What can you really say about Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’, the title track to their third, and for many fans, defining album – certainly during the early ‘thrash-kings’ phase of the band’s existence?
There’s a lot to say, but also not that much.
In some ways it was money for old rope, but it was at the same ime one of the most groundbreaking songs and albums of all time.
A Winning Formula
On the one hand, the album as a whole is widely considered to be a masterpiece, and marks a clear musical progression from Metallica’s previous 2 albums. More thoughtful compositions, longer songs, tighter production and so forth. On the other hand, it’s also just a tighter and improved version of their previous album, ‘Ride the Lightning’. The format is virtually a carbon copy. Acoustic intro followed by lightning-fast riffing on the opener? Check. (‘Battery’). Monumental title track? Check. (‘Master of Puppets’). Ballad-y number, then a march, then a long instrumental? Check. (‘Sanatorium’, ‘The Thing that should not be’, and ‘Orion’.)
Meat and 2 Veg
Metallica themselves have made no bones about it – they took a ‘meat and 2 veg’, formulaic approach to what should be included on those early albums. And yet, ‘Master of Puppets’ IS very different. Mature. A real demonstration of what Metallica were aiming for at that time as a band.
And obviously, that progression didn’t happen by accident. They were far better players by this point, following a year and a half on the road supporting ‘Ride the Lightning’, where they played anything from small venues right the way through to Monsters of Rock at Donnington, England. At the latter gig, they were amusingly sandwiched on the bill between Bon Jovi and Ratt, which must have marked a point of contrast for the crowd.
As already noted on The Hawk’s blog post on Ratt’s ‘Round and Round‘, which got a run out at Donnington, Hetfield wasn’t super complimentary about other bands on the bill, commenting thus to the crowd.
Hetfield to the crowd, during that set:
‘If you came here to see spandex, eye-make up, and the words “Oh Baby” in every f***ing song, this ain’t the f***ing band.’J.H.
The Next Level
It meant that by the time writing got underway for ‘Master of Puppets’ at their Bay Area base, they’d honed their craft and had the skill set to take things to the next level. (Leaving nothing to chance, Lars Ulrich had taken drum lessons, and Kirk Hammet continued to work with his mentor, guitar legend Joe Satriani, so that they’d be able to bring an ultra-professional approach to their next recording.)
The sound also came about through sheer bloody-mindedness. Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield had toured American studios, mostly in LA, but couldn’t find what they wanted, especially the right reverb for the drums. That (and a conveniently strong dollar) led them to decamp to Copenhagen, where they’d recorded before, and knew they’d get what the wanted. Hetfield tinkered endlessly with his amps to get the right guitar sound. And even in Copenhagen, with the basic demo tracks already laid down, they’d still stay up until the small hours jamming on new ideas.
Drugs and More
So, what about that title track? As noted elsewhere on this blog, James Hetfield didn’t really open up as a lyricist until the Black Album, where he started to show a little more vulnerability and a more personal side. That wasn’t at all in evidence in 1986. And on it’s face, ‘Master of Puppets’ is a bog-standard song about drugs, obviously a fairly well explored subject matter for many Classic Heavy Metal bands at the time.
In this case, we have a song about drugs taking control of your life – still nothing super original. But the lyrics are nice in the way that they mix the brutal literal truth (‘Chop your breakfast on a mirror’) with more high-level concepts around control – both gaining it (the drugs) and losing it (the addict). That’s emphasized even more in the album cover, which was obviously painted with the title track firmly in mind. A cemetery with countless white crosses for all those needless drug deaths, each one manipulated by eerie puppet-master hands against a fiery, blood red sky.
Some people (including Lars Ulrich on and off) have tried to raise the meaning of the song beyond just drug addiction, claiming that the lyrics may also refer to any controlling influence the listener has in their life. Classic Metal Hawk is fine with either interpretation – it just depends how literal you want to be.
A New Kind of High
Anyway, it’s the music and arrangement that really make the song the classic that it is. First, those famous Hetfield intro riffs. The speed and precision set a new standard for thrash guitar playing right there – all downstrokes for any guitar players out there, and thus requiring a wrist of iron. (No puerile speculation here, please, on how that could be developed).
Then, we get a couple of verses and choruses, before the band get into exploration territory. No four-minute thrash numbers for them by this point in their careers, they wanted to try out ideas, be unpredictable. So now we have an acoustic bridge, then a slow solo (and a Hetfield solo at that), before the dynamic is turned back up and a new heavier riff comes along. Kirk provides the requisite virtuoso solo (meat and potatoes still has a place even among all this unpredictability). For Classic Metal Hawk, it’s not the best solo on the album, preferring Kirk’s effort in ‘Disposable Heroes’. But it’s still very listenable, and comes to a pleasing crescendo.
Another verse and chorus, then we’re into the outro with its discordant guitars and evil laughter, and we’re out, after fully 8 and a half minutes. It’s long and epic, but in a way that keeps interest going. There’s plenty of musical interest to catch the ear, with all of the above and plenty of dropped beats throughout. But it’s not the wanky, ‘look how clever we are’ test of listening stamina that the next album, ‘And Justice for All’ would become.
So yeah, unless we want to do some kind of music lecture and argue over whether the verse lines with dropped beats are in 5/8 or 21/32 time, there’s a limit to where Classic Metal Hawk can go with a song blog about ‘Master of Puppets’. For non-Classic Heavy Metal afficionados, it’s a song about drugs with a few interesting arrangement lines, and plenty of heavy guitars. And yet it’s such a perfect representation of the very best of thrash at the time – a song that pre-dates the commercial territory that Metallica would eventually conquer, but which takes us back to that 80s vibe instantly.
‘Master of Puppets’ did get a release as a single at the time, although it was a fairly half-assed release. They weren’t a singles band in 1986 but went through the motions as prescribed by their new managers at Q Prime.
The plan was, as always, to tour the album / song, and introduce it to the fans in the ‘right’ way – in your face from on stage. Infamously, that ended in disaster with the tragic and untimely death of bassist Cliff Burton – a guy who only got 3 writing credits on the ‘Master of Puppets’ album, but was so influential in getting the Metallica to where they were by then. That’s a story for another blog. In the meantime, let’s wind back the years to a moment of thrash perfection.
Metallica or Slayer? Mater of Puppets or Reign in Blood? Should we really try to pick winners all the time? And what’s the feeling on Master of Puppets guitar solos? Which one is the best?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.