Before starting to get to the meat of this article, I’d like to ask all readers to ignore whatever prejudices they have regarding Metallica, just for a short time. I completely understand if you’re pissed about Metallica; they have not always made the best music, among other things. Honestly, Saint Anger is still very much a source of disappointment and annoyance for me. However, for a lot of people – and, really, the metal community at large – they are an important band. For me (and, I assume, many others), they were the first real metal band I got into. On the whole, they are considered one of the greatest metal bands of all time, and are probably the most financially successful metal band ever (the Black Album still sells a ridiculous amount of copies, if you can believe it). And while we at Heavy Blog are a few months behind, we still find it necessary to pay tribute the band’s third album, Master of Puppets, as it celebrates its 30th birthday this year.
To describe Master of Puppets’s success would be masturbatory at this point; nearly every heavy metal “best of all time” list places MoP somewhere in the top ten, and for many fans it’s considered Metallica’s magnum opus. Instead, we should ask ourselves why. Why is this such a monumental album? Why should we bother remembering it? In my opinion, Master of Puppets is an amalgam of sorts. While parts of it sound like Metallica’s future music and other elements seem like an homage to sounds and themes that they once utilized more often, it’s all ultimately mixed up and spat out in such a way that neither the past nor the future are incredibly distinct. In a way, it’s timeless.
When most metal fans think of Metallica (in a positive way, that is), they usually think of the band’s status as thrash metal veterans, and virtually the king of the Big Four. And you can find proof of the band’s speed in a lot of Master of Puppets – the main riff of “Battery,” the album’s title track, and “Disposable Heroes” have some of the fastest, face-shredding guitar and drum work seen in thrash at that point.
And yet, that speed is really only half of the album. As much as we think of Master of Puppets as a thrash metal staple, it’s so much more. “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Leper Messiah” are harbingers of the slower sound the band brings in their infamous self-titled album, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is one of the saddest-sounding ballads the band has done. And yet despite all their differences, all of MoP’s tracks, at one time or another, maintain a beefy guitar sound, as dense as lead on Jupiter, and nearly unparalleled at its time.
What might be more interesting is how Metallica seems to, paradoxically, argue with and further progress the metal aesthetic in the album’s themes and lyrics. Let’s face it: at the time, there was a more distinct metal aesthetic: it was filled with reference to death and Satan and general themes of horror, all with a little veneer of machismo to finish things off. (This is opposed to today, where this aesthetic does still exist, but is not the only face of metal anymore, arguably – but this is a discussion better suited for a separate article.) MoP references these considerably -“Battery” speaks of the crime of assault and battery, “The Thing That Should Not Be” references the Cthulhu mythos, and “Leper Messiah” is a lyrical attack on Christianity – but it dives deeper than even that. “Welcome Home” is supposedly based on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The idea of madness is something that is lightly touched in metal (Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” come to mind), but never as poetically and hard-hitting as this:
Fear of living on
Natives getting restless now
Mutiny in the air
Got some death to do
Mirror stares back hard
Kill, it’s such a friendly word
Seems the only way
For reaching out again
Instead of just referencing insanity lightly, James Hetfield dives deep into the middle of it all. While putting oneself in the killer’s shoes is not unheard of (again, “Paranoid” comes to mind), Hetfield’s lyrics generate sympathy for the mad, and questions whether they even were mentally ill in the first place. There’s depth in these lyrics.
“Welcome Home” isn’t the only track on the album to follow this trend. Every song on Master of Puppets does this, with the exception of the instrumental “Orion,” whether it’s “Disposable Heroes” and Hetfield’s elucidation of the mindlessness and the authority in war that turns soldiers into little more than killing machines, or blatant references to corporatism in “Damage, Inc.”
But even “Orion” serves to change how we now view metal. The late Cliff Burton’s contributions on the track lay an important foundation for the future of bass in metal. (Too bad the band dismantled that foundation by almost entirely eliminating Jason Newsted’s bass in the mix for And Justice For All, but that’s beside the point.) The entire song is really written around Burton’s bass. Instead of the guitar leading, it’s the bass that decides the direction the song goes in. Even the breathtaking middle of “Orion” breaks what we think of metal at the time. The band sounds more like a bunch of punks playing Yes covers than the same guys who had released Kill ‘Em All only three years earlier.
While future albums have been faster than Master of Puppets (it only took seven months after its release for a little band called Slayer to take that speed record with Reign in Blood), and heavier (e.g. Sepultura, Pantera, etc.), it nonetheless set a standard for metal. Metal could be complex and in-depth thematically and compositionally. Are there other albums better out there? Arguably, yes. But think about it like architecture—one can’t know how to build a skyscraper without first knowing how to build a house, and MoP is one solid house of an album.