in '92.)

"I voted for Bush," Mustaine clarifies, "but it wasn't because I believed in his agenda. I thought that John McCain had a pretty good grasp of what our country needed militarily."

Mustaine suggests that we "pay the politicians what the teachers and pay the teachers what the politicians get — why would we give some bureaucratic pig who's just sucking our funds any more money when the people really taking care of us are our parents and teachers?"

He also supports the idea of mandatory military service in the U.S.

Lamb of God, on the other hand, have left their fondness for politics (read: Bush-bashing) at the door on their latest album, Sacrament.

"After doing two albums of that," Adler chuckles, "we felt like we'd expressed our opinion as well as we could. It's a lot easier for you to say 'George Bush sucks' or 'We hate the government' than to open yourself up and to beat yourself up — which is basically what this record is."

And that, in a nutshell, is what Gigantour is all about. Well, that and a ton of sophisticated guitar soloing.