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The third Metallica record “Master Of Puppets” is revered and held up to an almost god-like status. It is named as a pinnacle of thrash metal almost as much as Slayer’s venerable “Reign In Blood” record (although I personally prefer the album before and after, “Hell Awaits” and “South Of Heaven”). There are superficial similarities between the two. It is true that both share the same sense of intensity, urgency and songwriting cohesion – but both records set out to fulfill diametrically opposite objectives. “Master Of Puppets” was the second of two albums that the band recorded at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark with famed producer Flemming Rasmussen. With an identical structure in terms of pacing it is a solid refinement of the album that preceded it. Sadly, it was the last Metallica album to feature legendary bass guitarist Cliff Burton.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that “Master Of Puppets” is heavier, crunchier and faster than the previous album – although it shares the same construction. The “Ride the Lightning” sound is further perfected and honed into a number of punchy cuts that retain the same storytelling qualities but feel more confrontational and direct. “Master Of Puppets” expands upon the socio-political themes of questioning authority, the abuse of power and breaking free of herd-like behaviours and groupthink, while cutting down the literary influenced songs to a sole number with ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’. The musicianship has improved, notably Ulrich’s drumming is at its most violent, Burton’s rumbling bass lines feature more prominently than ever before and Hammett’s wailing solos are among this era’s best. Hetfield delivers his most spirited vocal performance.

Metallica-Younger-Days-Early-Photo-920x422There are a couple of memorable passages on this album, many near and dear to any self-respecting metalhead’s heart. The albums opens with the acoustic intro from ‘Battery’, there’s the emotional lead break on the title track and its subsequent ‘Master! Master!’ chorus than any metal fan can recite by heart. ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’ includes more acoustics and ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ opens with a fragile clean guitar piece that is highly atmospheric and touching. ‘Disposable Heroes’ has its ‘Die! Die! Die!’ finale, and that seems to be a callback to the preceding album’s ‘Creeping Death’ song. ‘Leper Messiah’ is based around one crunchy riff and closer ‘Damage Inc.’ has its catchy chorus and is propelled forward by its immensely rugged central riff.

An absolute highpoint is ‘Orion’, Metallica’s third foray into instrumental pieces after ‘Call Of Ktulu’ and ‘(Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth’. As with the preceding record this gargantuan sonic construction is built around material the band wrote but couldn’t use in its traditional song material. It is an atmospheric piece that forms the ideal segue between ‘Leper Messiah’ and the band’s ideological vessel ‘Damage Inc.’. Metallica never sounded more charged than they did here as riffs fly by at a record pace and some of the tempo changes are the absolute best the band have ever penned. “Master Of Puppets” shows a band in control of its instruments, knowledgeable of its skills and with their bodies working as one towards a clearly defined goal: to be the best band at all costs.

The songs cover a wide variety of topics. ‘Battery’ is a track about self-empowerment and overcoming adversity through strife. ‘Master Of Puppets’, the much loved title track for this album, deals with throes of cocaine addiction and the damping effect it has on the mind, ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’ concerns the H.P. Lovecraft story “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ is based on Ken Kesey's novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”. ‘Disposable Heroes’ is about the abuse of power in times of war and about able-bodied young men sent into trenches to die as gnarly old men use them as peons to forward their own shady motives. ‘Leper Messiah’ questions the ethical motives of organized religion and televangelism (much in the same way as Genesis’ hit number ‘Jesus He Knows Me’ did) and concludingly ‘Damage Inc.’ is a self-glorifying hymn about Metallica’s stature as reigning practitioners of their genre. These lyrics recall the days of “Kill Em All”, although they are written in a more mature fashion.

Although Metallica were already something of an established brand through rigorous international touring by the time this album hit the shelves, it is sobering to know that the initial songwriting sessions were completed in a garage in El Cerrito, California by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich. Only after these initial writing sessions were completed were Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett invited to add their own ideas to the basic tracks. Despite the glamorous life of excess and debauchery these multimillionaire rockstars live now, they once were one of the many starving young musicians trying to carve their way in the busy Bay Area metal scene. Once again the album was recorded at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark with famed producer Flemming Rasmussen, the record marks a period of creative and personal stability for the band. The cover artwork by Don Brautigam appears to be inspired by the Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Liege, the French-speaking region of Belgium. Interesting to note is that Hammett produced Death Angel’s 1985 demo tape “Kill As One” in the downtime between “Ride the Lightning” and this highly revered album.

Given the similarity in construction and pacing it would probably have served as a template for all Metallica records if it weren’t for the untimely passing of bass guitarist Cliff Burton during the touring campaign for this album. In fact, this album and the one before it are the only Metallica albums in the classic canon to be structurally identical. The follow-up “…And Justice For All” pretty much follows the template as well, although cracks start to appear in the formula due to a lack of Burton’s guidance. “Master Of Puppets” marks the end of Metallica’s classic stint, although the follow-up still is worthy of the praise it gets for pushing the band into a more technical realm. This album is rightly considered a classic in its genre given its history and enduring legacy.

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On its second album San Francisco thrash upstarts Metallica show what they were truly capable of. It was the first of two albums that the band would record at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark with famed producer Flemming Rasmussen. Interestingly, it was the last album to feature writing contributions from early guitarist Dave Mustaine (who had formed his own band Megadeth in the interim). On the whole it has Metallica at its peak in terms of speed, songwriting and production. For good reason this is universally considered to be a Bay Area thrash metal classic, and rightly so. “Ride the Lightning” sees a hungry band growing in leaps and bounds – and it is testament to what this band could have been wouldn’t they have strayed from the path they laid out.

Where the band formerly was little more than a more muscular Venom, Motörhead and Diamond Head clone on this second album they break out of their creatively stifled shell. Gone are the embarrassing youthful tributes to metal culture and its lifestyle and instead we get interesting dissections of socio-political topics and classic literary subjects. The band was at a crucial juncture in its career. They had to choose between remaining a novelty act that just played groovy heavy music, or tackle more serious and mature subjects and actually become a veritable creative force in a more accomplished sense. As the band was evolving musically at a steep level the lyrics had to fit the more ambitious and involving songwriting. Lest the band become a Manowar they had to adapt or perish – thankfully, the band choose to abandon its goofy beginnings and wrote something they themselves were passionate about. Music and lyrics work in perfect harmony here.

Metallica-1984The album opens with ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ and the track itself starts out with a fragile acoustic piece. The contrast of the acoustic opening section and what is to come greatly emphasizes the strength of the band at this time. Everything is in service of the song, and where the band had previously not used any acoustic instruments here they do, to great effect, I might add. After the peaceful opening the first riff comes in and Metallica now plays faster than they ever did. The leads take a greater prominence in the songwriting, and their inclusion is a vital part of the songs. The songs themselves are more open in terms of composition, and far more melodic. The amount of riffs per song has increased, and each of these riffs flows naturally from the next. Nothing is forced, and one can only imagine what this band could have been had they had a more versatile drummer. There is a greater reliance on recognizable hooks within each song and the album as a whole flows better than the debut. It has the same storytelling qualities, and richness of composition that wouldn’t feel out of place on an early Iron Maiden record. Safe to say Metallica only take songwriting cues from that pivotal British heavy metal bastion, and weave those into its own brand of fast-paced but still fairly melodic thrash metal.

The songs cover a wide variety of subjects. ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ is, as its title cleverly suggests, about revenge, Armageddon and the end of the world. The title track details the misery of the criminal justice system. In fact, it is written from the perspective of a deathrow inmate awaiting electrocution. Apparently, the faults of the criminal justice system was a topic near and dear to the band’s heart at the time as they would eventually base an entire album around its premise. ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ concerns the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, and talks about the horror and dishonor of modern warfare. ‘Fade to Black’, once again introduced by a 12 string acoustic guitar opening, is the band’s first power ballad. ‘Trapped Under Ice’ is based upon a demo track named ‘Impaler’ that Kirk Hammett wrote for his former band Exodus.

‘Escape’ is another power ballad of sorts with angsty, angry-at-the-world adolescent lyrics that every teenager can relate to. ’Creeping Death’ describes the Plague of the Death of the Firstborn (Exodus 12:29), written from the perspective of the angel of death as summoned by Moses. The middle-section of the song was originally written by Hammett while he was in Exodus. It is based on a song called ‘Die By His Hand’ which was a staple in the Exodus setlist, but the track (like ‘Impaler’ before it) never made it on to any official Exodus recordings, and was thus re-used here. Last but not least, the ambitious and highly atmospheric closing instrumental piece ‘The Call Of Ktulu’, co-written by former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, is based on the H.P. Lovecraft story “Shadow Over Innsmouth”, which Burton introduced to the band.

The cover artwork perfectly fits the thematic of the album. Each member is on top of his game instrumentally, and the warm analog production emphasizes the strength of each individual player and the band as a whole. The entire band poured blood, sweat and tears into this record – and frankly, it shows.

Produced in a time of difficulty and strife by a young and hungry American band that were road dogs if nothing else, it is where the stars aligned for Metallica. The songs have near storyteller qualities and the pacing makes it a pleasure to listen to. The lyrics, while angry and frustrated, are far more mature, intelligent and interesting on their own. Recorded on borrowed amps and instrumentation in a brief month and a half at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark “Ride the Lightning” has all the hallmarks of a classic. Everything fits and the record sounds as fresh and invigorating now as it did when it was originally released.