A quietly melodic Spanish guitar plays out a nice little tune, nothing too special, nice, sedate and calming. Then in a mere 38 seconds, the world comes crashing down into a fiery world of guitars, drums, noise and the cacophony of thrash. It’s track one, side one of Master of Puppets. Battery. Metallica.
The old bait and switch aren’t new, they did exactly the same on Ride the Lightning with Fight Fire with Fire. Again track one, side one. Blackened does it to a lesser extent on And Justice for All. You could argue that Enter Sandman on the Black Album does the same sort of thing but you’d be wrong. It’s all sorts of menacing from the get-go and when the bass drum starts you know where you are and what you’re in for.
Sadly the trope that Metallica plays on their albums played out in real life. With tragic circumstances. From a sedate journey in the wee hours of the morning in rural Sweden; to a tour bus on its side, the band members running around crying, and bassist Cliff Burton’s final moments trapped underneath it. Promoting what is largely regarded as the band’s finest album they lost their creative director. Cliff would never have taken that name on himself but he did so much to shape the sound of the band and the album that sits high on the list of greatest albums of all time, let alone best thrash albums of all time.
Take the three albums that Cliff recorded with the band and it’s hard not to see a journey. A trilogy where the story progresses and the music improves before being tragically cut short. It’s a favorite fantasy discussion that’s been had many times, but it’s nice to imagine what the Black Album would have been like if Cliff was still there. It’s hard to imagine it would have been the highly polished, glossy, Bob Rock’s Rock epic that it ended up being. For all it’s success, replayability, and radio-friendly nature, the Black Album absolutely lacks the soul of Master of Puppets. It lacks Cliff.
Reams and reams of paper have been wasted discussing Jason Newsted’s introduction into the band so it’s not something that needs too much revisiting. Suffice it to say the band was still grieving, the tryouts were somewhat farcical, and hiring essentially a fan of the band and treating him like a mere employee was a recipe for disaster. When the person stood there isn’t the friend you deeply miss, when the chords he’s trying to play are your mate’s chords, it’s easy to see how hard it must have been at times for the other band members, particularly for James. Jason had an impossible job, with some huge shoes to fill. Let’s not forget that the “original” foursome of Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, and Cliff Burton are essentially four of the most disparate people you could ever throw into a band.
From different places in terms of childhood, financial background, outlook on music, personality, confidence, practically every marker you want to name these guys were different. You could well argue that Lars and James share an ability to annoy the crap out of each other, and both saw themselves as the undisputed leader of the band in different ways so there’s always been that divide. Kirk is just Kirk. It seems he could be in any band, at any time, and as long as he got to play his guitar and go home after and watch his horror movies he’d be a happy bunny.
For anyone that has watched “Some Kind of Monster,” it’s clear the dynamic of the band worked best with some kind of soothing, calming glue to bind them all together. Cliff was that person. Don’t misunderstand he wasn’t some kind of Mrs. Doubtfire character, or a Mary Poppins or some mother figure, he’d still tell them all to fuck off should that be what was required. Crucially they all looked up to him. They all respected his ability to play, to write, to work for the band. They listened. It became clear that the band lost the one person they could so ill afford to lose and it’s testament to the bloody-mindedness of James and Lars that the band didn’t fold in on itself. In fact, they went on and released the best selling album they would ever make. A better seller than a hell of a lot of other bands would ever make too.
Having already touched on Battery as the opener it ticks a box that every great album must-have. You can’t overload the beginning of an album so that people basically switch it off halfway through but a proper barnstormer of a track is an absolute essential. Task one complete.
It can’t go too far though. You can’t have the first track to be the best one. It kills an album stone dead if the rest of it can’t match the first 3, 4 or 5 minutes. The titular track, Master of Puppets follows on and it’s just incredible how well it exemplifies the whole album, the sound of Metallica at that time, and is probably the best thrash metal song of all time. It’s midsection where it deviates back into something more melodic and almost fantastical, feels like a song within a song and it’s pure Cliff Burton. The man could thrash, no doubt whatsoever, as anyone who’s seen live footage of him playing For Whom the Bell Tolls would attest, but this song takes the light and the dark of his creative influence.
The rest of the band obviously contribute to the sound and the verve of the music, this isn’t Cliff Burton and Metallica, it’s Metallica as a whole. James became an iconic frontman after doubting himself to the extent that the band had released two studio albums and he was still looking around for someone to bring in as a vocalist.
Lars learned that sometimes less is more and to put it brutally, actually learned to play the drums. He’ll never be John Bonham but let’s be honest who else could ever be? The fact he went and took drum lessons speaks volumes about the humility of the man, and as most would agree, humility and Lars Ulrich are hardly common bedfellows.
Kirk is a fantastically talented guitarist in his own right. He didn’t outlast Dave Mustaine purely because he was less of a drunk and less likely to kill the band in their sleep. He had to have the musical chops to put up a fight that his mouth and fists never would. Especially in the cauldron of scrutiny that being in a band with James and Lars undoubtedly can be. Taking time to sit with Joe Satriani and learn how to record more effectively and push his own technique helped propel this album to where it would eventually reach.
The Thing That Should Not Be, follows on from Master of Puppets and whilst it won’t win any awards for its title, it’s a perfect third track. It’s on-brand if you will. It follows the narrative of the album, makes more of Lars on the drums and serves as exposition for James’ signature closed handed, metronomic strumming.
Welcome Home (Sanitarium) plays out almost back to front. It’s a dressed-down, more reflective opening. The music Metallica make, habitually, since Dave Mustaine’s departure at least, followed the same pattern. Lars and James would write the bulk of the material but then would invite Cliff and Kirk in for input and rehearsal. This track seems to exemplify one that has more of the Cliff and Kirk about it. Less of the angered friction twins, and more of the cooler cats. That is until the four-minute mark where it goes all rollercoaster. The track builds like the coaster climbing the rails and then it drops, putting you back into the thrill, the noise and the throbbing heartbeat of the album.
Disposable Heroes keeps that train a-rollin’. It starts at the same pace as the back end of Welcome Home, almost like one track bleeding into the next before it suddenly remembers where it is and sets up its own introduction. It builds back into pace with the signature metronomic drums and chords and has an anthemic almost shouted lyrical quality and the refrain of “back to the front”, works as a call and answer with a crowd at a live show.
Leper Messiah is the last claim that Mustaine has on the band he was unceremoniously kicked out of. The band admits it utilizes some of his ideas from an older song “The Hills Ran Red”, Mustaine maintains he co-wrote it. An exchange that typifies their post-split relationship pretty well and belies a stand out track on the album. It paces well, does the familiar anthemic call out better than Disposable Heroes, and has a much better texture, putting it up there with Master of Puppets as one of the true mainstays on the album. It does have a sniff of older Metallica and you can see some Mustaine in there for sure. Maybe the grumpy bastard has a point after all. The track drives to its conclusion in a rapturous gunfight with James sounding like he’s screaming just to be heard.
Orion is a definite departure point and feels like it could be a carryover from Ride the Lightning as it has the feel of something more grand, more sparse, more rock opera than down and dirty thrash. It manages to still feel part of the album as a whole as it does stray back to the gritty and grimy at times. Just enough to ground it and make it a segment within the whole, even with the synthy strings that take flight after the mid waypoint. To have an instrumental track on a thrash album is brave in the extreme but this is the kind of bold move that separates the best from the rest.
Damage Inc is the final track and it starts with a slower, more melodic, yet somehow industrial introduction. It pops back into being with a return to the breakneck speed and James’ vocals blare back into being after being “rested” through Orion. This is the track that best exemplifies the breakneck speed of Kirk’s guitar play and shows a real unity and cohesion as a group. The thumping drums and bass offer islands of rest between Kirk’s flaming solo and lyrically it’s bawled out with all Hetfield can bring. A simple, sudden and brisk ending to the track ends the album.
You step off the roller coaster after a hell of a ride, and the knowledge that you’ve heard something so want to hear again and again. Cultural significance, political commentary, critical acclaim and later, more reflective honors are pinned to the chest of this album like the resplendent war hero back from the front. Rolling Stone called it the second greatest metal album after Sabbath’s Paranoid, and was even inducted into the Library of Congress in 2015 as the album was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. To borrow a sporting analogy that states you can only be as good as those you play against, this album rises even further. This was the golden age of thrash with “Peace Sells…” from Megadeath, “Reign in Blood” from Slayer and “Among the Living” from Anthrax all being released at close quarters. Acclaim, plaudits, and pats on the back are no window dressing. This is, and was, and ever will be a died in the wool, down-home, copper-bottomed classic.
Article by James Clinch