Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ Turns 30
“Get them while they’re young and the possibilities are endless.”
Maybe those same words were uttered during a cigarette break outside of Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, during the 1985 recording sessions for Master of Puppets the third Metallica album, which was released thirty years ago today (well, in two days, but we don’t work weekends).
I’m inclined to think of Master as a gift. At the time, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield and Cliff Burton probably did not know that they were working on what would become arguably the most critically adored metal record in existence.
Some people pigeonhole metal enthusiasts as perpetually adolescent in some way. I don’t buy into that stereotype, but I recognize that like many unfair ideas, it has a root in shared common experience. I have no proof for this supposition, but I’ve also asked enough people about “That’s When They Became a Metalhead” to feel confident in it.
This music carries an extra heft at that point in our lives when our parents (if they are present) stop exerting such a powerful hold on our lives, and we begin to gain escape velocity away from them. By construction or coincidence, Master of Puppets doubles down on that moment in life. Frank Wedekind called it a “Spring Awakening.” Master does not share the play’s pubescent sexual overtones—most of the band’s oedipal lyrics and teenage angst actually show up on later albums—but it does sound as though the band plays in a state of just-having become aware.
I like to think of the acoustic intro to “Battery” as dream—open, organic, minimal enough to suggest myriad future possibilities—from which Metallica rouses you. The world they wake you up into is not a pleasant one. The blues and swing, partially present on Kill Em All and greatly diminished on Ride the Lightning never arrive on Master. The warm Danish twin guitar melodicism and sing-song vocals that they aped from Diamond Head and Mercyful Fate don’t show up either.
All that remains are carpal-cramping chromatic riffs played at caffeine-jitter speed. Hetfield delivers most of his lyrics in a percussive bark. He and Hammett played these songs on Jackson flying V’s—guitars that look and sound like edged weapons, nearly all neck and fretboard. Mesa Boogie Pre-amps accentuated the least hospitable parts of their tone.
Each individual sound seems to be muted a fraction of a second before it should. Master is the world of industrialized adulthood: get everything done faster than you want, under the expectation of mechanical precision. The lyrics and art follow the same theme, but the record would sound just as confined—and confining—without them.
Trying to return to the innocence of childhood never works completely. The melodic plucked guitar returns during the central bridge in the title track, courtesy of a lick copied from David Bowie’s “Andy Warhol.” The respite barely lasts. When the metal returns, its merciless pounding suggests looking out a factory window to survey an endless field of huge chrome pistons reducing the earth to dust and then the dust to micro-particulate. To nothing. When melody returns again on “Sanitarium,” Metallica subjugates it in service of metal. The crisp arpeggios come filtered through hot distortion at the same time as Ulrich’s drums. By halfway through the album, the dream world is sublimated completely into nightmare.
Let me pause there for a second, about halfway through the track list, while the record flips over.
I’m having trouble thinking of a piece I’ve had a harder time writing for Invisible Oranges than this one.
I know why. Master of Puppets is my favorite album. It’s the only mint condition first edition LP I own, that I’ve ever considered having tattooed on my body. It is my favorite because Metallica got me while I was young, as they did for many people.
I spent a great deal of time listening to the album—and not much else—on repeat, dissecting its lyrics and its guitar patterns during the precise time in life when hormones, social pressures and the public school reading list were priming me to think about what Metallica wrote about. I had my first encounters with hard drugs and evangelical religion at the same time that I couldn’t stop listening to the title track and “Leper Messiah”.
Master of Puppets isn’t just an incredibly well-written and catchy album that still sounds great, it is also the ideal soundtrack to that period in someone’s life when they realize that they are subject to the world around them.
But there’s more to the record than that.
Going through Master of Puppets song-by-song is a pointless endeavor. Pointless for most publications because most readers know the track list by heart—the album has been certified platinum six times after all. Doubly pointless here, where Cosmo Lee covered every song individually.
The second half, though, deserves a closer look than many give it. Side B closes the loop that Side A, with its more popular songs, opens. “Damage Inc.” ends side B with a bruising mosh pit mating call, the same way that “Battery” begins the album. The longest and most progressive song, “Orion” vis a vis the title track, flanks said banger. “Leper Messiah” and “The Thing that Should Not Be” both operate as sludgy mid-tempo curve balls.
Which leaves “Disposable Heroes” as the twin to “Sanitarium.” Here the mirror becomes less clear. On the face of things, the literary ballad and the extended chug-fest don’t quite match. For my money they’re the two best songs on the record because they exemplify the band’s two distinct talents, melodic storytelling and propulsive violence.
But they share something else, a moment, preceding the climax of each song, where Hetfield doesn’t so much sing as cry out. The lyrics never repeat, but when Metallica played these songs live, most of the audience screams along. In “Sanitarium” it’s: Just leave me alone. On “Disposable Heroes,” I was born for dying.
Put them together. Read the sad lament of someone who has just, in that instant, lost the last of their childhood naivete.
Just leave me alone, I was born for dying.
Cliff Burton died barely seven months after Master hit shelves with those words on the lyric sheet. The irony isn’t lost on me.
To many, Metallica died with Cliff. They never released another album without some ugly critique following it: …And Justice For All has no bass. Metallica is too commercial. Load isn’t even a metal album, and so on. He left the world with one unimpeachable classic.
It’s not perfect. In my adulthood I’ve had to admit that. But it does exist as a touchstone for thirty years of people undertaking the task of maturing. Some succeed, some fail. Either way they—we—share a language, and Master of Puppets is its Rosetta Stone.
I struggle to think of an overarching purpose for art, or any kind of objective criteria by which to judge its merit. Sometimes I try anyway. When I force myself, sometimes I come to this: The best art insinuates itself into your life until it becomes a part of you. Master of Puppets does that.
Master of Puppets was released on February 21, 1986. We are covering it on Friday the 19th.