Counterbalance No. 158 Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’

Lashing out the action, returning the reaction. Weak are ripped and torn away. Hypnotizing power, crushing all that cower. The 158th most acclaimed album of all time is here to stay. A 1986 metal landmark is this week's Counterbalance.
Master of Puppets

Klinger: You know something, Mendelsohn, I think it’s been quite a while since we had a record that seemed to be drawing a line in the sand. We had a lot of them up there in the early goings of the Great List—it seemed just about every album we covered up there was one that sounded the clarion call that things were going to be quite different. Here in the mid-100s of the Acclaimed Music list (our Swedish overlord’s mathematical analysis of the most critically acclaimed records of all time, for those just tuning in), though, the albums are often solid and certainly well regarded, but they don’t necessarily seem to be addressing their peers and the overall pop music culture like their predecessors. Metallica‘s Master of Puppets, though, feels like just that sort of album.

Master of Puppets sounds to me like a dividing line between the silly spandex-rock that was becoming all too prevalent in 1986, with your Twisted Sisters and your Quiet Riots, and what had been an underground movement of bands who weren’t looking to live in the House that Roth Built. Of course Metallica had their forebears, and they weren’t alone in this movement, but I suspect there’s a reason we’re talking about Master of Puppets now, and part of that has to do with its status as a manifesto of sorts. Your thoughts, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Metallica was at the forefront of what would become known as thrash metal. There were four bands that dominated this metal subgenre—Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. Megadeth and Anthrax are way down the list, while Slayer and Metallica are held in much higher critical regard than the former—we will get to talk about the speed beating of Slayer’s Reign in Blood next year around this time. But if there was a band to act as an introduction to thrash, it would be best to enter with Metallica, which may be part of the reason they appear first on the Great List.

Your comparison between Metallica and Twisted Sister isn’t too far off—both bands were concerned about the oppressive Establishment. The Sisters’ send up of authority in “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is a bit more tongue-in-cheek than Metallica’s complete dissertation on the ills of society brought about by those in charge. After that, though, there is a clear separation between the spandex-wearing hair farmers wandering around on the Sunset Strip and the dark minions of the metal underworld. You can probably draw the line between these two groups by noting who took most of their musical (and fashion) cues from glam rock and who took their musical cues (and lack of fashion sense) from punk rock—specifically the hardcore variety that espoused the harder-and-faster-is-better ethos.

Metallica’s Master of Puppets is also the first album that we’ve talked about in the last couple of months that feels like a Grand Statement. In the early part of the list, it felt like we couldn’t spit without hitting one of those records whose musically and lyrical content seemed to transcend mere rock riffs.

Klinger: Twisted Sister was concerned about the oppressive Establishment? I think you’re reading too much into that cartoon, my friend (also you refer to them as “The Sisters”, which I find troubling for some reason). No, I think it’s safe to say that after Metallica (and yes, the other bands as well), those candy metal groups suddenly sounded like toothless buffoons, and it’s there that my comparison, such as it was, ends. Of course, the bouffanted hordes would only double down on the nonsense as the decade drew on and the lines became even more entrenched, thus making Poison possible. But unless I’m missing something (and if I am, I’m sure someone will point it out to me), the schism became markedly clear right about here.

I’m willing to admit that metal has never been my milieu, so I’m really listening to this up close for the first time as a 45-year-old man. And I think that may actually be helpful as I suss out what makes Master of Puppets such a critical success. Hearing it now, I think I understand the inchoate rage that’s threaded through James Hetfield’s lyrics, and I appreciate that it appears to coalesce here into a Grand Unified Theory of anger. I also think I have better understanding than I would have had then regarding where they were coming from musically. There are a few curious tells throughout here that I find very interesting—that little bit right at the beginning of “The Thing That Should Not Be” that always makes me think of a blues guitar reminds me that the lineup from Metallica takes you through Black Sabbath, who were themselves a louder/harder version of the British blues boomers.

Mendelsohn: Using words like “inchoate” and “milieu” isn’t the best way to endear yourself to most metalheads. And I think the passage of time and countless replays of the “We’re Not Gonna Take It” video have lessened the impact of Twisted Sister. Don’t think the Twis-Sis were as hardcore as they come? Just ask Tipper Gore. That lady knew her rock and/or roll.

I’m glad your distance from this record will be able to give you an objective look at what makes it tick. I have all sorts of baggage when it comes to Metallica. I was a teenage wannabe metalhead, which is probably worse than the real thing, and spent many, many hours listening to this band. I then did a complete 180 about a decade ago when Metallica got involved in the whole Napster thing and Lars Ulrich reveled himself to be a rich, whiney rock star who was more concerned with preserving the status quo than bringing down the Establishment. That’s the definition of irony, right? So, now, whenever I listen to Metallica I get this mix of nostalgia and disgust. It’s taken me nearly a week to work through it.

Black Sabbath is definitely a common touchstone for almost every metal band, with the tuned-down guitar and thundering bass, and that of course will lead you back to the blues, the progenitor at the heart of all rock. Metallica also took cues from the hardcore punk movement, incorporating the speed and tenacity into their overall sound. I think the thing that surprised me the most though, after such a long time away from Metallica, was just how precise and overtly classical the music could be at times. The intros to “Battery” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” are great examples of the classical influence while the rest of the record is meticulously put together. Call it angry, call it dense, call it overkill if you want, but don’t call it sloppy.

Klinger: Yes, from start to finish, Master of Puppets is a series of tricky twists and turns that the group handles with great aplomb. And I think it’s important to single out the lead work of Kirk Hammett when you talk about the serious music influences that are all throughout this record. Back in the 1980s, the finger tapping widdly-woo of Eddie Van Halen seemed like it was the lingua franca of hard rock, and while it can be technically impressive, it meant that too many guitarists were sacrificing melody for the sake of pyrotechnics. That’s not the case here, and it’s quite welcome.

Come to think of it, I may have mentioned that before when we were talking about Slash‘s work with Guns N’ Roses back in the olden days. I also maintained that it was Appetite for Destruction, and not Nevermind, that rendered hair metal obsolete by beating it at its own game. If you fit Metallica into this (probably oversimplified) narrative, it becomes more clear that we’ve probably been talking about non-overlapping magisteria all along. There’s always been a line between party-rocking candy metal and the stuff that the Great List has handed us so far. Every genre of music has its various threads and subgenres, each with their own varying degrees of thoughtfulness, even if outsiders aren’t aware of the distinctions (just like not all hip-hop is misogynistic gangsta blingery).

Mendelsohn: That’s true. But when it comes to metal it’s gets a little more convoluted. I think there is an important distinction between a band like Guns N’ Roses or Twisted Sister and Metallica and it has to do with the use of pop constructs within the music. Pop music played an important part in breaking Guns N’ Roses upon the masses, making their variant of hard rock much more palatable then the early Metallica records or even Master of Puppets. But where Metallica lacked the pop bona fides, they more than made up for it in sheer rage and technical ability, which will always garner its fair share of attention. Add in some classical aspects and enough melody to keep listeners coming back and you have a recipe for success.

Klinger: Seems that way. And if you could just stop talking about Twisted Sister, we might actually be onto something here.