10 Reasons Why Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ Is So Damn Good!
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster sent radiation across Europe, the first PC virus spread, Top Gun hit theaters and Metallica made a masterpiece.1986 blessed the world with a mind-blowing number of landmark metal albums, including classics from Slayer, Megadeth, Dark Angel and Kreator, and debuts from Sepultura and Candlemass, to name just a few.
But the epic scale, impact, and enduring legacy of Master of Puppets reigned supreme.
“Master of Puppets,” “Battery,” “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” “Damage Inc.” – there isn’t a single song in the album’s 54 minutes and 47 seconds run time that isn’t welcomed with a roar by hard rock and metal audiences around the world. Released March 3, 1986, Master of Puppets grew without the benefit of an official single or music video.
Tape trading and fanzines propelled Metallica’s 1982 demo, No Life ‘Til Leather. Kill ‘Em All, their scrappy indie label debut, cemented the lineup of James Hetfield (vocals/guitar), Lars Ulrich (drums), Kirk Hammett (lead guitar), and Cliff Burton (bass). Elektra Records signed the band during the album cycle for 1984’s monstrous Ride the Lightning.
The Damage Inc. Tour behind Master of Puppets, including several months supporting Ozzy Osbourne, pushed Metallica further into the stratosphere.
It remains Kirk's favorite Metallica record. “Master of Puppets is my favorite album,” he told Revolver Magazine in 2017. “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.”
Tragically, Burton died in a tour bus accident near Stockholm, Sweden. Jason Newsted, whose band Flotsam & Jetsam released their debut the same year, took up the bass position, finishing the Master of Puppets tour cycle and remaining with Metallica till 2001.
They went on to even bigger success with 1988’s …And Justice for All (and their first official clip for MTV, “One”) and the gargantuan self-titled 1991 record, aka “the Black Album,” which became the biggest selling record of the Nielsen Soundscan era. But the legacy of Master of Puppets continues, with many fans pointing to it as the best of the band's 10 studio albums. Thirty years after the album’s release, the U.S. Library of Congress chose Master of Puppets for preservation in the National Recording Registry, where it joined works deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Here are 10 reasons (of many!) why Metallica’s Master of Puppets is so damn good.
Master of Puppets Is All Killer, No Filler
Sum 41 stole the show on the 2003 MTV Icon: Metallica program with a three-song medley that included “Master of Puppets.” While the Canadian pop-punk band called their debut All Killer No Filler a couple of years before, Master of Puppets is an album genuinely worthy of that distinction.
Ride the Lightning is a near-perfect album, but there’s a reason why “Escape” didn’t make its first live appearance until the band played their sophomore set in full for the first time in 2012. Lars Ulrich is on-record with his disdain for “Eye of the Beholder” from …And Justice for All. But there isn’t a single track on Master of Puppets with a flaw to be found. It’s truly a perfect metal album.
It Boasts Metallica’s Definitive Song
“Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters” get all of the YouTube and streaming love, but those hits reached beyond Metallica diehards to the greater public. That’s all well and good, of course, but “Master of Puppets” is the song historians should bury in a time capsule and launch into space as the definitive single-track example of what Metallica is all about. Credited to James, Lars, Cliff, and Kirk, with a running time of nearly 9 minutes, “Master of Puppets” shreds with down picking, epic tempo changes, mighty dexterity, and majestic melody.
It Showcased The Right Hand Of Hetfield
Spider-fingered guitar players around the world dazzle with the fiery frenetic fretwork favored by virtuosos. But on Speak N’ Destroy, my long-running Metallica-themed podcast, the “right hand of Hetfield” is a regular topic of conversation. Guitar players from Fear Factory, Bad Wolves, Warbringer, Breaking Benjamin, Alter Bridge, Machine Head, and Sum 41 are among the many to marvel at the precision rhythm playing and down picking of Mr. Hetfield, showcased in a jaw-dropping form on Master of Puppets. Kirk Hammett’s solos are, of course, incredible, too, from “Damage Inc.” to “Disposable Heroes.” And when the duo pairs up for the harmonies in the title track? Metal bliss.
It Gave Us Our First James Hetfield Solo
His right hand does the heavy-lifting with the rhythm guitars, but this album proved he could solo, as well. That’s James playing the melodic lead over the slow central passage in the title track, just before Kirk’s unmistakable, magnificent, song-within-a-song finish. He’s recorded a handful of solos since. (My favorite is in “The Outlaw Torn,” from 1996’s Load.)
It Offered A Masterclass In Sequencing
Years before shuffling and playlisting threatened to diminish the importance of sequencing, Master of Puppets perfected a template loosely begun on Ride the Lightning and continued through …And Justice for All.
All three albums start with a ripping opener (“Fight Fire with Fire,” “Battery,” “Blackened”), charge directly into the title track, and on song four, cruise into heavy ballad territory (“Fade to Black,” “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” “One”). Master of Puppets and its follow-up both close with a one-two punch of instrumental (“Orion,” “To Live is to Die”) and ripping closer (“Damage Inc.,” “Dyer’s Eve”), bookending the albums with ferocity and power.
Many fans celebrated Death Magnetic as a return to the glory of the first three albums, following the bluesy hard rock adventurousness of Load/Reload and the contentious pummel of St. Anger. Worth noting that the tracklisting tricks returned, as well: Death Magnetic opens and closes with rippers (“That Was Just Your Life,” “My Apocalypse”), puts a heavy ballad as track four (“The Day That Never Comes”), and features an instrumental (“Suicide & Redemption") second-to-last.
It Indulged In Immersive Storytelling
Metallica’s famously guarded frontman may not have opened up about his difficult childhood and struggles with alcoholism till later years, but his lyrics regularly regaled with relatable tales of trauma. When themes of the occult, fantasy, partying and sex dominated hard rock and metal, Metallica gave us street-tough celebrations of the scene early on, then really blew our minds with references to Ernest Hemmingway and the Old Testament.
Master of Puppets provided immersive storytelling unrivaled by their peers. “Master of Puppets" approached addiction from the point of view of the substance itself. “Disposable Heroes” lamented the plight of soldiers sent to die. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” took a visceral look at the dangers of mental illness. “Battery” and “Damage Inc.” were the type of anthems that scared parents who read the lyrics but truthfully offered positive outlets for the angst, aggression and alienation felt by many teens.
It Celebrated H.P. Lovecraft
Metallica isn’t the only band to draw inspiration from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but they are indeed the biggest. The master of dark fantasy and sci-fi-filled horror didn’t experience much success before his death in 1937, but sales of his books soared since, driven at least in some part by Metallica fans. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories enthralled Cliff Burton in particular. “The Call of Ktulu” didn’t contain any lyrics (and misspelled the cosmic entity's name), but “The Thing That Should Not Be” went full Lovecraft, with at least a dozen references to the writer’s themes. Hetfield drew from Lovecraft again on Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct.
It Memorializes Cliff Burton
Metallica will be the first to say the spirit of Cliff Burton guides them today. His effortless cool, diverse taste in everything from Simon & Garfunkel to Bach and command of the bass guitar continue to inspire, decades after his tragic loss of life at the young age of 24.
His death robbed the world of future recordings, performances, and interviews. But Master of Puppets stands as an incredible tribute to what Cliff believed in, from his unwavering commitment to the truth, his indulgence in melody, and resistance of creative boundaries, to the sheer personality of his playing.
Look no further than “Orion” to hear Cliff emanating from the speakers. “For me, ‘Orion’ was Cliff Burton’s swan song,” Kirk told Rolling Stone in 2018. “It was a great piece of music, and he’d written the whole middle section. It kind of gave us a view into what direction he was heading.”
The musical notes of that middle are tattooed on James Hetfield’s left arm.
It Set Setlist Staples In Stone
There are now 10 studio albums and dozens of cover songs in their repertoire, but since its debut on New Year's Eve in 1985, Metallica performed the song "Master of Puppets" nearly 1,700 times and counting, according to Metallica.com.
It Inspired So Many Great Bands
The Metallica Blacklist contained over 50 interpretations of Black Album songs from diverse artists. Still, the number of covers from Metallica’s third album is no less impressive, including Machine Head (“Battery”), Mastodon (“Orion”), Trivium (“Master of Puppets”) and Primus (“Master of Puppets”).
Dream Theater surprised European audiences with a performance of the album in full, celebrated in 2021 with the Master of Puppets – Live in Barcelona 2002 re-release.
Corey Taylor recently revealed “Disposable Heroes” as his favorite Metallica song, ever, as the Slipknot frontman remembered listening to the Master of Puppets cassette after copping it from a chain record store.
“I walked to buy the tape at the local Sam Goodie,” he said during a Q&A at the Mad Monster Party convention in February 2022. “I had my Walkman with me, and I listened to it all the way [back home]. Side one is a fucking clinic – such a clinic. Classic. So rad.”