Album Title: Master of Puppets
Artist: Metallica
Genre: speed metal
Label: Elektra
Release Date: February 21, 1986

I still remember it clearly. It was a warm March day, the kind that tricks plants in Denver into starting to bud even though several more feet of snow will fall before it is safe for them to do so. I was 12 years old, a punk skater kid with bleach-blonde bangs to my chin and no other hair anywhere on my head. I had no worries in the world other than impressing little Laura Montague by landing my first 360° trick on the halfpipe we had built in my friend Tyler's backyard.

We skated a lot back then. 4 or 5 hours a day on school days, 10 hours a day on weekends or breaks. I suppose it was my first obsession, the first hobby that could consume me, that could offer me endless new challenges even as I conquered them one after another. The music was a big part of that, a constant thrum of guitars and drums and screaming, barely coherent lyrics that fed us the energy to go on no matter how many scrapes, cuts, bruises, or fractures we accumulated. Slayer, DK, Black Flag, The Minutemen; the coal that fed the overheated engine of our not quite teenage selves.

But back to that perfect March day. One of the kids had shown up with a new tape by some band I'd never heard of. Metallica. Master of Puppets. It had a cool ass cover featuring puppetstrings attached to gravestones (for 12-year-old American boys anything featuring death is cool) and a list of track names that could have been purposefully designed to intrigue early adolescent males. Battery, Leper Messiah, and Damage Inc. all sounded ominous enough that we just knew our parents were going to freak. Eagerly, we stuck the tape into the portable boombox that accompanied every pack of pubescent boys in 1986 and raced up to the deck of the halfpipe.

What followed was special for me. I had the best pure day of skating I ever experienced during the 4 years that it was such a vital part of my life. Janeane Garofalo jokes that she always wants to walk up to skaters and ask "Don't you guys ever land anything?", but on this day I was landing everything. As I basked in the most sublimely perfect collection of heavy metal music ever assembled I put down my first 360° and my first 540°, both on my first try for the day. From the single guitar that begins Battery to the breathless whisper of Damage, Inc, I skated as flawlessly as Metallica played.

While I never skated like that again, the album that accompanied me that day has always remained one of my favorites, regardless of genre. By the time that Puppets was recorded Metallica had grown up a little bit, and matured as songwriters a great deal. The songs are vastly more complicated, both musically and lyrically, than what is found on Kill 'em All or Ride the Lightning. While the deep concern with the real world and with politics wouldn't come to the fore until their next album, ...And Justice For All, a glimmer of it begins to show up on this disc. The title track provides a harrowing sonic examination of the nature of addiction while Leper Messiah relentlessly attacks the hypocrisy of the growing televangelism industry.

This was Metallica's last album featuring good, old-fashioned, beat the shit out of something speed metal. Tracks such as Battery and Damage, Inc have no political subtext, they are pure adrenaline administered through the ears. The Thing That Should Not Be continues a heavy metal tradition of finding inspiration in the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

This is Metallica's best album, and the last featuring bass player Cliff Burton, who died while on tour to support the album in Europe.

Track Listing

  1. Battery : 5:12
  2. Master of Puppets : 8:36
  3. The Thing That Should Not Be : 6:37
  4. Welcome Home (Sanitarium) : 6:27
  5. Disposable Heroes : 8:16
  6. Leper Messiah : 5:40
  7. Orion : 8:27
  8. Damage Inc. : 5:30

Track Detail

Battery : words and music by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich : 5:12
"Lashing out the action, returning the reaction, weak are ripped and torn away".

The very first line of the album tells the entire story of the disc. Battery starts out slow and careful, with a single guitar plucking out an upbeat tune, but quickly turns into a solid wall of sound thrumming underneath James' screams.

Master of Puppets : words and music by Hetfield, Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Cliff Burton : 8:36
"Obey your master."

Metallica's first truly great song, Master of Puppets is a near-nine-minute tale of drug use turning into abuse turning into death. I've seen Metallica perform 26 times over the years, and this is the only song that I've heard them play at every single show. More than any other track on this disc, this one displays all of Metallica's strengths. The transitions between bang-your-head speed metal and slower tempo instrumental interludes are particularly adept.

The Thing That Should Not Be : words and music by Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett : 6:37
"Not dead which eternal lie--stranger aeons, even death may die"

No self respecting heavy metal album of the 80s left out entirely references to the occult, it was just too much fun to tweak the noses of the ultra-conservative religious right. This was an era where Ozzy Osbourne, far from being a cultural icon of at least semi-respectability, attracted as many protesters as fans to some shows. This is a good song, but good in the run-of-the-mill heavy metal sort of way, not transcendentally good in the same way that Master of Puppets is.

Welcome Home (Sanitarium) : words and music by Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett : 6:27
"Listen, damnit, we will win"

The song that you are second most likely to hear Metallica fans cite as the best of this album. Sanitarium tells the story of an insane asylum where the inmates don't believe they are insane, providing a metaphor for the sense of alienation felt by all young people. The song moves from images of desolation and despair to extreme violence, but somehow manages to feel optimistic all the way through.

Disposable Heroes : words and music by Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett : 8:16
"I was born for dying"

In this song, an infantryman rages against his fate. Sent to die for a cause he neither understands nor would believe in if he did understand, he goes back to the front over and over until his luck runs out.

Leper Messiah : words and music by Hetfield and Ulrich : 5:40
"Make a contribution, you'll get a better seat"

The urge to comment on society shows up again in this track. A searing indictment of the hypocrisy of television evangelists, selling modern-day indulgences to the highest bidder. This song is positively dripping in sarcasm and cynicism and marks another high point of the disc.

Orion : music by Hetfield, Ulrich, and Burton : 8:27

The album's sole instrumental track, this best sections of this are the showcases of Cliff Burton's fingerwork on the bass.

Damage Inc. : words and music by Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett, and Burton : 5:30
"Fuck it all and fucking no regrets"

The album closes with the best pure head-banging song Metallica ever wrote (sure, sure, some people will give that distinction to either Whiplash or Creeping Death, but those people are just wrong). The story of hired killers, people you just don't want to fuck with, this song features James being especially menacing as his trademark snarl lapses into a throaty whisper of "Damage, Incorporated".

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