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 behaviors 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.
There 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.