My love of Metallica's Master of Puppets album, which has lasted 16 years and counting, began on what was a pretty good day for a 15-year-old misfit metalhead, during what was the most miserable time of my life: high school.
It was a pleasantly mild spring weekday in early April, 1986; I had a rather routine dentists' checkup in the morning, so I got to miss the first bit of school, even managing to sleep in a bit. The visit to the dentist lasted no more than five minutes, and there was no need to hurry to school, so I ambled my way to the local mall, where I shelled out seven bucks (Canadian) for the cassette of Master of Puppets. I got to school midway through my tenth grade English class' run-through of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and the rest of the day went by in a blur of anticipatory excitement, the rest of the day's dronings by teachers flying right over my head, as that tape burned a mighty furious hole in my jacket pocket. Racing home that afternoon, listening to the opening acoustic guitar flourishes on "Battery" segue into a majestic metallic overture, before kicking into the galloping opening riff, the entire genre of heavy metal music, as well as my appreciation of good music, was forever changed.
It may be hard for younger fans to fathom, but before the release of Master of Puppets in 1986, Metallica were largely a cult band (some may say they were a cult band before 1991), and in direct contrast to the band's current stance against internet file sharing, Metallica's fan base was created by tape trading and word of mouth (in 1984, I heard that word of mouth, but didn't believe it, all because Metallica shared its Canadian indie label with Venom, a band I hated. Hey, I was young and stupid . . .). Formed in 1981 by Danish immigrant Lars Ulrich on drums and California native James Hetfield on guitar and lead vocals, Metallica would be the one American underground metal band who would break through into the mainstream. The band was four regular slobs who despised the never-ending parade of callow hard rock bands from Los Angeles. By 1983, when lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton were added to the mix, the band had managed to combine the best elements of punk and early '80s British metal (bearing the comically lengthy title, the "new wave of British heavy metal"). Metallica's sound possessed the frenetic speed of the Misfits and Motorhead (but was much, much tighter), the stylistic intricacies of Diamond Head and Mercyful Fate, and the pure, all-out heaviness of bands like Venom and Black Sabbath. Added to this musical mix were Hetfield's lyrics, which avoided the more fantasy-oriented themes common in metal back then, in favor of more angry, personal topics, partly as a way to exorcise the demons of his fanatical, Christian Science upbringing.
Comprised of eight songs spanning just under 55 minutes, Master of Puppets is progressive metal of the epic variety, but there is never a moment of self-indulgence, never any repetition. Every song is effective on its own, but each one (not including the disc's instrumental) follows the same lyrical theme of control and the abuse of power. Album opener "Battery" sets the mood immediately with its spare acoustic guitar intro, its flamenco-like flourishes creating the same effect as an Ennio Morricone-scored title sequence in a Spaghetti Western, before the song explodes out of the gate. On the surface, "Battery" may seem like just another lunkheaded, fist-pumping, aggro audience-pleaser, but Hetfield's lyrics hint at fanaticism run amok: "Crushing all deceivers, mashing non-believers / Never ending potency . . . Cannot kill the family / Battery is found in me".
"Master of Puppets" remains, to this day, Metallica's most successful combination of that epic quality laced with accessible metal hooks. Possessing a classic, distorted riff by Kirk Hammett, and no fewer than five time signature changes, the song is the most scintillating eight minutes in metal history. Hetfield's theme of control now centers around the horror of drug addiction: "Taste me you will see / More is all you need / You're dedicated to / How I'm killing you". The song flies by, ranging from beautiful guitar solo harmonies, to an intense, menacing bridge anchored by Ulrich and Burton, and nimble-fingered licks by Hammett.
Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's short story "Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Thing That Should Not Be" is a lumbering beast of a song, an exercise in midtempo heaviness, chronicling the story of Lovecraft's protagonist's battle against unearthly forces over the fate his own self, sometimes paraphrasing Lovecraft himself ("Not dead which eternal lie/Stranger eons death may die"). The comparatively mellow "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)", based on Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, perfectly meshes a trippy, chiming intro guitar riff with a scorching bridge, as if emerging from a drug-addled state to a fit of violent frenzy in five minutes.
The powerful "Disposable Heroes" is an overlooked gem in the Metallica catalog. Like the album's title track, this is another eight minute epic, but the band increases the intensity dramatically, as Ulrich's phenomenal drumming takes center stage, propelling the band along at breakneck speed, never veering out of control. Hetfield's tale of a soldier and his superiors who control his fate is gripping: "More a man, more stripes you bear, glory seeker trends / Bodies fill the fields I see / The slaughter never ends".
"Leper Messiah" targets the seedy televangelists of the mid-'80s, and although the topic was an oft-overused one by metal bands, Metallica manages to create something fresh, thanks to the band's tight performance. The instrumental "Orion" is a revelation, in which Metallica shows remarkable maturity and discipline in their songwriting. Here, it's not all about guitar noodling; instead, the band focuses on complex tempo changes and (often gorgeous) harmonies that sound inspired by classical music. Burton's bass playing carries the entire song (he was the only formally trained musician in the band), and it shines midway through, as he plays a beautiful, quiet riff, before playing the most soulful bass solo ever played in a hard rock song. Hearing it now is a bit heartbreaking, since Burton would be killed in a tour bus crash in September of 1986.
"Damage, Inc." brings the album to a close, and is a classic example of '80s thrash metal, with a classic staccato guitar riff, and more spectacular drumming from Ulrich. Hetfield's lyrics provide somewhat of a denouement for the album, citing that individuality always winds up defeating the forces of control in the end ("Living on your knees, conformity / Or dying on your feet for honesty").
At the heart of Master of Puppets is its production, by Flemming Rassmussen. Whereas Rick Rubin's work on Slayer's Reign In Blood (the second most important metal album of the 1980s) that same year focused more on a crisp, attack-on-the-senses sound, Master of Puppets was more monolithic, more of a metal version of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Metallica would go on to tweak its sound (including releasing an album in 1988 with Jason Newsted's bass turned all the way down, all as a pathetic act of hazing) before settling (selling out?) with producer Bob Rock during the 1990s, but none of their albums since have managed to combine musicality, passion, and intensity as well as Puppets did. Longtime fans bemoan the Burton Factor ad nauseum, and although Newsted was a quality replacement who was treated most unfairly (he was forced out of the band in 2001), it really was Burton who was Metallica's secret weapon.
Sixteen years later, Master of Puppets still sounds as great as it ever did; however, it's sad that while Metallica influenced every single nu-metal band out there today, virtually none of these bands have dared to try to take that sound even further. Instead, we have lazy, low-on-talent groups who rely on repetitive, crunchy guitar riffs, gutteral (or as one critic notes, "Cookie Monster") vocals, and either frighteningly antisocial, or embarrassingly emotional, lyrics. The most antisocial Master of Puppets gets is when Hetfield growls, "Fuck it all, and fucking no regrets," and that one angry line says as much as the entire last Slipknot album takes more than an hour to say. Metallica didn't dwell on personal misery; every song was a different idea, both in terms of subject, and musical style. They were young, ambitious, a bit naïve, and willing to blow you away, or at least die trying. That ambition would be lost forever with the release of 1991's extremely disappointing Black Album.
I'm not going to come out and make some ridiculous statement like, "It was like Metallica were singing my thoughts", or, "Metallica's music saved me from slashing my wrists". It makes me cringe to see the blank stupidity of fans of a facile band like Staind crying as Aaron Lewis moans and groans about how he is ugly, the world is ugly, how the whole stinking world is ugly. It's that kind of blind worship that helped drive Kurt Cobain to suicide. Yeah, I was a miserable sod during my teens, but no, Metallica didn't save my life, and I didn't treat their lyrics like scripture. What Master of Puppets did provide for me, though, was an hour's worth of sanctuary, of cathartic transcendence, during those ostracized high school years, and that's all a kid needs to ask of an artist. My musical tastes have grown over the years, and keep growing, encompassing all genres, but Master of Puppets is one of the few albums I return to regularly. I still feel that album's formidable power to this day, and for that, I'm eternally grateful.
"There was no precedent for Master of Puppets," says Kirk Hammett of Metallica's legendary third album. "So in the summer of 1985, when these songs were coming together, it was as if we were being visited by beings from another planet! That's what these songs felt like; they were so unique, and so individual — no one had ever heard anything like this before that. We kind of knew, once we got the group of songs together, that we had a pretty strong pile of material to record."
Recorded in Copenhagen, Denmark in the fall and early winter of 1985, and released in March 1986, Master of Puppets indeed marked a major step forward for Metallica, as well as thrash metal in general. The album's eight aggressive and complex tracks showed the band — vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, bassist Cliff Burton and lead guitarist Hammett — truly firing on all cylinders, and reaching a new level of confidence and ability as musicians and songwriters. Master of Puppets spent 72 weeks on the Billboard 200 album charts, peaking at Number 29 and earning the band its first gold certification. It has since sold over six million copies in the U.S. alone, and still makes regular appearances near or at the top of "Best Metal Albums of All Time" lists.
But while any metalhead worth their denim and leather is already deeply familiar with Master of Puppets, the truly epic new Master of Puppets deluxe box set offers both a broader and more microscopic view of the landmark record. The limited-edition box includes 10 CDs, three vinyl LPs, two DVDs and a cassette containing demos, riff tracks, outtakes, rough mixes, interviews and live performances from 1985 through 1987, as well as remastered vinyl and digital versions of the original album. The box also includes a hardcover book containing never-before-published photos, a folder of handwritten lyrics, a set of six buttons and a "Damage, Inc." lithograph — but for hardcore Metallica obsessives, the real draw will be hearing how songs like "Battery," "Leper Messiah," "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" and the title track slowly evolved from brief riffs to finished tracks.
On the eve of the box set's release, Revolver spoke to Hammett about the wealth of previously unreleased material in the collection, his memories of writing and recording Master of Puppets, and how a deviled ham sandwich was behind his glowering photo on the album's original back cover.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT IMMEDIATELY STRUCK YOU WHEN YOU DOVE BACK INTO THIS MATERIAL?
KIRK HAMMETT It's interesting, because we were kind of primed for all of this when we decided to work with Matt Taylor on the Master of Puppets book [Back to the Front: A Fully Authorized Visual History of the Master of Puppets Album and Tour]. When we decided to do that, it was like, "We'll do the reissue, and this book will be a great thing to coincide with it." And so we worked with Matt for a good eight or ten months, kind of recreating that time period from mid-1985 to mid-1986. And it was incredible, because by the time the book was done, Matt had broken it down to almost week-by-week, and that was an incredible primer for the old memory banks. [Laughs] So we were all kind of already in that Master of Puppets mode when the reissue started to come about.
But I can remember at one point there being a bit of a problem, because for the book we all went into our personal archives and dug out all those pictures and pieces of paper and notes and music and whatnot. And then, we kind of realized, "Wait — we have nothing left over for the reissue!" [Laughs] Matt Taylor's book did such a great job visually and anecdotally, that we kind of screwed ourselves with not having enough of that left over for the reissue. And then one day, an envelope arrived in the mail; I opened it up and there were a dozen pictures from the Master of Puppets tour — and the first thing I thought of was, "Okay, we need to save these for the reissue!" We were able to get enough stuff together to make it somewhat of a complete package, you know.
AND OBVIOUSLY, MATT COULDN'T PROVIDE THE MUSIC — AND THIS IS SUCH A TREASURE TROVE, FROM A MUSICAL STANDPOINT.
It's so ironic that the Fang track, "The Money Will Roll Right In," is finally being released. Yikes! [Laughs]
IRONIC, IN THE SENSE THAT IT'S BEING RELEASED AS PART OF A BIG-TICKET ITEM LIKE THIS?
Yeah, it's super-ironic. It was originally done by this band called Fang, from Berkeley; they put out three albums on Boner Records. The reason [our version] wasn't released in the first place was that it had none of the punk-rock charm when we recorded it; it was too slick, and it was a bit overplayed — I mean, Cliff and I don't even play on it, and it's a bit overplayed. [Laughs] It was just something that we tried and thought, "You know …" It doesn't have that raunchiness and that humor that the original had.
SO THAT'S JUST JAMES AND LARS PLAYING ON THE TRACK?
I believe so, but I can't remember. Cliff might have been on it, but I am certainly not on it.
ASIDE FROM FANG, WHAT OTHER THINGS WERE YOU LISTENING TO WHEN YOU WERE WRITING THE ALBUM?
We were listening to a lot of the Misfits, a lot of Discharge, GBH. Cliff was listening to a lot of Velvet Underground, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bach and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was really into Stevie when Stevie first showed up — he thought Stevie was a great player. I was listening to all that stuff, plus all the stuff I usually listened to, all the German bands that I liked and Seventies hard rock, and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. All those NWOBHM bands were falling by the wayside at that point; all the ones who were actually going to have a career, like Def Leppard, Saxon and Iron Maiden, were already on their way. So, it would have been a combination of a lot of that stuff back then. Oh yeah — and a lot of Kate Bush, too!
Oh, yeah; we'd discovered Kate Bush around that time. And we loved the Police — we listened to the Police all the time, because Cliff was a big fan of Stewart Copeland's drumming, and he loved the sound of his snare. He'd say, "Oh, I love that snare!" [Laughs]
SPEAKING OF NWOBHM, YOU CAN REALLY HEAR THE NWOBHM INFLUENCE IN THE JUNE 1985 DEMO OF "MASTER OF PUPPETS" — ESPECIALLY IN JAMES' VOCALS, WHICH ARE HIGHER AND SMOOTHER THAN ON THE ALBUM VERSION.
At that point, I think James was still kind of settling into a vocal style. His vocal style changed drastically around the time of …And Justice for All and The Black Album; his singing changed dramatically. I think his technique and his style was still developing at that point, or he hadn't fully found it yet, so that's why there's a difference there.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR OWN TECHNIQUE AS A GUITAR PLAYER — IN RETROSPECT, WHERE WERE YOU AT THAT POINT?
For me, I was just totally into Ulrich Roth at that point. I remember having the Fire Wind album, and listening to it day in and day out, and loving it tremendously. One really frustrating thing that I can remember about the recording of Master of Puppets was that it took me three friggin' days to get a lead tone. It hasn't taken me that long since! Usually it takes me, at the most, maybe eight to ten hours. On Hardwired to Self-Destruct, I think we spent all of maybe ninety minutes on my lead sound, and then we used that sound as a jumping point for other lead sounds. But back then, in 1985, we had our new Mesa Boogie amps, and we were still kind of finding the sweet spot. [Master of Puppets producer] Flemming Rasmussen put me in a room, and he'd say, "Turn knobs!" I'd bring in a bunch of amps the first day, and we couldn't find anything. The second day, I'd bring in a bunch of different amps, and it'd be, "Turn knobs!" Couldn't find anything. And then the third day, I said, "All those other amps didn't even come close. I'm just gonna go back to my Mesa Boogie." And then I got the tone; I turned a corner, and I got the sound. But it was kind of a learning experience for me.
That's one of the things that sticks out [from the recording sessions], other than playing a lot of poker with Cliff Burton. Just waiting for our turns to record, so we would literally sit there and play poker for five or six hours. And we wouldn't play for money — we would play for matchsticks.
WHO WAS THE BETTER POKER PLAYER — YOU OR CLIFF?
Him and I were always intensely competitive. Two guys in their early twenties? Come on – we were always competing. But it would be really funny, ridiculous competing; it would always be, Who's the better poker player? Who's the better chess player? Who can eat spicier hot sauce?
One time we had a disagreement where he wanted Chinese food and I wanted something else, and he said, "I think we should settle this by fisticuffs." I didn't even know what he was talking about — he had to explain to me what "fisticuffs" was! [Laughs] I said, "I have to play tonight, you have to play tonight. I'm not gonna do that!" And then he goes, "Okay, let's just go out and tackle each other!" So we went out into the back area and just started tackling and wrestling with each other. It was hilarious. And the funny thing was, both of us were always totally up for it. Neither of us ever said, "Oh, look at us, we're acting like kids. This is dumb!" [Laughs] We were always up for it, and that was a funny thing between Cliff and I.
WELL, YOU WERE STILL KIND OF KIDS AT THE TIME. YOU WERE, WHAT, 23 WHEN YOU WERE MAKING THIS RECORD?
Yep, absolutely. I was 23 years old. But you know, I gotta say, Master of Puppets is my favorite album, because we culminated as a band on Master of Puppets. Really! Everyone was kind of settled into their roles; everyone was playing well. We knew what we were striving for, we knew what we could do, we knew each other's playing well, we knew our strengths. And it just kind of all culminated on this album.
IT'S KIND OF LIKE WHEN YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT FINDING THE SWEET SPOT ON THE AMP — THIS RECORD WAS ABOUT FINDING YOUR SWEET SPOT AS A BAND.
Yeah. And we never got to that point again, sad to say, because Cliff left us. And that's another reason why Master of Puppets is so special to me — it's the culmination of that lineup, it's the culmination of us as a band. We were defining our sound while we were still fucking developing it, you know?
For instance, the bass solo in "Orion" — there's the long, melodic, drawn-out harmony part, and then there's a guitar solo, and then there's a bass solo, and another one later on in the song. That second bass solo was originally a guitar solo. I remember recording it in the studio, and then I left to go back to the East Coast and meet a girl or something, I don't know. Cliff went back to the studio, and used that area to put his own solo on it — but he played like half of my licks that were in the original solo! [Laughs] It was the weirdest thing! I remember hearing it for the first time and going, "Wha? What's going on here? That was the second guitar solo in that part!" And he goes, "Yeah … but I figured I had something really good to play there." And I said to him, "Yeah, the first part — but the second part of it was like my solo, and you just played it on bass!" And he goes, "Yeah … I know. Is it cool?" And I said, "Yeah, it's cool — it sounds great!" It wasn't really much of an issue for me, because there were like four guitar solos in that song; it wasn't like he took the only one.
IS THERE ANYTHING ON THE BOX SET THAT SURPRISED OR SHOCKED YOU — LIKE, WHERE YOU HAD ABSOLUTELY NO MEMORY OF RECORDING IT?
Well, I was kind of amazed at how developed the guitar solos were [on the demos]. A lot of them were developed quite a bit, and I just don't remember doing that much preparation beforehand. As you know — or maybe you don't know — my whole thing now is stream of consciousness spontaneity, a "capture the moment" kind of thing. So that in itself is kind of surprising to go back and hear; it's like it chronicled my own growth.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER LESSER-KNOWN TIDBITS ABOUT MASTER OF PUPPETS THAT YOU'D CARE TO SHARE WITH US?
The back cover shot of me, where I'm giving a dirty look to the camera? That was because, I had just become a vegetarian back then, and we were at the Donnington Festival; someone threw a deviled ham sandwich from the audience, and it fucking smashed right on my brand new black Jackson Flying V. And I was so fucking pissed! [Laughs] I looked over to the side, and I saw my guitar tech laughing, and I saw [photographer] Ross Halfin laughing, and I just gave them a dirty look, and then Ross took the shot. And that's the shot that's on the back of Master of Puppets!
I'VE SEEN THAT PHOTO A MILLION TIMES, AND NEVER HAD ANY IDEA THAT A DEVILED HAM SANDWICH WAS PART OF THE EQUATION.
Yeah. I didn't even know they had deviled ham in Britain — I thought it was an American thing!
OVER THREE DECADES ON, HOW DOES THE ALBUM STAND UP FOR YOU?
When this album came out, it had no real precedent; and now, thirty years later, there are a lot of albums out there that have a similar sound. But if we were to come out with this album now, it would sound current, it would sound contemporary, it would sound new. It would fit well in the contemporary music world, I think. It might not have the same impact, but people would still recognize it for what it is.
photograph by Ross Halfin