Master of Puppets review by Metallica

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  • Released: Mar 3, 1986
  • Sound: 9
  • Lyrics: 9
  • Overall Impression: 10
  • Reviewer's score: 9.3 Superb
  • Users' score: 9.4 (2,571 votes)
Metallica: Master of Puppets

Sound — 9
"Master of Puppets."

Often included amongst the most influential and iconic landmarks in metal history, the album celebrates its 30th birthday since release its release in 1986. A year where a whole slew of developments rocked the metal world, the amount of cause and effect that the period and this album triggered is perhaps incalculable.

But when it comes to observing that impact, what is it about this album that really changed the scene? Thirty years is a hell of a long time, generational cycles tend to move on from one icon to the next, what does "MoP" have that makes it relevant?

Coming off from the album cycle of "Ride the Lightning," the band had completely revamped itself from their "Kill 'Em All" debut, harnessing the innovative up beat, Motörhead proto-thrash of that album and applying it to more sophisticated, structured and developed song styles on album number two, ranging from the evil and chaotic "Fight Fire With Fire," crowd pleasers such as "For Whom the Bell Tolls," even a ballad "Fade to Black" and instrumental "The Call of Ktulu."

The difficult third album required the band to up their game on all fronts. "Master of Puppets" was the first time that professionalism became apparent in the band's album sound. The songs are all singular epics in their own right, all breaching over 5 minutes and some going well over 8 minutes in length. While "Ride the Lightning" was recorded in just over 3 weeks, "Puppets..." took nearly 3 months. Suddenly the band were recording with Quincy Jones levels of expectation, with even small things like lead guitar tones taking, according to Kirk Hammett himself, almost 4 hours to drum up.

Photo courtesy of Elektra

And there's the actual songs themselves.

It's no short order trying to accurately weigh the strengths of these songs, but when that all too familiar "Battery" intro opens up, even if you were the unfortunate victim of auditory abuse in Guantanamo Bay (seriously, abusing inmates with Metallica songs, that's actually a thing), the weighty, epic momentum of that acoustic-to-electric build up is enough to make even the most cold-hearted of cretins feel a certain rousing adrenaline in the guts.

The title track almost sets a standard for the earliest example of progressive metal, featuring a neo-classically minded, dual guitar driven bridge and an off-kilter main riff that so easily breaches into complex time signatures as if it were no effort. Lets not forget how much this song made down-picking the heaviest sounding thing in the universe at the time, not to mention that it's still a universal endurance test in this day and age.

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"The Thing That Should Not Be" has the ground work for a lot of proto-death metal (not as much as Slayer, but it's still there) with it's dissonant riffing, atmospheric guitar pyrotechnics and lyrical subjects of cosmic horrors looming somewhere out of the oceans. "Damage, Inc." sets the example of the perfect in-and-out thrash track, hitting where it hurts most and leaving even more abruptly than it comes in.

Each of these songs have, in their own way, somehow added to the evolutionary language of the metal world, to the point where even modern albums still use similar format ideas, song ideas or even stylistic choices. Even modern tech-death albums such as Obscura's "Omnivium" can have similar formats.

This isn't even considering the effect that their actual playing techniques had on the music world, from Cliff Burton's near-virtuoso bass exploration to Hetfield's defining and finalising of the "chugs" of the era, these things have sprouted off from Metallica's '80s album chain and become permanent traits in metal composition.

Despite all this, the album was never perfect. Most would agree that no Metallica album is perfect and more recent examples (*cough* "St. Anger") show a bands potential for... errors.

Thankfully, for "MoP," they never were that huge. These long tracks could feel incredibly drawn out and almost slog-ish.

These tracks were never really true songs as the ideas of catchiness and metal don't usually meet together, so the kind of drawn out melodic lines of the instrumentals and James Hetfield's gruffly rhythmical delivery provided the closest thing to hooks, limiting its appeal to more casual fans.

And these tracks just aren't the same sort of iconic rock/metal tracks like say, "Ace of Spades," "The Trooper" or "Breaking the Law" that permeate through social and music barriers. It wouldn't be until the "Black Album" that this style of writing would be changed.

Aaand also Lars' drumming is a teeny tiny bit sloppy at times.

But given all that, it's hard to deny the effects that this album has had on the metal world.

Lyrics — 9
It goes without saying that James Hetfield is as iconic a frontman and vocalist as is possible. Hell, the fact that he's gone through several internet memes already is a good indication of how recognisable he is.

While "Kill 'Em All" and "Ride the Lightning" featured a less mature James aping a certain Mr. Kilmister (rest in peace), "Master..." is where he finally found his voice. Always described as aggressive but with a lot of control behind it, the anger and harshness of his style felt worlds away from the popular tenor-style vocals of the accepted heavy metal norm. Not only did it build upon the evolution started from the punk bands of the era, but he still had the tonal clarity to make it actual singing.

Although any recent live video of Metallica will show a very different output from Hetfield these days, it speaks volumes of this album where he can still make all those memorable chorus lines sound great even with his current, squeaky clean technique.

Lyrically, "Master of Puppets" is one of those albums that made metal a bit more of a political genre. Written by the young 20-somethings that they were, the Big 4 of Thrash as a collective had many real life experiences to draw upon for fresh material and "Master..." is based both upon those experiences and also a more abstract idea: being unwillingly controlled by external forces.

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"Battery" and "Damage, Inc." sees the control rage has over a person, how it causes wanton destruction from such a minor shift in mental balance. The title track is about the insidious control of addiction, or more specifically, cocaine. "Leper Messiah" is about spiritual control, about the ideas behind religious indoctrination, televangelists, even both depending on perspective. "Sanitarium" is about the physical and mental control of the hospitalised, and in this case, the wrongfully hospitalised. Even "The Thing That Should Not Be" takes things a step further with the existential control that an indescribable galactic entity has over the subconscious.

I personally like to think "Orion" is a long running ironic joke about how we don't yet have control of star constellations, but that may just be me.

Overall Impression — 10
What else is there to really say? Considering the impact this album had, the albums of the same year had and that it still has multiple effects in the metal world thirty years on is its own testament. Although not the darkest or most daring ("Reign in Blood"), the most technical ("Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?") or the most down-to-earth ("Among the Living") out of the Big 4, it is certainly the more mature, sophisticated and more importantly, re-playable of those four albums.

Although it's usually a mugs game to predict where industry tastes and attitudes lie in the future, today "Master of Puppets" can still be considered actual history, a game changer like "The Number of the Beast," "Paranoid" or "Sad Wings of Destiny" (or generally any early Priest album).

And with that, we wish it a happy 30th, Metallica a happy 35th and hope it doesn't wake up the next morning with a permanent marker penis drawn on its face.

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8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Way Cool JR.
    I remember when this first released. It's hard to believe that it has already been 30 years ago. 1986 was also the same year that brought us Megadeth's "Peace Sells...but Who's Buying?" album. It was a magical time, that's for sure. The '80s Rocked.
    86 also saw the release of Reign in Blood. In Anthrax had released Among the Living that year, 86 would have been the best year for thrash metal.
    Just follow the +1 comments to know where the reissue debate begins xD