The very first Megadeth song I ever heard was “Symphony of Destruction,” from their 1992 release Countdown to Extinction. I was 13 years old and had become entranced with heavy metal music in the months prior thanks to Metallica’s “Black Album” and MTV’s Headbangers Ball program.
The song does not waste any time in launching into crunchy riffs and the steady, heavy drumbeat that propels the song’s four minutes. While earlier albums such as 1986’s Peace Sells ... But Who’s Buying? and 1990’s Rust in Peace have gone on to be the more enduring classics in Megadeth’s catalog, Countdown to Extinction remains the vaunted metal group’s most commercially successful release.
Countdown was propelled by a potent mix of what would be Megadeth’s trademarks during the 1990s: Dave Mustaine’s angry snarls on vocals, blazing guitar work from Mustaine and second guitarist Marty Friedman, and the equally powerful bass work of Dave Ellefson.
But the first Megadeth member whose power is felt on Countdown is drummer Nick Menza. The first sound heard booming from your stereo when you put this record on is a dizzying two-second blast of drumming that hits with more strength and heaviness than many drummers muster in their entire careers. It is a strong testament to Menza’s abilities that Mustaine handed over the opening salvo of the album poised to be their commercial breakthrough to the versatile drummer.
From 1990’s Rust in Peace through 1997’s Cryptic Writings, Menza manned the drum position with great poise, and was up for all challenges that Mustaine’s songwriting threw his way. Rust in Peace closed out the band’s most furious thrash years, with Menza pummeling fast and hard from the get-go on tracks that are staples of Megadeth’s live set to this day, such as “Holy Wars ... The Punishment Due” and “Hangar 18.”
By the time of Cryptic Writings, Megadeth had evolved into a glossier, midtempo metal act. Menza made up for the relative lack of opportunities for thrash flashiness by simply hitting as hard as possible, as heard when Mustaine yet again gave Menza the opening volley on album opener “Trust.”
Menza left Megadeth after suffering a knee injury in 1997. It was the first crack in what would end up being the eventual demise of Megadeth’s most commercially successful lineup, as Friedman would leave to pursue solo endeavors in 2000, and Ellefson left the fold after Mustaine briefly disbanded Megadeth in 2002.
In the years since his departure from Megadeth, Menza played in multiple bands that did not attain much success. An aborted return to Megadeth in 2004 was over almost as quickly as it had been announced. The drummer also weathered multiple moments of tragedy. After completing the recording of his 2002 solo album Life After Deth, Menza saw two members of his band die within the next two years. In 2007, Menza nearly lost his arm after an accident involving a power saw. Reconstructive surgery and a rigorous rehabilitation process helped save the arm and allowed him to continue drumming, but overall it seemed the years following Menza's departure from Megadeth were full of false starts, setbacks and near-misses.
As for Megadeth, in the years since the dissolution of the 1990s lineup, Mustaine has cycled through multiple musicians on every instrument. The Megadeth name remains a strong live touring brand, but the musical output has been inconsistent, ranging from some highs that almost recaptured the sonic force of the band's prime (2009’s Endgame and 2011’s Thirteen) to some curious misfires (2013’s Super Collider).
At the beginning of 2015, speculation spread among Megadeth fans about a potential return to the fold for Menza and Friedman, which would have reformed the '90s lineup after Ellefson’s return in 2010. But in the end, it was not to be. Mustaine would go with new guitarist Kiko Loureiro (also of Brazilian power-metal act Angra) and session drummer Chris Adler (also of Lamb of God) for Megadeth’s stellar 2016 release, Dystopia.
In recent months, Menza had joined a jazz/rock fusion act called Ohm, a long-running project led by guitarist (and fellow ex-Megadeth member) Chris Poland. Though Poland and Menza never played together on a Megadeth album, the drummer had seemed to be a good fit in the band’s live performances since he joined.
It was during a live performance with Ohm at the Baked Potato in Studio City that the 51-year-old drummer tragically died from a heart attack on Saturday, May 21. The band had just begun the third song of their set.
I had spent that Saturday night enjoying a sold-out show at the Wiltern from Swedish Viking metal masters Amon Amarth. Still riding high from a wonderful night of metal, I started poking around Facebook at about 1 a.m. to look at other people’s photos from the show. After a few minutes of scrolling, my feed updated with a post that simply said “RIP Nick Menza.”
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Stunned, I started digging further around social media, hoping it was just rumor and hearsay getting a little out-of-hand. Unfortunately, a post on the Baked Potato’s Facebook page confirmed it. I ended up staying awake until 4 a.m., cycling through all of the Megadeth records Menza played on while reflecting on my teenage years, and many moments spent blasting Megadeth, both at home and in whatever broken-down vehicle I was driving.
The 1990s lineup of Megadeth is a strong part of my heavy metal DNA. As he surely did for many others who came of age and embraced heavy metal as their music of choice during that era, Nick Menza played a powerful role in the development of a lifelong heavy metal fandom that will last and give me musical refuge for the rest of my years.