this was the sound that could stretch beyond the hard core and sweep up the stragglers. This was the sound that could and did conquer football stadiums.
30 years. 30 years since ‘Master of Puppets’ was released. 30 years since I last saw them live. 30 years since Cliff Burton died. Where the hell does the time go?
One of the peculiarities of getting older is that you see bands evolve from fetus-like flavor of the month to aging dinosaurs. It seems only yesterday that these young guns were fourth on the bill, wedged uncomfortably between Bon Jovi and Ratt, and now they’re headlining Glastonbury. Of course it happens much more organically than that, but perspective can be an odd thing. 30 years? 30 years before ‘Master of Puppets’ hit the streets, The Beatles were still at school and Elvis was a relatively fresh sensation. Time can make your head spin…
So Metallica… ah, Metallica. It’s hard to imagine a time before orchestral foolishness, embarrassing movies and poorly considered lawsuits. It’s difficult to imagine a catalog without misfires, a time when Lars still had hair and Cliff stood stage right, playing the hell out of that bass. Yeah, it’s easy to get wrapped up in nostalgia but some things are actually deserving of fond memories. Those early UK festival appearances, out in the blink inducing light of mid-afternoon, were a breath of fresh air.
That ‘Kill ‘em All’ and ‘Ride the Lightning’ were groundbreaking albums is beyond question. The former was a brutal introduction to the band; their second outing added a layer of violent sophistication to their sound. Both were packed with classic songs that are still amongst their most beloved, and continue to form the backbone of their set today. If they fell down anywhere it was in the production. They were recorded quickly and cheaply and as a result it, could be argued that they didn’t entirely live up to their full sonic potential. When they reunited with Lightning’s producer Flemming Rasmussen to record ‘Master of Puppets’ they had considerably more time and, when it came to mixing, another expert ear in veteran Michael Wagner. Such were the advantages of scoring a major label deal. Of course they had also matured as a unit and there’s no doubt that the songs they entered the studio to record were a more considered collection than anything that they had written before.
So… It’s 1986. Nervously you hit go on your CD player, (hey, this wasn’t the stone ages, we’d had them for a whole three years!), and wait
‘Smashing through the boundaries…’
‘Battery’ starts tentatively. A lone acoustic guitar plays… multi-tracked, almost pompous, melody lines are introduced… what the hell? Then after about a minute the whole thing drops, a simple but reassuring riff kicks in, and we’re off. By the time they reintroduce that melodic line again everything is exactly as you would want it to be and ‘Battery’ is more than living up to its name.
‘Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams…’
There’s no hesitation where the title track is concerned. ‘Master of Puppets’ is sublime from the first bar; guitar heaven. ‘Master of puppets, I’m pulling your strings. Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams…’ Lyrically Hetfield nailed it, combining worthy themes with phrases that caught your imagination. Around the middle of the track we get a major tonal and time change that reminds us that this is progressive and dynamic stuff, with softer sections only serving to reinforce the energy of the whole.
‘Out from ruins once possessed…’
‘The Thing that Should not Be’ judders into life like Frankenstein’s monster receiving 100,000 volts. Lovecraftian lyrics perfectly counteract the brooding music that accompanies them. Three winners so far…
‘Sanitarium, just leave me alone…’
‘Sanitarium’s gentler verse leads into a massive chorus. This is what passes for a ballad when you’re Metallica. Of course this is no soft centered cop out. Yes, you can sing along, you will sing along, but don’t expect a rest… Thirty years later this earworm is still resident.
‘You will do what I say, when I say…’
Just in case you were getting concerned, ‘Disposable Heroes’ wastes no time in cranking up the pace. This is fast, another reminder that you were listening to the leaders of the ‘thrash’ revolution and no major record deal was going to change that. Not for the last time Metallica rail against the war machine with its ‘back to the front’ chant burning itself onto your mind.
‘Time to kiss your life goodbye…’
For me ‘Leper Messiah’ is one of the weaker and less inventive tracks on the album but in this context that doesn’t mean its bad, just not quite up to the quality of what precedes it.
With ‘Orion’, a slower eight minute instrumental epic, Metallica give the nod to those who like to label their sound progressive. After a chugging start at four minutes it all fades away, leaving Cliff Burton playing a mellow and melodic bass line before a succession of harmonic guitar lines kick in. It’s an accomplished but divisive number that plods rather than races, but remains heavy as hell as it does so.
‘Dealing out the agony within…’
For their album finale the pace is cranked back up and, once the reversed chords of the intro end, ‘Damage Inc’ takes us out thrashing in glorious style.
Finally you collapse in your 1986 style chair, breath deeply, and relax, contented from your first listen to what is still one of the finest metal albums of all time. In a few months Megadeth and Slayer will release what are arguably their career bests too, but Metallica got there first. Commercial seems an odd word to use in this context, but everything is relative and this was the sound that could stretch beyond the hard core and sweep up the stragglers. This was the sound that could and did conquer football stadiums.
So was it their best album to date? For me, and many others at the time, it felt like a step up for the band. To some though, I think it may have felt like a move away from their raw beginnings. In retrospect I think it sits perfectly alongside Kill and Lightning as another bona fide classic in their catalog. All of the first three albums are essential listening and without doubt have never been bettered by them in the following 30 years.
Picking favourites from such a strong track listing is nigh on impossible and will always be contentious. At a push I’d have to choose ‘Sanitarium’, ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘Disposable Heroes’. Suffice to say it’s a close call.
On September the 10th 1986 I found myself in Cardiff, ready for the first date of their Damage Inc tour. Outside the St David’s Hall the Welsh crowd were clearly ready to rock out. Cheap beers were disappearing fast and a party atmosphere prevailed. Anthrax warmed the crowd up with a storming set and then it was time for the headliners.
Despite a roadie filling in for Hetfield, who had broken his arm skateboarding, they were magnificent. Coming off the back of an enormous American tour they were super tight and eager to make their mark. Newer songs mingled with the old to form a faultless set. This was a band at the height of their proverbial powers, in the right place at the right time, and seemingly unstoppable. It was a glorious show.
A couple of weeks later Cliff Burton lay dead at the side of a Swedish country road at the age of 24. The band recovered from what could have been a fatal blow but it was the end of a much too short era. As an international concert draw they went on to greater and greater heights but the paltry half a dozen albums that followed over the three decades would never match the glory of those initial three releases. Sadly we can never know what that perfect chemistry of the original line up might have produced given time. Happily, we’ll always have ‘Master…’
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