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Rust, Sweat, and Swing: An Appreciation of Nick Menza’s Chops

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Even as a guitarist and pianist, Nick Menza has been a huge influence on me, one of my favorite musicians ever — a bridge between my jazz background and nascent love for heavy metal and punk music. The first time I saw the “Holy Wars” video, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and seeing: a swinging drummer, with his cymbals hanging in a cool way super high above his kit, while his chops swaggered all over the place.

All of the Big 4 thrash bands had unique and tasty drummers, each in their own respects. Lars was the great songwriter/orchestrator; Dave Lombardo was pure speed and latin-percussion flavor; Charlie Benante was all about the groove. Nick came to the party late, joining an already-established band with several records under their belt and a notorious history: with the Metallica feud, drug use by ex-members, and Mustaine’s alcoholism. He also came into the Megadeth fold at the same time as Mustaine hired an already-world-famous solo guitar virtuoso, Marty Friedman. People talk about Jason Newstead having it rough with his “hazing” when he joined Metallica, and Menza’s situation is not too different (particularly given Mustaine was also grieving over Cliff Burton’s death, as the two had remained friends through the years).

Yet Menza pushed through, and all of these years later, I think his playing stands on a different tier than his (considerably talented) peers. For a pretty simple reason: Nick was the most musical.

As the son of jazz saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and sideman Don Menza, Nick literally grew up watching his dad play a wide variety of bigband and small-combo music with dozens of master jazz musicians. Don Menza’s laundry list of session and bandleader work includes sideman stints with two of the greatest drummers of all time: Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones.

I’m not sure how extensively Nick studied drumming in a formal way — he’s rumored to have taken some amount of “lessons” with Buddy Rich while Don was in the band — but you can hear the influence that the music of his childhood had on his feel when he ultimately joined Megadeth. It’s pretty shocking how quickly he owned the drum stool in that band: a lot of people tend to forget that both he and Marty Friedman were rookies on Rust in Peace (and if you watch Fuse’s Metalhead to Head episode where The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Ben Weinman interviewed Marty, you’ll learn a whole other interesting story about how hard it was to track the lead guitars on the album).

A major reason that Rust is not only Megadeth’s best album, but one of the most timeless heavy metal records of all time, is due to Nick’s unique feel and the musicality that came out of his father’s background.

Unlike his former Metallica bandmates, Dave Mustaine didn’t always write riffs that were meant to be felt as straight-eights, but rather to be swung and felt on the up-beat. That style came more from Mustaine’s love for the way d-beat and hardcore punk bands placed the kick drum on the off-beats of the bar; that influence wasn’t completely foreign to the rest of the 80’s thrash pioneers, but by 1990 many of them had had left that style behind. Rust in Peace is littered with these rhythms, but honed and taken to exciting new places: the closing section of “Hangar 18,” the swing groove of “Rust in Peace… Polaris,” and the up-tempo off-beat grooves of “Take No Prisoners.”

Parallels between hardcore and jazz drumming aren’t always talked about, and Nick Menza’s playing on Rust makes them about as clear as they get. You’ve probably heard the phrase “up beat” and “down beat” even if you’re not a drummer, but if not, just imagine that the music goes up in certain parts (the cut-time main riff of “Holy Wars”) and down in others (the common-time riff in between the main riff). Menza, perhaps most notably on “Holy Wars,” is constantly placing the second kick drum hit of each bar on the off-beat, which emphasizes the down-beat going into the up-beat. Playing with the two of these together is part of what makes the music swing — and Megadeth played with both of these feels, just as they did the off-beat kick-snare patterns of hardcore.

(I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that Megadeth were the only band to do this. I do think their combination of the two — mixing up-beat and down-beat focused riffs, and using “swinging” d-beat patterns — had a pretty unique end result, particularly in the context of their songwriting ideas.)

Nick’s jazz background made him an ideal candidate not only to complement these already musically interesting — particularly for such a stringent genre like thrash — ideas, but to raise the standards of the more straightforward riffs. He made some of the more straight-ahead songs, like the first two-thirds of “Hangar 18,” loose listens; groovy but still heavy, similar to what John Bonham did in Led Zeppelin.

My personal favorite Megadeth moment is one of these: the breakdown after the middle section of “Holy Wars,” going into the solo section, and a straight-eight riff propelled by Menza’s placement of the kick drum on the up-beat.

There’s a beautiful contrast between the solo section (also propped up by Mustaine’s ascending licks at the conclusion) leading into the main riff — which is, again, a pretty swinging one on Mustaine’s part. This transition is made slightly smoother by Nick’s loose feel during the straight section, and the result is one of the most powerful moments in their discography.

These moments are everywhere in Megadeth’s music, and the ultimate result is that their music in the Menza era was some of the most alivebreath-y heavy metal ever created. That he did it in the context of joining a new, baggage-laden band, is really something to marvel at.

In a lot of ways, I feel as though Menza anticipated how so many drummers would play in a looser in our current era — particularly guys like Billy Rymer in The Dillinger Escape Plan, Nick Yacyshyn in Baptists, and Brann Dailor in Mastodon. We’re blessed with a plethora of phenomenal drummers who contribute more to the musicality of their bands than most of the classic-era metal groups ever did.

But Menza did it first.

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