When Kurt Cobain growled "Here we are now" in the early '90s, he unwittingly sounded the death knell for the classic speed-metal thrash scene. Fifteen years later, most thrash acts have hemorrhaged crucial members and credibility, and either thrown in the towel or converted. Look no further than any barf-worthy post-Justice-era Metallica album for proof.
When the flannel dust settled, few metallions rose from the ashes of their metal careers to find new fame without embarrassing themselves too severely. Scottsdale-based musician David Ellefson, former bassist for thrash heavyweight Megadeth, counts himself among that minority, and believes his new hard rock band F5 proves it.
"When you play music, especially new music, you're dropping your drawers to the world," says Ellefson. "People will either say, 'Wow,' or they'll laugh. And you obviously don't want them to laugh."
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For the past 20 years, Ellefson toured the world with Megadeth, helping the band garner seven Grammy nominations and a list of gold and platinum awards. Considered one of the "Big Four" of vintage thrash acts next to Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax, Megadeth released its most sophisticated work and one of the genre's most exciting albums on the eve of the grunge coup, 1990's Rust in Peace. After subsequently releasing a handful of semi-forgettable records that gradually grew less fiery, Megadeth vocalist/guitarist/czar Dave Mustaine pulled the plug on the Ellefson-era lineup in 2002. Now saddled firmly with F5, with a new album and tour dates starting to pile up, Ellefson couldn't be happier -- but it didn't come easily.
"When everything came to a halt, I wasn't just going to sit around," says Ellefson about his break with Megadeth. "When things splinter, you have to work to put the pieces back together, but that's just part of life. Dave and I, we're good now. Once things settled down, I got to work -- I spent a year just doing some writing, I opened up a production company which actually became the impetus for F5."
Some writing? After Ellefson and drummer David Small hooked up with guitarist Steve Conley in 2003, the guys soon drafted former Sick Speed vocalist Dale Steele and guitarist John Davis and began what would be hundreds of hours of writing and recording. All the work paid off in December 2005 with F5's first LP release, A Drug for All Seasons (Deadline Music/Cleopatra). From the beginning, though, the five-piece had incredibly big shoes to fill, considering Ellefson's thrash pedigree.
"We went in expecting to take some bullets," Ellefson says of the love/hate relationship fans have with new projects. "I totally understand -- I mean, look, I love KISS, right? And when they did the whole no-makeup, change-around-the-lineup thing, I was like, 'Bring back KISS Alive!' Since this isn't the same band, though, we went in wanting to do something fresh and thought it would be best to do something bold and take chances."
Take chances they did. F5's debut is an anvil-heavy slab of hard rock that steers clear of sounding anything remotely like a Megadeth retread, and instead favors mid-tempo riff-oriented rock à la Godsmack, with the raw power of an avalanche or a tornado. In fact, the name F5 comes from the latter.
"Tornado warnings are rated for their intensity, and an F5 is the highest level," says Ellefson, chuckling. "F5 seemed perfect -- we're a five-piece, we have the power of five, and it rolls off the tongue easily."
F5 is happy to take its cues from an end-times-magnitude twister as it whirls through 12 tracks of hooky and melodic rock. With the heaviness of Disturbed and the melody of Fivespeed, A Drug for All Seasons sticks to shorter songs with real soloing, pounding riffs and massive drums. To avoid pigeonholing, F5 cooked up its own catch phrase to sum up the sound.
"Always heavy, always melodic," says Ellefson. "Melding the two is the tough part. Melody is what makes a song go -- without it you've got nothing. Dale, our singer, really brings that. Songs should do something -- numb you out, make you happy, make you horny, something. F5's songs are short -- we get in, we hit it and we get out, heavy and melodic."
Ellefson credits F5's sonic prowess on disc largely to engineer and recently transplanted Scottsdalian Ryan Greene, who produced, engineered, mixed and mastered A Drug for All Seasons.
"We really wanted his sound to rub off on the end product," Ellefson says of Greene's reputation for fattening up bands like Cali punk big guns NOFX and Bad Religion. "Ryan knows how to get great tone, and he got it with us. There was just this cool synergy with him."
A Drug for All Seasons booms with crushing Greene tone from start to finish on riffy tracks like "Faded" and the lyrically allegorical "Dying on the Vine." The song asserts, "I won't sit and wait for the water to turn to wine . . . I won't be content this time with dying on the vine."
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"It's about not letting your time pass," Ellefson explains about the latter track. The lyrics are cryptic enough to be interpreted as either simple self-assertion or something more personal, like Ellefson's break from Megadeth. "Dale writes most of the lyrics, and he likes to leave room for listeners to put themselves into the lyrics, but 'Dying' relates to lots of things, including that," he admits.
Time will tell if Ellefson's career jump from Megadeth to F5 is successful, but considering the response to the CD and the growing demand for live shows, don't anticipate that he'll be showing up on Skating With Celebrities anytime soon. Should fans expect a Megadeth featuring Ellefson in the future?
"I'd be open to it," he says. "It's stupid to not leave doors open in life, no matter what you do."