Back in 1986, when “Master of Puppets” was released, the music market was flooded with so-called ‘thrash metal’ outfits, who seemed to compete with each other for the award of fastest band on the block. Frantic, furious riffing underpinned by relentless double-bass drumming, aggressive, in-your-face vocals often reminiscent of punk, violent, apocalyptic lyrical themes, and cover art veering from the gothic to the positively shocking…. In spite of the enduring popularity of heavy metal in the mid-Eighties, nothing produced in the past could effectively be compared to the sonic onslaught wreaked by bands whose very names seemed to embody the nature of the music they played: Anthrax, Slayer, Exodus, Megadeth….
Hailing from the Bay Area, in those days a veritable cauldron seething with talent, right from the start Metallica seemed to stand out from the pack. Their line-up stabilized after the entry of lead guitarist Kirk Hammett (who replaced the volatile genius that was Dave Mustaine), they had already produced a near-masterpiece in their second album, “Ride the Lighting”. Young, hirsute and loud like their myriad contemporaries, more than competent at their respective instruments, but certainly no virtuosos (with the notable exception of bassist Cliff Burton), they had nonetheless a depth to them which went beyond the explosion of pure energy that characterized the whole genre. The lyrics to “Ride the Lightning”, dealing with the last moments of a man sentenced to the electric chair, were a gigantic leap forward from the nihilistic fury displayed on their debut album, “Kill’Em All”. Metallica were not afraid to show that they had brains as well as brawn.
The cover of “Master of Puppets” immediately sets the scene. No gory, tasteless vignettes (like their debut album), no dragons or monsters, no sci-fi scenarios - only a bleak expanse of white crosses held by almost invisible strings projecting from the band’s monolithic, ominous logo. None of the eight tracks lasts under 5 minutes, making the album one of the longest ever released at the time. Clocking in at almost 55 minutes, it marks a sharp contrast with other masterpieces of that era, such as Megadeth’s “Peace Sells…. But Who’s Buying?” and Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” - both around 30 minutes in length. Like most milestone albums, it is not 100% perfect, but its strengths definitely outnumber any weaknesses it may possess.
As my readers may know by now, I set a lot of store by an album’s opening and closing tracks, since in many cases they are the ones that (even though for different reasons) will most impress the listener. Much like Rush, Metallica seem to specialize in extremely strong, memorable openers, while the closers are sometimes a bit hit and miss – and “Master of Puppets” is no exception. The aptly-titled “Battery” first deceives the listener with its acoustic guitar intro, then launches into a full-tilt assault on the ears powered by manic, razor-sharp riffing, machine-gun drumming, and Hetfield’s fearsome bark. The title-track is one of three 8-minute-plus tracks that display the band’s more authentically progressive bent, with plenty of instrumental twists and turns, changes in tempo, and even classical breaks. Two slower numbers follow: “The Thing That Should Not Be” has a plodding, Sabbath-like pace that reinforces the Lovecraft-inspired lyrics, though in my view it is not as successful as the instrumental “The Call of Ktulu” in conveying the same atmosphere of underwater terror; wile the mournful “Welcome Home Sanitarium”, with its slow, melodic introduction building up towards a heavier crescendo that reflects the anguished lyrics, closes the former A-side of the album.
The second part of the album opens with “Disposable Heroes”, possibly my favourite song on the album, mainly on account of its strongly anti-militaristic lyrics. Those who think heavy metal is only about Satan and wild sex should listen to this song, particularly the scathing chorus… “You will do/What I say/When I say/ … You will die/When I say/You must die… You coward, you servant, you blindman.” Hetfield bites off the words, and the crushingly heavy, oppressive riffing matches the mood of the song to a T, while the guitar solo at the end injects some beauty in this landscape of bleakness and despair. The other highlight of the former B-side (and probably of the whole album) is the 8-minute-plus instrumental “Orion”, a fully progressive offering full of melody and interesting textures, providing Cliff Burton (who would tragically die soon after the album’s release) with plenty of opportunities to display his skills as a four-stringer. On the other hand, “Leper Messiah” and closer “Damage Inc.” come across as the weaker links in the chain, though they detract in no way from the overall strength of the disc.
A landmark album indeed, and influential way beyond the restricted confines of speed/thrash metal, "Master of Puppets" can also be considered one of the cornerstones of progressive metal. Even a cursory listen of any Dream Theater album will reveal the overwhelming influence of “Master of Puppets”. However, unlike the New Yorkers and their countless followers, Metallica were never interested in displays of technical skill to the detriment of the songwriting. The dense, claustrophobic atmosphere of this album rings authentic, bolstered as it is by lyrical themes that sound much closer to gritty reality than anything penned by DT or any of the bands following in their wake. “Master of Puppets” cannot by any means be called virtuosic, but everything about it screams ‘masterpiece’.
I bought this album when it first came out, and I have loved it ever since. Unfortunately, I am aware that many people will not go beyond that ‘metal’ in the band’s name when approaching it, therefore denying its status of masterpiece not only of heavy metal, but of rock music as a whole.