Flashback Friday: Metallica Channeled Anger And Fear On “Master Of Puppets”

While your taste in music might age as you get older, it goes without saying that there are albums that you’ll always be able to return to. For some, it was an awkward folk stage, maybe a little fling with reggae. For me, it’s metal.

While the origins of the metal sound are open to a crazy level of debate among fans, there’s no doubt that Metallica kicked it into a new gear. More insane guitar solos, chunky distortion and bass, ridiculously complex drum lines, and of course the intensity of the lyrics are all things that changed the face of metal and rock music in general, kicking the darker side into the mainstream. Alongside Metallica are artists like Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer who also contributed hugely to the sound, however they’re not nearly as prominent now as Metallica have remained. That’s not to say that they’ve stayed consistent, however. They’ve got a nine-album discography under their belt, and just this week announced that a tenth is on the way. Understandably, the quality has dipped at times, with 2003’s St. Anger drawing some really heavy criticism from their loyal fanbase, with the recording process shown via the documentary Some Kind of Monster, warts and all.

Metallica’s third album Master of Puppets is, for many like me, the thrash album. Released in 1986, it was the first studio album by the now legendary metal group, and sadly the last to feature bassist Cliff Burton, who died in a bus crash while touring the record, leaving behind frontman James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, and lead guitarist Kirk Hammet – who all still play to this day. Aside from the huge critical acclaim it received upon its release and the many lists to include it as one of the best and most influential metal albums ever, it was also the first thrash album to go platinum. Fun fact, it was also inducted into the National Recording registry by the United States Library of Congress just two months ago. So yeah, you could say this is a pretty big record.

In 2004, I wasn’t aware of any of this. I’d just started learning to play the guitar and was living in a small town on New South Wales’ Central Coast. When I showed up to one of my guitar lessons one day, my teacher was just wrapping up the previous lesson with a significantly older kid. I walked in the room, and was treated to the opening licks of the album’s namesake, Master of Puppets. “Teach me to play that,” I said. Some context, I was nine. My teacher, Mick, gave me a really basic rundown of how to play it, using single notes rather than chords, but I was hooked. The second I got home I downloaded the entire thing, song by song, via Limewire (ironic considering Metallica’s huge beef with Napster in 2000, but I was unaware. And I was nine.)

The opening chords to Battery set the scene for the album perfectly. Thick, echoing guitar, with technical proficiency you’d expect from classically trained players. If this was your first time listening to a Metallica record you’d think you were in for a very different ride. Then boom, the exact same phrase repeated in their signature style – almost like a statement: shredding is an artform. As the name suggests, and much like the sound suggests, battery is a reference to the crime of “assault and battery”. “Smashing through the boundaries / Lunacy has found me / Cannot stop the battery”.

Welcome Home (Sanitarium) is similar to the opening of Battery in the relationship between song construction and absolute shredding. Based on ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, it’s the story of someone trapped wrongly inside a mental institution. The heavily reverbed guitar work conveys that idea of hopelessness and fear – you’re in the mind of someone in that situation. Like with all the tracks on Master of Puppets however, Hetfield’s voice is able to go from questioning to exploding at a moment’s notice. “Sanitarium, leave me be,” we scream along with him, as the guitar and drums become all the more chunky.

Though I would sing these lyrics as a kid, it’s only recently that I’ve fully begun to appreciate just how driving and emotional they are in conjunction with the feeling of each song. Disposable Heroes is about soldiers whose life is at the control and mercy of their superior officers, and has the most intense and fast riffs on the entire record, reminiscent of gunfire and the sounds of war. The Thing That Should Not Be is a man fighting back against the forces which seek to destroy him, and began my teenage obsession with drop-d guitar tuning – so so heavy.

While I didn’t realise at first, and while I might hear you saying “duh Jack what the fuck,” Master of Puppets is an album fighting back against the forces which seek to control us and those we cannot control. It is paranoia, fear, and most of all, anger. It was when I got to my teenage years that I really got to appreciate it all properly. Master of Puppets succeeded so well by perfectly encapsulating the feeling of anger in every possible way. Thrashing guitars as the driving force of rage, solos and lyrics that make you want to scream out, this is the album, this album gets me. Contextually, it came at a time where people were getting angry and scared of just about everything. Rising tensions between America and the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl disaster, the rise of televangelism, famine in Ethiopia and the Iran-Iraq war all struck fear into the hearts of many – and Metallica’s music was an outlet for that.

By far the pièce de résistance of the entire record though, is the namesake, Master of Puppets. Sitting at a whopping eight and a half minutes long, this monster of a composition perfectly encapsulates every feeling on the album. From the fast-paced and driving opening power-chords, alongside lyrics of the “Master of puppets… pulling your strings, twisting your mind and smashing your dreams” – to when the heaviness breaks and the soothing plucked chords of the song’s centre provide brief melodic refuge. Then, it’s unlike anything else. It’s the only point throughout the entire record that brings about a real feeling of peace. It’s in this moment, as we’re serenaded with one of the most beautiful guitar solos I think I’ve ever heard, we accept that we can’t control these forces, as angering as that is to admit. Ultimately I feel like that’s why Metallica, and for the most part metal and thrash-metal in general, hasn’t had such continued mainstream success. For the time period, this album was the embodiment of the paranoia and anger felt worldwide. But perhaps people just aren’t as angry anymore.

Speaking as a fan of metal and thrash who is now for the most part not a huge fan of metal and thrash, Master of Puppets is the album. While my attraction to the sound has faded, I’ll always come back to it both because of the universal nature of its themes, and the desire to hear some chunky fucking shit when I get mad, or when I want to get motivated. The lyrical and instrumental mastery is something that as far as I’m concerned, has yet to be replicated, even now 30 years after it was released.

It is, and will always be, all time.

Image: Teachrock