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.
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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.