By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
METALLICA – MASTER OF PUPPETS (1986)
With apologies to Angela Lansbury, the story of Metallica’s Master of Puppets album is a tale as old as time. Or at least as of just a few days before this article is posted online, a tale that started thirty-seven years ago.
Back in 1986, Metallica was coming off two well received albums that had taken the metal underground by storm. But I don’t think anyone was prepared for what the band would put forth on their third release. And that’s where I think we can leave off with any kind of in-depth recap of the history of the album and the band.
Yes, the band has sold at least six million copies of Master of Puppets. Yes, their bassist Cliff Burton died during the tour for the album. And yes, the album to this day remains not only a touchstone for the thrash metal genre but continues to be one of the most influential metal albums of all time.
There’s not much I can add to those facts and surely nothing I might come up with would likely be considered new information. So let’s just skip all that and head right into my own experience with the album and band.
The first thing you should know is that this is where I came to discover Metallica. I had never heard of, much less listened to, Kill ‘Em All or Ride The Lightning before getting into the band with Master of Puppets. I’m not sure where I heard it first, but my introduction to Metallica came courtesy of the song “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”. It’s the last song on Side One of the cassette but it definitely was the first song I’d ever heard from the band. Come to think of it, it might’ve been Dr. Metal on 94 HJY’s “The Metal Zone” radio program where I first heard the song. I remember being taken with the way the song started off. I had no way of knowing when I first heard the song that the band’s songwriting had taken on a whole new dimension for Master of Puppets. But I did know that I loved the way Metallica created this creepy sound to give a depth of feeling to a song that I still marvel at. As the song’s vocal kicks in, things are moving in an insistent but methodical manner. But when you get to the chorus, you can hear how things kick up and you wonder how long it will be before Metallica just blows off the slower side of their music to go full on blitzkrieg. You don’t have to wait all that long. As you get past the second chorus, the slower stylization on the song disappear and listeners get a full-throated roar from James Hetfield. Add in the explosive solo and killer overall extended outro and you have a song that is hard to beat.
I should mention that the cassette I’m listening to for this article happens to be the one I bought back in the day. And I can tell you that I remember hearing the opening strains of “Battery”, which starts off far slower and more deeply intense than the rest of the song, that when the song’s more untamed fury kicks off in full, it felt like you were being repeatedly punched in the face by an in his prime Mike Tyson. It was just savage the way you were buffetted by each new sonic attack in the song.
And there’s no let up on the album’s title track which still holds me entranced as it plays even now. It captures you and doesn’t let you go until the final notes.
Of course it isn’t all razor sharp guitars and rip snorting vocals either. No instead James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, the aforementioned Cliff Burton and Lars Ulrich, turn the pace of the album down a bit with “The Thing That Should Not Be”. If you think it sounds like the title of a horror movie or something, go with that feeling. While the pacing is far more stripped back in terms of speed, there’s still a strong current of ripsnorting fury employed in a noticeable but still somehow subtle manner.
And when you flip the tape over to Side Two, you are once again immersed into a relentlessly unforgiving metallic explosion. I’m not sure where the song “Disposable Heroes” ranks in Metallica’s catalog, but I know that when I was listening to the album all those years ago, this song did it for me. You don’t really get a chance to breath with this song. You listen to the guitar work alone and it’s like being hit with the kind of G-forces that keep you locked into your seat unable to move. But the way Hetfield blows the roof off with his vocals always gets me. He wrote all the lyrics to the songs and really killed it with the anti-war sentiments for this song. I still find myself singing along (badly) to the track whenever I listen to it and I’m amazed how powerful it remains still.
In the 80’s, it wasn’t exactly uncommon for metal bands to have an anti-religion song at some point along the way. Seems only fair considering how much religious charlatans made from attacking metal music at every turn. And that’s exactly what Metallica does with “Leper Messiah”. It’s still rather timely even now and nothing is spared in the lyrical tirade. And since I have no use for religion myself, you can be assured that this song hit home with me both back then and even now.
Now, I’m not going to blow smoke here or anything but as much as I love this album, it took me a long time to really appreciate the song “Orion”. It all really boils down to the fact that at the time of the Master of Puppets release, I was not really a huge instrumental fan. Hell, it would probably still be a stretch to call me one now. Sure I like a lot more instrumental music now but it generally isn’t something I seek out FIRST. That said, as years passed, I became far more into the song. It’s essentially built around Cliff Burton’s bass playing but there’s so much going on in the song that hearing any lyrics might’ve taken away what everyone got to experience with the track being an instrumental.
The “Orion” song is over eight minutes long so at first, I needed the near masochistic thump of the album closing “Damage, Inc.” But the song is a lot more than just a relic of a pick-me-up impression I had a long time ago. It rockets the listener along yet another explosive shockwave of sonic fury. And as Hetfield rages vocally, you get Hammett, Burton and Ulrich thundering alongside of him until you are finally almost quite physically spent and welcome the end of the album because you need to rest up if you want to listen again.
When I decided to listen to the album in order to do this article, I realized that it had actually been a while since I had sat down to give it a good listen. Now more than ever, I’m glad I did. Because Metallica really did hit their stride perfectly on Master of Puppets. No matter what you think of how their career trajectory has gone since this album, the eight songs that comprise Master of Puppets did more for Metallica’s legacy than practically any other band in metal. It was a masterpiece then, it is a masterpiece now. Go on, dig it out and take another listen and be prepared to be hit with an unstoppable sense of shock and awe at just what this album accomplished.
NOTES OF INTEREST: I didn’t see Metallica in concert until the tour for the …And Justice For All album. But when they played songs from the Master of Puppets album, they just absolutely killed me in that live setting as much as the studio versions of the songs do even now.
I own a CD edition of Master of Puppets but I never got the 2017 box set or that digital reissue that is mentioned on the Wikipedia page for the album.