METALLICA — Master of Puppets (review)

METALLICA — Master of Puppets album cover Album · 1986 · Thrash Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
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.
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more than 2 years ago
Not at all siLLy puPPy. (Kinks reviews - didn't you write one of the debut not long ago?) A little dialogue never hurt. I appreciate your comments whether complimentary or constructively critical. Cheers!
siLLy puPPy wrote:
more than 2 years ago
Hey, I come here for the Kinks reviews! Sorry to take the focus off your review. EXCELLENT review for a major kick ass album!!!!
more than 2 years ago
Yes, that may be so. But again, I consider the potential audience of the particular site. One thing I like about MMA is the half star option. That's a big help. However I prefer to put more weight in the review than the rating.
UMUR wrote:
more than 2 years ago
Personally I rate albums exactly what I feel they should be rated, and not what the guide says I should. Like Adam I feel it´s quite outdated and it´s only a guideline anyways. Not a law.
more than 2 years ago
adg211288, I think that those phrases that follow a star rating can be a bone of contention for or against higher ratings. I do try to consider the preconceptions or notions that people have when they come to a metal site or a prog site and I adjust my ratings accordingly. I will state in my review why I rate an album low, usually with the potential audience in mind. But your point - and siLLy puPPy's - are well taken. I might have to go back to my proto metal reviews and give some of them a new rating. But it's not always an easy call for proto metal because the way I see it, proto metal can be broken down into four distinct periods, of which only the latest one sounds like metal as we know it today.
adg211288 wrote:
more than 2 years ago
I can't speak for PA as I don't use it, but don't read too much into the ratings guide on MMA. It is outdated and at the end of the day only a guide anyway. You are free to follow it or ignore it at your own preference. Most people use their own rating system, which is totally fine.

However I will point out that Proto-Metal is a Metal Related genre on MMA. No release in any of those subs could rightly be called a masterpiece of metal, because they are not metal. Precluding them higher ratings based on an outdated rating description is rather harsh IMO, but of course you're free to rate anything as you see fit on the site.

more than 2 years ago
That's a point I sometimes struggle with, siLLy puPPy. I rate a lot of proto metal pretty low here often just because there's not much that's what I'd consider proto metal. I might love the album but if only two songs sound at all heavy then I can't call it "a masterpiece of metal". Same goes for prog. Although you did bring up a good point about it being prog related and not prog metal. Still, it's my feeling and that's why I'm glad I can give it five stars as a metal album.
siLLy puPPy wrote:
more than 2 years ago
This is one of my pet peeves about these sites. Metallica is listed as prog related there so when you rate it you're rating it as prog related. No? Homie don't play that game here. If it's a masterpiece it's a masterpiece. If it ain't prog enough for them or metal enough here then don't put it on the site but i'm not gonna penalize an album for being on a site that it doesn't belong. Sorry for ranting but one of those things that rankles me :P
more than 2 years ago
Unitron, thank you. I've seen long reviews (on PA?) so I just let it all hang out for this one.

siLLy puPPy, I only gave it 4 on PA because of the progressive factor. I couldn'T quite call it a masterpiece of progressive music. But it is a giant leap in that direction for thrash.

Vim, I experience music as a journey. I explore it and so my memories are tied in. I know not everyone wants to read them, but this time I didn't hold back.

UMUR, "Defenders of the Faith" is pretty stale in the drumming department. Just to name one of many. Thankfully they couldn't stop Neil Peart.

UMUR wrote:
more than 2 years ago
I like your observation regardning 80s drumming, which I think is spot on. Of course there are exceptions, but the 80s really produced some boring drumming overall.
Vim Fuego wrote:
more than 2 years ago
Very nice review. I like how you related all your memories of the songs and album. It's an approach that doesn't always work, but this is good.
siLLy puPPy wrote:
more than 2 years ago
Great review :) Only 4 stars on PA? I finally just replaced this one after losing it years ago. Classic that never gets old
Unitron wrote:
more than 2 years ago
A pretty long review, but a great one at that. Certainly the masterpiece that deserves the title, and 'Disposable Heroes' sure doesn't feel like it's 8-minutes long. I think that's when you know when you've made a good lengthy song.

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