If you’d asked me which of Metallica’s albums I’d like to review, and if I was honest then this probably wouldn’t be the first one I’d choose to review. Of course there is a little bit of snobbery in there; after all Master of Puppets is considered the seminal work by the band.
Master… is the one that most fans and critics rate highest. It is genre defining, and also the album which allowed the band to break into the big time, before hitting the stratosphere with their fifth album The Black Album in 1991.
I really love the album but simply put: reviewing Master of Puppets feels a bit like a cliche, but one which cannot be helped. It truly is a phenomenal album which achieved everything, and is also the last to feature bassist Cliff Burton before his untimely death.
Opening with the classical guitar strains of ‘Battery’ you are pulled into a world which builds slowly until the moment the first true thrash riff of the album kicks in at the 1:09 mark. From here on in ‘Battery’ is unrelenting until its final strains. One thing which always appealed to me with Metallica is the simple fact that no matter how heavy the music, the lyrics were never screamed or shouted in the atypical growl often associated with heavy thrash bands. James Hetfield’s voice is clear and easy to understand throughout. Personally this was a real door opener into the world of true thrash and heavy heavy music (indeed even today the screamers and growlers such as Lamb of God just don’t do it for me, no matter how good the music because of the vocal style).
Immediately after ‘Battery’ is probably the most famous and welcome riff of any Metallica song – that of ‘Master of Puppets’ itself. This 8 minute piece of genius is essentially in three parts and starts with an entirely gorgeous riff which seems to explode into being. Brilliant lyrics and a chorus which is impossible not to sing along to help permanently fix this song into your mind. Interestingly ‘Master of Puppets’ is heavy but it’s not a fast song, as you listen it definitely rolls along with intent, but fast it is not. At the 3:34 stage a truly inspired change in pace as “Act II” of the song kicks in and everything slows down for a mesmerising guitar instrumental of solos which once heard will forever be sung / whistled along to. Never is this more evident than watching the song being played live and 60,000 people whistle and sing along to it as if to prove the point!! The original foreboding riff soon builds in the background and over a chant of “Master” before another guitar solo is introduced over the top of the juggernaut riff from the beginning “act” of the song. It’s full speed ahead for the final part until the closing refrains of the “master” laughing finally fade out. A true classic which every music fan should hear at least once in their life.
As if to prove the point of heavy over fast, ‘The Thing That Should Not’ Be is even heavier, even more foreboding, but even SLOWER than the previous songs. Thundering along it puts no doubt in the listener’s mind that they are listening to a band who know how to craft perfect heavy music without ever falling into the trap of recording “noise”. As if to prove this point and not to overwhelm the listener the following track ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ is essentially a ballad, which slows everything down to a perfect pace and shows off the musicianship and songwriting prowess of a band who continue to scale the heights of their craft. As the song speeds up towards the end with a series of faster riffs and solos as both guitarists appear to jam. Like before, James’ vocals are perfect and tell a harrowing story of an inmate in a mental institution wishing to be left to rot. After all I did say “ballad”, not “love song”!
Originally those four tracks were Side 1 of the LP, and what a ‘side’ they are! Seriously, it is one of the best single sides of vinyl ever produced. ‘Side 2’ starts with the war song “Disposable Heroes” which is the first song to really bring the return of Metallica’s sound from earlier albums; straight thrash music. There is nothing wrong with the track, it is considerably faster than what has gone before, but benefits from yet another brilliantly executed sing-a-long chorus interspersed with strong solos from Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield and subject matter which brings the harsh reality of the WW1 to life.
‘Leper Messiah’ has a fantastic little riff which seems to bounce along with additional help from Cliff Burton’s bass near the beginning before the first verse starts proper. The pace of the song is back in keeping with the rest of the album, and although remaining heavy is punctuated with slow drum fills and Cliff’s bass which seems to somehow appear whenever a guitar riff is silent.
‘Orion’ is an 8 minute instrumental for which the word opus is not too extravagant when explaining how stunning a piece of music it is. Starting with a rattling bass intro from Cliff, the rhythm section creeps up until the double guitar lead kicks in taking you along a journey which is in no hurry to reach its destination. A perfect showcase for the talent within the band as each member gets multiple solos during its length. When wailing almost weeping joint guitar solos weave over the top of a simple bass line, you are awe-struck at just how melodic these four can be. It is here that “Orion” better than any other song goes further to prove that “heavy metal” / “thrash” music is the modern equivalent of classical music with its movements, dark middle pieces, and true emotion. Further, there are few other songs which better define what Metallica are about. Even minus vocals, what we have here is a blueprint to the genre.
Finally, and as if to make sure you don’t forget what thrash was meant to sound like, the album is rounded off with ‘Damage, Inc.’ a song which isn’t just heavy, it’s fast. I mean really fast. Still no screaming and shouting vocals, but for what is effectively only the second time in already 50 minutes of music we have the thrash music which defined Metallica in their previous albums. Starting with a thumping beat the song very quickly gets up to speed and never lets up until it is all over – hell it even seems to speed up for the main guitar solo before slowing down to normal “fast” before the next verse! Again James’ vocals are clear but sung damned quickly. And then that’s it, it is all over in eight songs.
Master of Puppets is heavy, yet never noisy. Clear, crisp easy to hear vocals which are sung, never growled or screamed in a typical “thrash singer” voice. Here we have songs which you want to sing along to and choruses which you remember and creep back into your mind hours after you’ve stopped listening.
At its release the album defined a genre right there and then. Thrash music existed before this album, and the “Big 4” were all releasing strong albums until this point, but nothing sounded the same after this album was released. A future generation of bands built their craft listening to this album. Sure bands released faster, and heavier, but none came close to producing something so seminal, so genre and era defining as Metallica did in 1986 when they released this.
This is one of those rare albums that all true music fans should own.
Watch ‘Master of Puppets’ being played live from 2010 below.