Honesty Is My Only Excuse
My love of Metallica’s Master of Puppets album, which has lasted 16 years and counting, began on what was a pretty good day for a 15-year-old misfit metalhead, during what was the most miserable time of my life: high school.
It was a pleasantly mild spring weekday in early April, 1986; I had a rather routine dentists’ checkup in the morning, so I got to miss the first bit of school, even managing to sleep in a bit. The visit to the dentist lasted no more than five minutes, and there was no need to hurry to school, so I ambled my way to the local mall, where I shelled out seven bucks (Canadian) for the cassette of Master of Puppets. I got to school midway through my tenth grade English class’ run-through of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the rest of the day went by in a blur of anticipatory excitement, the rest of the day’s dronings by teachers flying right over my head, as that tape burned a mighty furious hole in my jacket pocket. Racing home that afternoon, listening to the opening acoustic guitar flourishes on “Battery” segue into a majestic metallic overture, before kicking into the galloping opening riff, the entire genre of heavy metal music, as well as my appreciation of good music, was forever changed.
It may be hard for younger fans to fathom, but before the release of Master of Puppets in 1986, Metallica were largely a cult band (some may say they were a cult band before 1991), and in direct contrast to the band’s current stance against internet file sharing, Metallica’s fan base was created by tape trading and word of mouth (in 1984, I heard that word of mouth, but didn’t believe it, all because Metallica shared its Canadian indie label with Venom, a band I hated. Hey, I was young and stupid . . .). Formed in 1981 by Danish immigrant Lars Ulrich on drums and California native James Hetfield on guitar and lead vocals, Metallica would be the one American underground metal band who would break through into the mainstream. The band was four regular slobs who despised the never-ending parade of callow hard rock bands from Los Angeles. By 1983, when lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton were added to the mix, the band had managed to combine the best elements of punk and early ‘80s British metal (bearing the comically lengthy title, the “new wave of British heavy metal”). Metallica’s sound possessed the frenetic speed of the Misfits and Motorhead (but was much, much tighter), the stylistic intricacies of Diamond Head and Mercyful Fate, and the pure, all-out heaviness of bands like Venom and Black Sabbath. Added to this musical mix were Hetfield’s lyrics, which avoided the more fantasy-oriented themes common in metal back then, in favor of more angry, personal topics, partly as a way to exorcise the demons of his fanatical, Christian Science upbringing.
Comprised of eight songs spanning just under 55 minutes, Master of Puppets is progressive metal of the epic variety, but there is never a moment of self-indulgence, never any repetition. Every song is effective on its own, but each one (not including the disc’s instrumental) follows the same lyrical theme of control and the abuse of power. Album opener “Battery” sets the mood immediately with its spare acoustic guitar intro, its flamenco-like flourishes creating the same effect as an Ennio Morricone-scored title sequence in a Spaghetti Western, before the song explodes out of the gate. On the surface, “Battery” may seem like just another lunkheaded, fist-pumping, aggro audience-pleaser, but Hetfield’s lyrics hint at fanaticism run amok: “Crushing all deceivers, mashing non-believers / Never ending potency . . . Cannot kill the family / Battery is found in me”.
“Master of Puppets” remains, to this day, Metallica’s most successful combination of that epic quality laced with accessible metal hooks. Possessing a classic, distorted riff by Kirk Hammett, and no fewer than five time signature changes, the song is the most scintillating eight minutes in metal history. Hetfield’s theme of control now centers around the horror of drug addiction: “Taste me you will see / More is all you need / You’re dedicated to / How I’m killing you”. The song flies by, ranging from beautiful guitar solo harmonies, to an intense, menacing bridge anchored by Ulrich and Burton, and nimble-fingered licks by Hammett.
Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Shadow Over Innsmouth”, “The Thing That Should Not Be” is a lumbering beast of a song, an exercise in midtempo heaviness, chronicling the story of Lovecraft’s protagonist’s battle against unearthly forces over the fate his own self, sometimes paraphrasing Lovecraft himself (“Not dead which eternal lie/Stranger eons death may die”). The comparatively mellow “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, based on Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, perfectly meshes a trippy, chiming intro guitar riff with a scorching bridge, as if emerging from a drug-addled state to a fit of violent frenzy in five minutes.
The powerful “Disposable Heroes” is an overlooked gem in the Metallica catalog. Like the album’s title track, this is another eight minute epic, but the band increases the intensity dramatically, as Ulrich’s phenomenal drumming takes center stage, propelling the band along at breakneck speed, never veering out of control. Hetfield’s tale of a soldier and his superiors who control his fate is gripping: “More a man, more stripes you bear, glory seeker trends / Bodies fill the fields I see / The slaughter never ends”.
“Leper Messiah” targets the seedy televangelists of the mid-‘80s, and although the topic was an oft-overused one by metal bands, Metallica manages to create something fresh, thanks to the band’s tight performance. The instrumental “Orion” is a revelation, in which Metallica shows remarkable maturity and discipline in their songwriting. Here, it’s not all about guitar noodling; instead, the band focuses on complex tempo changes and (often gorgeous) harmonies that sound inspired by classical music. Burton’s bass playing carries the entire song (he was the only formally trained musician in the band), and it shines midway through, as he plays a beautiful, quiet riff, before playing the most soulful bass solo ever played in a hard rock song. Hearing it now is a bit heartbreaking, since Burton would be killed in a tour bus crash in September of 1986.
“Damage, Inc.” brings the album to a close, and is a classic example of ‘80s thrash metal, with a classic staccato guitar riff, and more spectacular drumming from Ulrich. Hetfield’s lyrics provide somewhat of a denouement for the album, citing that individuality always winds up defeating the forces of control in the end (“Living on your knees, conformity / Or dying on your feet for honesty”).
At the heart of Master of Puppets is its production, by Flemming Rassmussen. Whereas Rick Rubin’s work on Slayer’s Reign In Blood (the second most important metal album of the 1980s) that same year focused more on a crisp, attack-on-the-senses sound, Master of Puppets was more monolithic, more of a metal version of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Metallica would go on to tweak its sound (including releasing an album in 1988 with Jason Newsted’s bass turned all the way down, all as a pathetic act of hazing) before settling (selling out?) with producer Bob Rock during the 1990s, but none of their albums since have managed to combine musicality, passion, and intensity as well as Puppets did. Longtime fans bemoan the Burton Factor ad nauseum, and although Newsted was a quality replacement who was treated most unfairly (he was forced out of the band in 2001), it really was Burton who was Metallica’s secret weapon.
Sixteen years later, Master of Puppets still sounds as great as it ever did; however, it’s sad that while Metallica influenced every single nu-metal band out there today, virtually none of these bands have dared to try to take that sound even further. Instead, we have lazy, low-on-talent groups who rely on repetitive, crunchy guitar riffs, gutteral (or as one critic notes, “Cookie Monster”) vocals, and either frighteningly antisocial, or embarrassingly emotional, lyrics. The most antisocial Master of Puppets gets is when Hetfield growls, “Fuck it all, and fucking no regrets,” and that one angry line says as much as the entire last Slipknot album takes more than an hour to say. Metallica didn’t dwell on personal misery; every song was a different idea, both in terms of subject, and musical style. They were young, ambitious, a bit naïve, and willing to blow you away, or at least die trying. That ambition would be lost forever with the release of 1991’s extremely disappointing Black Album.
I’m not going to come out and make some ridiculous statement like, “It was like Metallica were singing my thoughts”, or, “Metallica’s music saved me from slashing my wrists”. It makes me cringe to see the blank stupidity of fans of a facile band like Staind crying as Aaron Lewis moans and groans about how he is ugly, the world is ugly, how the whole stinking world is ugly. It’s that kind of blind worship that helped drive Kurt Cobain to suicide. Yeah, I was a miserable sod during my teens, but no, Metallica didn’t save my life, and I didn’t treat their lyrics like scripture. What Master of Puppets did provide for me, though, was an hour’s worth of sanctuary, of cathartic transcendence, during those ostracized high school years, and that’s all a kid needs to ask of an artist. My musical tastes have grown over the years, and keep growing, encompassing all genres, but Master of Puppets is one of the few albums I return to regularly. I still feel that album’s formidable power to this day, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.