Retrospective Review: Metallica - Master of Puppets



Heavy metal has had its fair share of seminal moments over the years. Sabbath's release of their debut album, Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast and Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory were all moments of great historical significance for the genre. However, few bands have had two seminal releases and only one band can claim to have three: Metallica.


With 1983's Kill 'Em All, Metallica ripped up the heavy metal rulebook and combined heavy metal's melodies with the raw aggression of punk music. Metallica weren't quite the first; Maiden had done something similar on their first record, but that was a mistake brought about by poor production, and Accept had released the first proper thrash metal song 'Fast as a Shark' in 1982. However, Metallica were the first to keep the pace up for an entire album and it set a whole new precedent for the genre as it entered the mid-1980s.


Eight years later, in 1991, Metallica canned their thrash roots in response to the rising Grunge movement and took to a slower, more radio-friendly sound on their self-titled fifth album. With more groove and polish than their previous efforts had shown, they reaped the rewards of this new direction by becoming the most famous traditionally metal band (we're excluding crossover artists such as Linkin Park here) the world has ever seen. Metallica is the biggest-selling album in the USA of the Nielsen Soundscan era, having sold nearly 17 million copies there since its release in 1991. It sent Metallica beyond the boundaries of heavy metal and into the mainstream. Their number of Facebook likes currently stands at 35.4 million. Iron Maiden? 13.1 million.


But between those two records was an album made of pure gold. Metallica may be their most famous effort but it took a complete shift in sound for that to happen. Their true peak came in 1986, when the release of their third album Master of Puppets cemented their place as metal Gods long before the rest of the world took notice.


Let's talk about it.


It opens with 'Battery', a song which, like the previous album's opening track, tricks any uneducated listener into thinking they're getting some Simon & Garfunkel by starting with some lovely acoustic play. They quickly get bored of that though and what follows is one of the most legendary album openers in metal. Played at approximately 700mph, 'Battery' is an adrenaline shot directly into the skull that is simply Metallica at their purest. It's hard, fast and aggressive, yet still a fantastic example of their songwriting prowess. Hammett's solo is also exquisite.


We'll gloss over 'The Thing That Should Not Be'; it's not a bad song, but it's certainly this album's weakest. It pales in comparison to what surrounds it, including track four, 'Welcome Home (Sanitarium)'. With verses far more melancholic and atmospheric than you'll find anywhere else on the record, it's a perfect showcase of the fact that they can slow down when they want, and do it beautifully. The structure of the song - light verses, heavier choruses, fast ending - almost make the song a prequel of 'One', which would become one of Metallica's best-known songs from their thrash days. It's like a test version of it, and it's so good that Rod Smallwood - Iron Maiden's manager - asked them to replay it when they were hanging out together.


"One night, our song 'Welcome Home (Sanitarium)' came on in the background. Rod said: "That was really cool, can I hear it again?" It was as if God had spoken. I thought "you know what? I think this is going to work out"." (Lars Ulrich)


Metallica, 1986. L-R: Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Cliff Burton.

Side Two opens with 'Disposable Heroes', also sharing characteristics with 'One' in that it's a song about war. Though the instrumentation is typically sublime, it's the lyrics that really makes this song stand out. The pre-chorus is particularly harrowing.


"Soldier boy, made of clay

Now an empty shell

Twenty-one, 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" It's a damning indictment of what war does to someone, particularly young men who are barely out of childhood being forced to go to the front lines of a war zone. It's certainly the most thought-provoking song on the album and one that clearly shows how anti-war the band's members are - just like 'One' would do two years later. Writing this review has certainly taught a lesson: 'One' is the lovechild of 'Welcome Home (Sanitarium)' and 'Disposable Heroes'.


The rest of the album is just as strong. 'Leper Messiah' is (mostly) slower and groovier - almost a trailer for their upcoming direction change in direction five years later. It's a cool song and includes some ace drums fills from Lars. 'Orion' is an iconic instrumental, with the second half being a truly beautiful piece of music. And then there's 'Damage Inc.' which, controversially, I've never really connected with as much as everyone else. Sorry, people.


But there's one song we haven't looked at...


Just like the album itself, the title track 'Master of Puppets' is one of the top contenders for 'Greatest of All-Time' lists. It has a legendary riff, a legendary chorus, a legendary interlude, and a legendary evil laugh. Not only that, but its lyrics, like those of 'Fade to Black', hold an incredibly strong anti-drug message, led by a man who knew exactly what he was talking about. 'Master of Puppets' battles it out with 'Hallowed Be Thy Name' constantly for the honour of metal's greatest song, just as Master of Puppets battles it out with The Number of the Beast constantly for the honour of metal's great album. The war will never end, but there's not much that really needs to be said. It's simply one of, if not the best example, of heavy metal music.


Master of Puppets came out 35 years ago today and it still sounds as rash and as relevant as ever. It is a titan of an album, not only a peak for Metallica but one for heavy metal as a whole. It is lightning in a bottle stuff, true magic that is relayed in the form of music. It turned out to be bassist Cliff Burton's swansong before he was killed in a tragic accident - but what an album to end on. Burton's contribution to heavy metal consisted of three albums and two of them were truly groundbreaking. Not a bad record.


Forget the Black Album: this was Metallica at the height of their powers. Bold, brutal and brilliant, their combination of melody and aggression set them apart from their peers. It's doubtful that any band in the future will ever surpass them in the world of metal and only a small handful of bands can even come close. This was the moment they became Gods - and long may the religion continue.



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