Thirty years ago, Metallica released what is often considered the greatest metal album of all time. It did for metal what The Beatles did for rock. Master of Puppets legitimized metal as an art form on a mainstream level. Remember that 1986 was the era of bloated hair bands, and here came this total blast of energy and aggression — a pure thrash album in every sense. But aside from its power, Master of Puppets is an adventure. The songwriting goes far beyond the Dave Mustaine-influenced speed metal Metallica had been playing before. This was their masterpiece.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the album’s release, I brought in metal expert brothers Mike and Brad Nullmeyer for a roundtable discussion on the album’s legacy and impact on metal, including a track-by-track dissection. Ironically, these were the guys who got me into Metallica years ago, and our discussion got nostalgic as we reminisced over these fantastic songs.
Senior Staff Writer
Mike: I read an article on Rolling Stone that said one of the members of Rush almost produced Master of Puppets.
Jon: Whoa, really?
Mike: Yeah, dude. It says, “They had hoped Rush singer Geddy Lee would produce the LP, but he was unable due to time constraints, so they decided to work again with [Flemming] Rasmussen.”
Jon: What’s interesting about that is that the music that influenced this album, as opposed to Ride the Lightning and Kill Em All, which are really thrashy and more rooted in their punk influences … this is the album where — especially on the title track and songs like “Orion” — they embrace their love of Rush and prog rock. They were huge fans of Rush, especially Lars.
Brad: But the other thing you’ve got to remember is that this is the first album where Dave Mustaine’s influence was gone. He wrote almost all the songs on Kill Em All and like half of Ride the Lightning, so their sound had to change, and it changed more to their true sound.
Mike: Cliff Burton had a huge impact on Master of Puppets.
Brad: Yeah, this is the first album where he was writing songs.
Jon: And he drives the songs. That prog influence is most notable in the rhythm section, especially Cliff Burton’s bass playing.
Brad: If you look at the title track, it’s not really thrash. It’s way more progressive in terms of its riffing. It’s riffier than thrash tends to be. Thrash tends to be faster — alternating chords with noodles here and there. But that song is really clean-cut, executed riffs.
Mike: I actually heard a cover of “Damage, Inc.” on Liquid Metal [an XM metal station] a couple days ago.
Brad: Yeah, they had bands covering every song off Master of Puppets.
Mike: Thursday was the actual anniversary of the album.
Jon: The 30th anniversary. That’s crazy. Thirty years. Shit… Master of Puppets, I feel like that’s the album that got me acclimated to heavy music. At first it was too harsh for me, but that was the entry-level album for me. It was Drew [a mutual friend] who showed it to me, and I was like, “This is incredible.” And then you guys kept playing it. Mike, you were the original guy who spread the word of Metallica among our friend group. How did you get into Metallica?
Brad: His English teacher played “One” for him.
Mike: That’s right. My English teacher in 9th grade — we had read that book Johnny Get Your Gun, the book the song is based on — and he played the music video in class. I was like, “Aw man, this is sick.” I listened to a lot of random songs by them; I was into them casually. At the time, I was into a lot of hip-hop, the real gangsta stuff. But when I got to college, I really started to understand how awesome they were. There was something about it: It was better than everything else that was out there basically.
Jon: I feel like Metallica and Master of Puppets, comparing it to the other thrash metal at the time — Exodus, Dark Angel, Kreator, Slayer…
Mike: Dude, Slayer is like kindergarten compared to Master of Puppets’ graduate degree. It really is. It’s the most basic metal you could’ve made at the time and be a viable band.
Brad: Slayer and Megadeth at that time were both speed and punk-based.
Mike: If you get any more raw, you’re not making music anyone’s going to want to listen to.
Jon: The way Slayer did extreme music is the appeal of that band, how raw it was. It’s really not comparable to what Metallica was doing. Not to compare Slayer and Metallica, specifically, but compared to a lot of those other thrash metal bands at the time, Kreator, Dark Angel, bands that were popular around the world, it’s just on another level as far as production, musicianship, and composition: You’re right, it’s a cut above with Metallica.
Mike: Let’s put it this way: There is not a Slayer album as advanced as Kill Em All.
Jon: I don’t know about that.
Brad: Metallica is on a totally different level. Their composition is so much … I wouldn’t say it’s more complex because I don’t like to analyze music in terms of complexity, but it’s just better, intrinsically. It’s better composed than most other thrash.
Jon: Emotionally it resonates more.
Brad: And it’s just better written and more thought out. It’s more composed rather than jammed-out riffs.
Jon: Compared to just going into the practice space and jamming out a song and writing them there. When Metallica talks about writing Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, they talk about Kirk Hammett and Cliff and James going home and recording riffs on their 4-track cassette recorders and bringing them in and piecing ideas together. It wasn’t just a random jam thrown together on the spot. It was this thought-out, written thing. It probably took weeks, if not months, to write these songs.
Brad: Yeah, it’s true songwriting.
Jon: You put in the work and the effort, and you get the returns. And I think Rasmussen produced it well enough. I don’t think I would’ve wanted Geddy Lee to produce it.
Brad: The album’s so good you wouldn’t want it to sound any different. There are only a couple tracks that aren’t perfect.
Jon: Speaking of, let’s do our track-by-track. Everybody give a grade for each track, A through F.
Click ahead for our track-by-track grades for Master of Puppets.
Brad: It both sets the tone musically and lyrically … that it’s going to abuse you as you listen to it.
Jon: It’s a brutal track. Just the kick drum — it’s violent.
Brad: And it’s got the classic Metallica intro, the quiet intro before the album goes into full-on thrash.
Mike: It’s the classic quiet intro, but what would later become Kirk Hammett’s cliché Spanish guitar sound. It’s like the Tex Mex of guitarwork.
Jon: [Laughs] … You’re right, that he would definitely go to often when they got more pop-y. It’s flamenco-ish.
Mike: Like “The Unforgiven” and all those lame songs were loaded up with it.
Jon: But how aggressive it is after that … Ride the Lightning was almost clean by comparison. It’s the heaviest track that signals a whole new level of aggression. To put that on back in 1986 having only heard Ride the Lightning, that must’ve been such a jolt. Like, holy shit.
Mike: It’s more in your face than anything you’ll find on Ride the Lightning.
02. “Master of Puppets”
Jon: You hear first chord…
Brad: …and you’re like, “What is this?!”
Jon: And the song goes in all the directions.
Mike: What more can you say? It’s obviously an A+.
Jon: It defines extreme metal.
Brad: It’s the best song in the history of metal.
Mike: What about the best song in history?
Brad: I don’t know about that. As Jon was about to say, it defines the sound of extreme metal…
Jon: …and the ethos of extreme metal. What it has to say. Lyrically, it became the classic blueprint for social commentary in metal.
Brad: And the progressive elements are done perfectly. It’s got the drawn-out riff structure, where every riff evolves from the previous riff, and then it’s got the interlude breakdown in the middle with the melodic soloing. It’s just something that’s really advanced.
Mike: It is a song that perfectly flows from heavy to light and back to heavy, perhaps more so than any other song that tries to do that.
Brad: The riffing on that song is different than usual. You’ve got complex riffing happening during the chorus. You don’t usually hear a complex riff going at the same time as the chorus.
Jon: But it totally works.
Brad: Yeah, but it’s written almost symphonically, with point and counterpoint.
Mike: You say you don’t usually hear that, but it’s common now, and this is just the beginning of it.
Brad: It’s perfect.
03. “The Things That Should Not Be”
Brad: I don’t really like that song. You just came off the best track in the history of heavy metal, and now you’re on a mediocre track.
Jon: It passes me by. The riff and vocal melody are kinda flat.
Brad: The song structure is really plain. It isn’t dynamic. There’s not even a bridge in it.
Jon: It’s a basic pop song.
04. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
Jon: It hints at what they do on the Black Album. It’s folkier; it’s got more space.
Brad: It’s the worst of Metallica’s ballads on their first four albums, but it’s still a great song.
Jon: It’s not to the quality of “Fade to Black”, but I do like the guitar tones.
Mike: A total regression from “Fade to Black”.
Jon: The intro is an iconic guitar moment for Kirk Hammett.
Mike: I don’t like the intro, particularly.
Brad: The harmonics?
Jon: It’s a cool variation on the album. So for three songs, we’ve thrashed the fuck out, it’s been heavy the whole time, and then this part comes in and gives it some space. I like that.
Brad: I don’t like the intro, but I do like the acoustic lick they get into. But as far as song structure, it’s not comparable to “Fade to Black” or “One”, which are both perfect ballads.
Jon: But there are few songs that are “Fade to Black”. That’s a beautiful song.
05. “Disposable Heroes”
Jon: One of the greatest thrash songs ever.
Brad: This song is just pure, hard, heavy thrash in the truest sense. Really thrashy thrash.
Jon: It’s invigorating.
Mike: You talk about what Slayer was doing … this song is the pinnacle of what Slayer could ever do. It’s the best of what they could ever achieve.
06. “Leper Messiah”
Jon: “Bow to leper messiah!”
Brad: It’s a good track, but weaker than anything on the album except “The Things That Should Not Be”.
Mike: I agree. Does it even have a break?
Brad: It has no bridge.
Jon: But that breakdown.
Brad: I don’t know. The lyrical content is weak. It’s about televangelists. Like, c’mon dude.
Jon: I’ll rebuttal by saying the song’s underrated. The vocal hook is catchy and sticks with you. And it’s one of the doomier Metallica songs. I enjoy that song maybe more than I should. The divisive track on the album.
Jon — B+
Brad — B-
Mike — C+
Jon: “Orion” is fucking fantastic.
Brad: It’s a big jump from “Call of Kthulu” on the previous album, which is a thrashy instrumental, a good one; but “Orion” is a progressive art rock instrumental that’s different than anything Metallica ever did.”
Jon: It transcends thrash. It’s almost post-metal before post-metal. These bands that are gaining traction in the metal scene right now have progressive tendencies — Metallica was doing that with songs like “Orion” back in ’86.
Mike: It’s beyond what they should have been able to write at the time.
08. “Damage, Inc.”
Jon: And then right after the art rock song, maybe the most thrashy of all Metallica songs, maybe even thrashier than “Disposable Heroes”.
Brad: “Disposable Heroes” is like an evolved Kill Em All song, whereas “Damage” is a heavier Kill Em All song. But it’s still awesome.
Jon: What a way to end an album, on a fiery note. And that dissonant intro that should not be discounted.
Mike: “Damage, Inc.” goes off on an extreme metal tangent, almost like what Pantera ended up doing, but Pantera does it better.
Jon: But it’s years before Pantera did that with Cowboys from Hell.
Mike: But it’s not that great. Metallica didn’t follow through with it. They went in a different direction. It’s not as strong as what Pantera was able to do.
Jon: It’s satisfying as fuck.
Click ahead as we decide whether Master of Puppets is really the greatest metal LP of all time.
Brad: What can be easily seen from our ratings, especially my ratings and Mike’s, is that the album Master of Puppets is greater than the sum of its parts. If you go track by track, not every track is great, but the overall sound is amazing.
Jon: So, to the pose the ultimate question to end our discussion: Is Master of Puppets the greatest metal album of all time?
Jon: It changed everything.
Brad: As much as I want to say it’s the greatest of all time, it’s foolish to worry about the greatest of all time, because that’s 50 percent subjective.
Jon: But for the sake of argument, it’s been called that so many times.
Brad: Right, and as far as influence, maybe, but you have to think, you are comparing it with Paranoid, Number of the Beast…a lot of great albums. And to say it’s without a doubt better than those albums, that it’s irrefutably better — I’m not sure about that.
Jon: As far as modern metal goes, I think it could be considered the greatest.
Mike: I can’t put Number of the Beast in there. The more I listen to new wave British metal, the more I think it doesn’t fit in…
Jon: But it was so influential to Metallica and thrash bands.
Mike: Thrash is dirtier.
Jon: Right. And I think, as time passes, when we have this discussion 20 years from now, when Master of Puppets is 50, we’re still going to look back and say, “This is an incredible piece of music that’s ahead of its time and of its time.”
Mike: It’s like Master of Puppets came along and threw this unexpected thing in there that you wouldn’t expect metal to ever be able to produce. But do you understand how monumental of a thing someone would have to introduce to metal to do that again?
Brad: The things that people thought would do that haven’t stood up over time. Bands like Slipknot and Manson — bands that people said, “Oh, this is something new”, they didn’t stand up over time.
Mike: Those people were fundamentally flawed in what they thought metal was. They thought heavier was better, but it’s completely different.
Brad: Heavy is not just loud and dirty. Master of Puppets is heavier than anything Slipknot put out. Having a growlier scream and lower tuned guitar does not make it heavier.
Mike: It’s like this Rolling Stone author said. There are very few songs that have stood the test of time like this. Like something that could’ve been written yesterday.
Brad: It’s tough to compare it to Paranoid or Number of the Beast. When it comes to Master of Puppets, it’s the pinnacle of hard and heavy and evil metal. Slipknot never had that sound. That dark, ominous quality.
Mike: Think about it this way: Black Sabbath was the alpha, and Metallica is the omega.
Jon, Mike, Brad, and arguably the greatest metal LP of all time. Master of Puppets was released on March 3rd, 1986. It has sold over six million copies in the US and has been certified 6x Platinum by the RIAA.