You might be surprised, but I never knew anything about progressive rock or progressive music until 2010. Yes, after 28 years of listening to various kinds of artists I had only ever heard the term “progressive rock” mentioned by Dr. Evil’s son, Scott, in an Austin Powers movie. But once I understood what it meant to play progressive rock or progressive music, I soon thought that Metallica should be included and the album that made me think so was “Master of Puppets”.
I was introduced to Metallica sometime during ‘84/’85 and thought that “Ride the Lightning” was the coolest album I had ever heard since Judas Priest’s “Screaming for Vengeance”. So, when a friend of a friend told me and said friend that the new Metallica album was out and let us listen to the beginning of “Leper Messiah”, I was thrilled and dying to get a hold of the album. In fact, for two weeks until I could purchase my own copy, the main riff to “Leper Messiah” refused to fade from my memory.
“Master of Puppets” was and is such a wonderful step in the evolution and progression of Metallica’s early music. “Kill ‘em All” was delightfully speedy and thrashy with a rawness that was meant to deliver this new development in metal with full intensity. “Ride the Lightning” featured acoustic guitar and a step forward in music complexity. “Master” proved to be not only heavier but more mature and more sophisticated than its predecessors. For me, this is the ultimate Metallica album.
“Battery” told you right from the start that this was “Ride the Lightning” Metallica with the heaviness turned up and all the fury and intensity still faithfully loaded. But it was the stunning title track that exhibited the band’s song-writing skills at their height. The song is masterfully constructed with an intro to blow you out of the water and a riff that should be one of the coolest in 80’s metal. The song cruises rapidly as you’d expect from thrash but with the balls to keep the pace less break neck enough for you to follow the lyrics, which I have always somewhat proudly interpreted as a song warning of the hazards of cocaine use. Hey, when parents in the eighties were constantly on about how heavy metal was turning their kids to drugs, my friend and I (neither of us ever touched anything stronger than cough syrup and only in the recommended doses) were right proud to point out the meaning of the lyrics.
Then there’s this totally unexpected slow down with clean guitar and Kirk Hammett plays this melodic solo that is truly beautiful. A guitarist once told me that the key to great solos was not shredding or blazing through some tricky technique, but rather playing something along with the melody of the song. Hammett establishes a melody on the lead and then solos over where the melody is established to be. In the “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage” movie, Hammett talks about Alex Lifeson’s phrasing on “The Villa Strangiato” and how it impressed him. He certainly learned from it as Hammett pulls off some great melodic solos on this album, the first of the better ones to be heard here on the title track. The song goes on to build in tension and intensity and after a fiery thrash-shred solo, the song returns to the main riff with bludgeoning brutality. It’s an awesome thing. Hammett said of Rush’s “2112” that it took him on a journey. Well, I feel that Metallica accomplished creating a journey here on the song “Master of Puppets”.
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is another song that has its own structure and story in the music. By the end of side one, I feel that Metallica worked hard to create individual songs that could each stand up on their own, and they did so on “Master” better than on “Ride the Lightning”.
“Disposable Heroes”. I was surprised to find out this song is over eight minutes long. Back in the cassette days, we didn’t care about song length so much. You had your three-digit counter that had nothing to do with keeping time. Heck, I didn’t know that “Child in Time” was over eleven minutes or that Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” was over 17 minutes. They were just songs that had in them what they required to be what they were. They were complete as they were and the time length wasn’t a concern for us. So side two opened with another thrasher but in parts that were not just verse/ chorus but actually introduced two contrasting choruses. One sang from the field commander’s perspective as he shouts to the young soldier to get out and die: “Back to the front / You will do what I say when I say / Back to the front / You will die when I say you must die”. The other sang from the remorseless, matter of fact send off of the deceased soldier: “Soldier boy made of clay now an empty shell / 21 only son but he served us well / bred to kill not to care / do just as we say / finished here, greetings Death / he’s yours to take away”. Writing about the waste of life in war is nothing new but metal bands had and have a way of being very cynical, honest, and at times ironic in how they deliver their message about the wastefulness of human life in war.
The song with the unforgettable riff, “Leper Messiah” was next. A funny thing, I was listening to this song on my Walkman for the first time in the dark of one early morning as I delivered newspapers and suddenly I heard the voice counting in the song and it startled me. I froze in my tracks and scanned the darkness, searching for the person who was possibly calling out to me. But it was just the cassette. Man, I still love this song, even though the theme is another fairly common metal target: evangelism that encourages cash for God’s favour. It brings to mind Rainbow’s “Man on the Silver Mountain” at least in lyrical subject.
Then comes the fantastic instrumental, “Orion”. Introduced by a growling organ sound with a drum beat driving along, the music turns heavy with a thunderous riff and then goes thrash. In the middle, it all breaks down to a slow and mysterious segment with an almost sexy guitar solo that could work for a strip tease if it were longer. The music remains melodious with more of that moving lead guitar work. Then a bass solo by that incredible musician who was Cliff Burton. The music returns to its thundering thrash riff again in the last minute.
At last, after such a memorable journey through what surely must be called progressive thrash metal to be understood clearly, we close the album with a bass solo performed by volume dial adjusting and then enter the intense thrash tune that is “Damage Inc.” What a fine way to end the album, bookended by two very heavy and blistering tunes.
I actually had a ticket to see Metallica on the “Master of Puppets” tour but James Hetfield broke his wrist skateboarding and the show was cancelled. Then later they had their tragic bus accident that killed Cliff Burton. When they finally came to Vancouver, Burton was no longer among them, and I couldn’t attend the concert anyway. The next best thing was going to collect the newspaper delivery monthly fee from a customer on my route, who played the drums, and meeting his friend who played guitar. The two of them performed “Master of Puppets” for me, a flawless and jaw-dropping performance, right in the drummer’s living room. As far as I could tell, they totally nailed it. All I knew was the main riff and I couldn’t play it fluidly.
Speaking of drumming, one thing that I have noticed in recent listens is Lars Ulrich’s drumming. The 1980’s had a lot of stale drumming, just a steady 4/4 beat with a drum fill coming in just ahead of the chorus or at the end of a solo. After all the creativity and skill that developed in drumming throughout the sixties and seventies, the eighties seemed to drive it all into flatline. But what I hear on “Master of Puppets” at least is how Ulrich’s drumming is used almost instead of a lead guitar. For example, in the title track or in the rhythmically un-complex “The Thing That Should Not Be”, when the guitars are chugging along steadily and without variation, the drums will add some colour with some well-placed hits on the toms and a cymbal crash. It would be easy to imagine throwing in some lead guitar notes or other effects, but Metallica use the drums to spruce up these parts. This had me playing closer attention to these two songs as I listened to them today and I realized how Ulrich was skipping beats in places only to add a double beat after or some slightly more complicated drum bit. It just struck me as using the drums to more creative effect, in a more progressive approach than a standard song would have.
After 30 years now almost, this album still stands out for me as one of the best examples of a metal album of all time. And one of the things I admire most about it is the high level of musicianship coupled with the advanced thinking toward song structure and melody, something that most thrash bands of the day would not have dared to attempt.