35 years ago today, Metallica released the greatest Metal album of all time, Master of Puppets.
Marketing A 1980s Band Without The Radio
As I mentioned in a previous post, my gateway to Metallica came through 1988’s …And Justice For All. I was only 8 when Master of Puppets was released, and metal just wasn’t the genre playing in the house.
I quickly came to know all of the early Metallica albums though, because of marketing. For suburban kids, the way to really establish street cred was to have a good T-shirt, and there were enough kids around to know what each of the first 4 Metallica albums were. A friend even had the highly coveted Metal Up Your Ass T-Shirt that was rumored to be the original working title for 1983’s Kill ‘Em All. Kids may not understand it today, but prior to 1988’s One Video, T-Shirts really did sell this band in the US!
This all culminated into something big when they opened for Ozzy Osbourne in the Summer. In many places, especially the West Coast, Metallica was a bigger draw than Ozzy as the headline act. They unintentionally irritated him when they often played Black Sabbath songs during sound check – something that made sense for Metallica, but 8 years after being fired from Sabbath, Ozzy was still not over it.
I have often mentioned (to the chagrin of a few friends) that the 4 best metal albums of all time are the first 4 Metallica albums. That is not to take anything away from excellent releases from Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Judas Priest, or many others. It just seems abundantly obvious that Metallica was a cut above the rest.
So why am I writing specifically about Master of Puppets? Kill ‘Em All is their early release that is raw in scope, and actually, probably their “heaviest” release. Ride The Lightning introduced more range in the band’s abilities, including an acoustic intro and the first song that could be something of a ballad, Fade To Black.
Master of Puppets – The Peak For An All-Time Band
Master of Puppets is where it all came together. While James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were the clear leaders of the group, they were influenced by the musician with the most traditional musical experience, Cliff Burton. Master of Puppets differs from their prior release specifically because it retains the metal edge but adds multiple layers of sophistication in their songs. They always had bridges and codas attached to their arrangements, but now they are tighter, beautifully complex, and are effective transitions in each composition.
Musically, Burton taught the group about techniques like multiple time signatures, borrowing non-metal song structures, and his bass often leads the guitars. Some of their song construction is right out of the progressive rock playbook. The lyrics are tightened up. Hetfield turns to the political among many critical themes – including strong lyrics to perhaps my favorite Metallica track of all, Disposable Heroes:
Everybody I know but one person loves “One” from …And Justice For All, but you don’t get that track in all its Trumbo-ian glory without the band adding political thought to their music on Master of Puppets.
The opener, Battery, is somewhat an analog to Right the Lightning’s Fight Fire With Fire, yet it is simply a stronger and more powerful track. It also constructs and opening jolt of energy to make the way for the epic span of 8 minutes for the Title Track.
Both albums have 1 instrumental and while I like The Call of Ktulu, I like Orion even more. The former is Lightning’s closer while Master of Puppets ends with the very satisfying Damage, Inc., another favorite that criticizes corporations and how they treat humanity. The Thing That Should Never Be is another call-back to H.P. Lovecraft and Welcome Home (Sanitarium) references One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Leper Messiah is a commentary on religious corruption. This album is subtly, a protest record.
Metallica has often had a reputation for very long album releases, but it should be mentioned that Master of Puppets only clocks in at 54 minutes, 47 seconds. There are only 8 tracks, of course, but nothing really feels too long. This is metal, and it really is progressive rock.
Progressive Rock (or metal…) has a reputation for excess, something that I have often felt at times following favorite bands like Rush, Tool, Dream Theater, and many others. But I can’t help but feel that Master of Puppets doesn’t have a single wasted second. That is a triumph.
1986 was a great year for metal. Besides this all-timer of an album, Slayer released Reign of Blood, Megadeth released Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?, and Anthrax released Among The Living. It should also be mentioned that a latter-day avant-garde favorite of mine, Mr. Bungle, last year re-recorded their 1986 thrash metal demo The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny, with help on guitar and drums from…..members of Anthrax and Slayer. 1986 was awesome.
Cliff Burton (1962 – 1986)
This is also a moment to commemorate the life of Cliff Burton, who tragically died in a bus accident while on their European tour on September 27, 1986. It is thought that the bus driver fell asleep at the wheel on an icy road and caused the accident, although the exact cause is not proven.
Burton, besides being an exceptional bass player, helped provide the band with the music theory that they needed to improve on. The progression is obvious from Kill ‘Em All to Master of Puppets, and Cliff only lived to see their first 3 albums through. It has been said that his parents have donated his royalties to a musical scholarship fund at Castro Valley High School.
Metallica did pick up the pieces. Jason Newsted was hired in his place, and stayed with the band for 2 decades. He is a good bass player, but I have always noticed Burton’s absense. 1988’s …And Justice For All has long been criticized for it’s production and the extreme “turn down” of the bass (although one friend does like it). This production decision always seemed to be a reaction to their missing colleague. Robert Trujillo is their current bassist, but even he would acknowledge the world would just be better if Cliff was hammering beats with Metallica.
So today, on the 35th anniversary of one of the most important albums of my life, I think I will fire up some high energy metal and get some work done. Enjoy a few tracks yourself and let’s give a toast to Metallica for this classic. I don’t drink anymore, so I can’t do a real toast. These guys who to drink so much on tour that they were often called Alcoholica. In time, Hetfield and company made a really awful St. Anger album about his alcohol rehab (this was the drum trash can album).
As always, thank you for reading.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.