For this edition of Anniversary, I thought I would ask my friend Chip, the nicest metalhead I know, to write a post on the 25th anniversary of Metallica’s Master of Puppets, an album that comes as close to musical religion as any record I know. And to dispel any questions about Chip’s credentials, check out his genuinely moving story about dragon fucking courtesy of the Minnetonka Review.
It shames me to admit this, but I only discovered Metallica’s third album, Master of Puppets—one of the greatest collections of music ever to assault the ear of man—after the release of their chart-topping fourth album, …And Justice for All, in 1988. For this later album, Metallica did what for them was the unthinkable: they made a music video. For MTV. I can only imagine the betrayal their fans must have felt. Without MTV or even much of a radio presence, Metallica’s earlier albums had gained a nationwide army of fans, virtually all of them male, white, in ripped jeans and scuffed basketball shoes, recruited through some secret medium of communication that is still obscure to me. (This was pre-internet.) Those of us at Neal Knox Junior High, in The Woodlands, Texas, had no clue what was going on.
The video, for the song “One,” changed us. Shot in grainy black and white, alternating close-ups of the band and scenes from the movie Johnny Got His Gun in which a man lies in a hospital ward, disfigured by war, the video and the song that went with it utterly destroyed for us the likes of Van Halen and Poison, Motley Crue and all those other pussies. So long, good times. So long, girls in bikinis dancing on lunch tables. We had moved on to more important subjects. War. Injustice. Death. Other shit that can’t be expressed in words but only in eight-minute instrumentals. We bought …And Justice for All as soon as possible (in cassette form, from Camelot), became disciples with the first notes of “Blackened,” and afterwards bought their previous three albums and pretended that we had known about them for years. We bought their t-shirts. We gathered by the oak tree on the far side of the schoolyard and discussed The Things That Should Not Be. We already had guitars, but now we set aside “Stairway to Heaven” and “Iron Man” and picked up tablature books full of Metallica songs. We practiced the riffs alone in our rooms. We were in bands, but we were too scared to cover Metallica. The music was over our heads.
What made them great? What made these four skinny dudes—James Hetfield on vocals and rhythm, Kirk Hammett on lead, Cliff Burton (alas, the late Cliff Burton) on bass, and Lars Ulrich on drums—what made them such giants? It’s simplistic to speak of their complicated orchestrations, or their driving, unexpected rhythms, or their guitar riffs, which are the best in the universe. That’s only the most obvious thing, and it doesn’t touch it. There is something other-worldly about Metallica. The songs are long, multi-faceted, novelistic. The music can be violent and ugly, and in the next measure it can sweep you into a melody so beautiful your eyes water. (When I first heard “Fade to Black,” I wept.) The lyrics, full of hanging fragments, twisted syntax, and a distaste for contractions (“Cannot stop the battery!”), have something grand, something St. John the Divine about them — something best captured by a word like “Overlord.” Yes: James, Kirk, Cliff, and Lars were Overlords.
Their greatness reached its peak with 1986’s Master of Puppets. Their first album, Kill ‘Em All, is raw and unrestrained, a classic of thrash metal, with just a hint of the complicated orchestrations to come. (Think of “The Four Horsemen.”) Ride the Lightning has a deeper sensibility but retains the raw edge of the earlier stuff. Master of Puppets is perfect—perfect, I say, whether or not your personal favorite happens to be one of the other albums; that is beside the point. Puppets is a balance of thrash and melody, simple riff and polyphony, before they tipped over into what many would say is the excessive complexity of …And Justice for All. It begins with soft, simple acoustic notes, in a melody that asks to be taken seriously. Then the distortion and drums come in, startling you, and in short order James and Kirk start ripping on their guitars, Lars joins them on the snare in the next measure, Cliff’s bass rumbles along behind them, and suddenly you feel an overwhelming urge to strike your fist against a concrete wall.
What follows is a masterpiece. You will go to the bottom of the sea, down shadowy corridors of insanity, through grainy Nordic darkness. There is the classic title track, “Master of Puppets,” maybe the greatest Metallica song of all, a song which, whenever it comes on the jukebox—and it so often does these days, as our generation becomes more nostalgic—will without fail inspire someone in the bar to pump his fist and say to his friends, “Fuck yes.” There is “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” the various riffs of which are known to every kid who has ever learned how to play the guitar since roughly 1988. There’s “Orion,” the long instrumental, a symphony that seems impossible from a band of four. I could go through every song, lavishing praise, but you know what I’m saying. Master of Puppets is the culmination of all that makes Metallica great.
It also marks the end of an era. On tour for this album, Cliff Burton was killed in a bus accident, and the band was forever changed. He was said to be the life of the band, cheerful and greatly loved, and indeed, after Puppets, something of the liveliness of the first albums is gone. Of course, it is common, and usually unfair, to say that a band’s early albums were the best.
I have lost track of Metallica now. After their self-titled “Black” album, the one that includes “Enter Sandman”—when, having tasted success with their video for “One,” they began making videos for all their songs—I lost interest in them. Not because they sold out; I don’t begrudge them that. I would have done the same if I’d had the chance. It’s simply that they became a different kind of band, and my tastes changed, too, and at a certain point we parted ways, like childhood friends. But I still listen with awe to those first four Metallica albums. Genius is genius. I am that man who says “Fuck yes.” And I would still quake in the presence of James and Kirk and Lars and whoever is the bassist now. They are my Overlords.