Listening to ‘Master of Puppets’ for the first time is something of a rite of passage for metal fans. Do you remember the first time you listened to it? I do. I even know the date- January 4th, 1990. I wrote the date on the cassette cover. It was a day to remember. It was the day I first encountered a metal legend.
I’d spent most of the previous year wearing out my copies of ‘…And Justice For All’, ‘South of Heaven’ and ‘So Far, So Good…So What!’, but I’d never heard ‘Master of Puppets’. I’d heard the hype about it, but didn’t really believe it. Sure, ‘…And Justice For All’ was amazing, but there’s no way Metallica could have recorded another album to rival it. It would have to sound something like Iron Maiden or Motley Crüe, or just be disappointing. Was I fucking clueless, or what!
Do you know that feeling you get when you’re hoping something will be good, expect it to be disappointing, and then get blown away when it surpasses even your wildest dreams? That was and is ‘Master of Puppets’. Those calm, relaxing classical acoustic chords are so familiar, but even on a first listen, decades past, it was obvious they would be body-slammed by something heavy. And it happens, a pay-off beyond belief for that sweet anticipation, with those first crushing chords and booming drums. “Battery” is fast, heavy, and James Hetfield’s vocals are clarion clear. Kirk Hammett’s solos are sparing, and get the air-guitar fingers twitching, until he busts loose with some of thrash metal’s most vital shred in the final third of the song.
“Master of Puppets” blasts in, in a similar vein to “Battery”, but just a touch slower. The somewhat oblique lyrics of the first verse lead into one of the best choruses in all of metal. And then just when you think the song is going to be a headlong charge from beginning to end, a desperate chant of “master, master” breaks down into a semi-acoustic, mellower section. And this is what lifts this album far above the masses. The contrast gives the heavier sections so much more weight. The dynamics and song construction are judged to perfection. Add in the sub-sonic rumble of Lars Ulrich’s double kick-drums, and then Kirk’s distinct solo. And you didn’t even notice that song was eight and a half minutes long.
The H.P. Lovecraft-inspired “The Thing That Should Not Be” thunders like the Great Old One Cthulhu himself. The simple mid-paced riff is a blueprint for what Metallica did five years later to such great commercial success on the self-titled black album. However, this song is also a million miles removed from any possible suggestion of mainstream ambitions. It is simply too heavy and crushing, and Hammett’s counterpoint guitar is too jarring.
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” starts like many a power ballad, until Hetfield starts singing. Power ballads are usually about love lost and lamented, not minds twisted and tortured. The melodic initial verses build, until the plaintive cry of “just leave me alone!” evokes a feel of pathetic desperation. What started as a gentle, calm song has shot off on a psychotic tangent, escalated into an almost uncontrolled avalanche of schizophrenic paranoia.
“Disposable Heroes” crashes straight in , with a chunky, yet understated riff, but hints at further violence to come. It does, in some of the most vicious, wrist snapping blasts Hetfield’s rhythm guitar has ever produced. That’s not to say this song is all about speed. The vocal melodies are simple, yet memorable, emphasising the powerful anti-war lyrics, which decry the dehumanizing effect of unthinking military discipline.
“Leper Messiah” is another huge beast of a song, pounding away like an old fashioned mining trip hammer, smashing the hypocrisy of televangelist preaching. The chant of “lie, lie, lie!” echoes the “Die, die, die” of “Creeping Death” from the ‘Ride the Lightning’ album.
“Orion” is Cliff Burton’s song. Yes, there’s some great leads on it from Kirk, and James’ riffs are as powerful as ever, but if you ever get the chance, find a recording of just the bass track. This goes above and beyond what any other metal bass player was doing at the time. The psychedelic trippiness of the song should seem strange on a hard driving metal album like this, but it works. Don’t try to fathom why, it just does. There is no loss of momentum, and no urge to skip the lengthy instrumental, and is an incredible set-up for the last thrashing dash of “Damage Inc.”
“Damage Inc.” is a good old fashioned thrasher. It’s a fast, heavy adrenaline rush, violent and simple. The big finish, with no drawn out fucking around, leaves you wanting more. And that is the sign of a great album. The moment it’s finished, you want to play it again.
‘Master of Puppets’ remains Metallica’s most accessible thrash album. It proved very difficult for Metallica to follow up. Cliff Burton was tragically killed six months after its release, which derailed the band in more ways than one. ‘…And Justice For All’ followed two years later, ostensibly following and evolving from what Metallica had produced here. While many appreciate it for being the powerful album it is, it left many fans scratching their heads, with its over-long, cryptic songs, and its dry, almost bass free sound. It was perhaps Cliff’s influence which had kept Metallica grounded, despite the fact he was musically the most adventurous of the quartet.
The legacy of ‘Master of Puppets’ continues to this day. It still inspires young musicians to pick up instruments to try to emulate their heroes. For older fans, beyond the reach of hero worship, ‘Master of Puppets’ is still just a joy to listen to. It is an old friend which never lets you down.