Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986)


You don’t typically see the words “perfection” and “watershed” used to describe thrash metal albums. Yet never have those two words been so appropriate.

The year was 1986, and Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” and Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar-fronted debut “5150” dominated radio. Big-haired glam metal was the rage on LA’s Sunset Strip, with clubs like Whisky a Go Go and The Roxy doing their part to encourage musicians more interested in how to apply their Aqua Net than challenging the listener or themselves. It was for these reasons that Metallica abandoned LA three years previous to settle in San Francisco and cultivate their own vastly different art. 

Most people – especially radio and MTV – didn’t really care about Metallica. Although they had 2 full-length albums under their belt and were enjoying success abroad, Metallica were a virtual unknown in the US. Given the prevailing scene, that wasn’t surprising: there was nothing pretty about them. Their music & lyrics were as ugly and aggressive as their “we don’t give a shit” look. For me, that was exactly why I loved Metallica (and still do), and at the time I felt like I was a member of a cool “in” club.

But that was about to change.

I still remember the day I brought “Master of Puppets” home and put my needle in Side A’s groove. I got chills as I sat on my bed listening to the acoustic guitars that introduced “Battery”, anxious to hear what was coming. Suddenly, James Hetfield’s galloping rhythm guitar threw the song into overdrive, and a hugely influential contribution to my musical youth slammed firmly into place.

The album is a masterpiece from front to back. There is no filler. Every song epic. Every lyric so powerful that Hetfield didn’t have to sing them live – the crowd did it for him. Guitar riffs like those in “Battery”, “Master of Puppets”, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, “Disposable Heroes”, “Leper Messiah”, and “Damage Inc.” made budding metalhead guitarists want to stop playing power chords and learn to speed pick. (Did I just name-drop almost the entire album? Yes. Because it’s that. Fucking. Good.)

I judge musical greatness by the influence that an artist or album has on future artists. Indeed, the release of “Master of Puppets” was the tipping point for thrash metal; a “Nevermind”-like wrecking ball that broke down the wall of obscurity that was keeping the scene underground. It peaked at #30 on Billboard without a single or music video, a seemingly unimaginable feat in an era where MTV-fueled exposure seemed essential for success, and one that gave bands like Anthrax, Slayer, and the like hope. It is an album that made one critic recently write, “Some have called ‘Master of Puppets’ the best heavy metal album ever recorded; if it isn’t, it certainly comes close.” Fuckin’ A.

Metallica have often sited Ozzy Osbourne as partially responsible for helping launch them into the forefront. Ozzy was a fan and he knew the band was hot, so he invited them to be the opening act on his “Ultimate Sin” tour. You can imagine my elation when I found out it was coming to my hometown, and I still remember how the crowd went from utter confusion to rabid appreciation in one blistering 45-minute set. And in retrospect, I am humbled to know that I got to see them perform with the late Cliff Burton.


Comments are closed.