Welcome back to A Scene In Retrospect, a feature where we look back fondly on some wonderful watershed moments in music. Today, we’re looking at what is probably the most celebrated metal album outside of Black Sabbath‘s discography: Metallica‘s Master of Puppets. We have assembled four writers including myself to talk about this ripping motherfucker of a record at great length, so let’s get right into it, y’all!
It’s time for a confession. Unlike my colleagues here today, who all have long-standing personal relationships with Metallica’s seminal Master of Puppets, I have no such relationship. As it happens, my first time hearing this album in its entirety was in preparation for this piece. As such, I don’t have any interesting anecdotes or reflections to offer. What I can do instead is give my perspective as a long-time fan of heavy music absorbing this masterpiece without the filters of time.
First and foremost, listening to this record surprised me. I’d long avoided it, having decided early on that Metallica wasn’t for me. Turns out such an inflexible write-off was my loss. Though my tastes haven’t been drastically reworked with a newfound enjoyment of thrash metal or James Hetfield’s distinctive vocal intonations, I nevertheless enjoyed the shit out of Master of Puppets. Its greatest strength in my view, other than other relevant talking points like its excellent craftsmanship and far-reaching legacy, is that it’s quite simply a collection of awesome songs. For no reason I can easily discern, after just a week after or so of listening to the album on repeat, I find myself in awe of its atmosphere.
Which next brings me to the sheer breadth of its impact over time. This distinctive atmosphere owes much to the dynamics on display, exemplified by tracks such as “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” with its swelling intro, shimmering clean guitar tones, snarling vocal lines, and beautiful guitar solo. These elements can be heard clearly in the wave of grunge acts that followed (Alice in Chains comes to mind in particular), while the reflective/aggressive tonal juxtaposition of the album’s title track brings to mind Opeth at their mid-2000s peak. Yes, Opeth drew considerably from older progressive acts in shaping their style then, but Master of Puppets remains the oldest album I’ve personally listened to that embodies the essence of that familiar modern heavy metal sound, and the dynamism that went along with it.
In retrospect, it’s striking how much of a hold Metallica had – and still has – over the genre as a whole. The entire New Wave Of American Heavy Metal/Metalcore scene that arose in the early ‘00s as a response to the glut of nu metal owes its existence to the sounds on this record. Furious chugging riffs, epic leads, galloping drums, barked vocals… that entire movement was Master of Puppets repackaged and infused with other influences (namely hardcore). Hell, even nu metal being retaliated against was indebted to Metallica. What is Godsmack if not slowed down, chunky-nut Master of Puppets with some Dead Can Dance thrown in for good measure?
I’m glad this ASIR came up because otherwise, who knows when I would have listened to the album. The experience has taught me that perhaps there are other legendary records I’ve prematurely written off as overrated, or not to my liking. Prestige is oftentimes well-earned, and Master of Puppets is certainly prestigious. If you – like me – blew it off for whatever reason, let this hopefully be the push you need to finally check it out.
My initial exposure to a lot of the music I listen to today came from video games. I used to love the soundtracks from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and WWE: Smackdown vs. Raw, and a large majority of those songs made their way into my first playlists on my iPod. 2006 was the golden age of discovery for me, as I had gotten iTunes on my family’s computer and spent so much of my time skimming through the thousands of artist libraries. At the time, I was attracted to the sound of nü metal (I was 13, gimme a break) and listened to tons of records from Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Saliva, to name a few. However, that didn’t quite quench my thirst for curiosity with music.
Does anyone remember iMixes on iTunes? They were basically just the early version of shared playlists that were often shown when searching for an artist’s music. Well, based off of my taste, I kept seeing iMixes with names like ‘GET METALLICA ON ITUNES’ and other raucous titles that caught my attention. Who was Metallica? I’d heard the name before, but my parents didn’t have any albums by them. But they weren’t on iTunes? Why not? More importantly, how would my 13-year-old self be able to hear them?
Well, an impatient child and one trip to Walmart later, and my parents had gotten me The Black Album. Right away, I realized I knew exactly who Metallica was. Half of the songs on that record were in heavy rotation on our local rock radio station, so I felt like I already knew so much of their material. After my absolute obsession with The Black Album, I moved on to St. Anger, then to Load, and finally Re-Load. I listened to all four albums religiously and absolutely adored them in their own ways.
I can’t for the life of me remember who said it, but I was talking to someone about the band, and they said, ‘If you like those, you really need to check out their first four albums.’ Why would I argue? Soon enough, I went out with my dad and got a copy of Master of Puppets, and I was mildly excited. I mean, I knew it would be good, but would I honestly like it as much as St. Anger?
I’m not overreacting when I say my life has never been the same.
Master of Puppets is truly the reason why I am who I am today. It introduced me to ’80s thrash metal, which soon became my favorite genre for almost a decade. The album eventually took me into musical territories I never expected to go. In addition, it was my influence for wanting to learn both drums and guitar (leave your Lars Ulrich hate at the door please), as I was absolutely obsessed with the advanced songwriting and technical prowess of the band. At the time, Master of Puppets contained the most structurally intense songs I had ever heard, and I was blown away by the prowess that this four-piece band could deliver.
The first time I heard “Battery”, my mind was legitimately blown. I’ve always loved a triumphant introduction to an album, and “Battery” is one of the reasons why. The classical guitar tricked me into feeling a false sense of security as the calm before the storm. As soon as the rest of the band kicked in for the epic metal rendition of what was just played in a quiet and serene way, I knew this was going to be good. Then, all hell absolutely broke loose. The chaos that takes place throughout “Battery” was my first true experience hearing thrash metal. The speed and aggression was wild to my young ears and was unlike anything I had ever heard before.
“Master of Puppets” is also the only song over about four minutes that could hold my attention when I was younger. The epic journey the track takes is absolutely mind-blowing, and the riffs are beyond legendary. I felt like a complete badass when I first learned the chromatic introduction riff on guitar, but I feel like the charm has never fully worn off. For being one of Metallica’s most popular songs, it also showcases them in a more technical way. Obviously, “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters” were easy radio hits, but “Master of Puppets” had its popularity despite not being as commercially accessible. I feel like this song perfectly represents the band’s ability to craft songs that made an impact on heavy metal, but also allowed for some crossover into the mainstream.
I spoke so highly of “Battery” and “Master of Puppets”, and I could easily do the same for the remaining six tracks. However, I’m going to focus my energy specifically toward “Disposable Heroes”. If you ask me, “Disposable Heroes” is the hidden gem of Master of Puppets. It’s just as progressive and technical as “Master of Puppets”, but I feel like it never quite got as much attention. The whole song is a total onslaught with genius riffs and bursts of speed. While “Master of Puppets” takes a short break from the intensity during the bridge section, “Disposable Heroes” never gives up for its equally long runtime. If this track was on any other band’s album, I truly feel like there’s a possibility it would be their magnum opus, but it’s on Master of Puppets, where eight songs are standouts in their own way.
For a large portion of my life, I’d tell people that Metallica was my favorite band. However, I’ll admit that I’ve fallen off the bandwagon quite a bit. In reality, I still haven’t even listened to the entirety of Hardwired… To Self Destruct. However, just because I haven’t kept up with the band doesn’t change my respect and admiration for them at all. They influenced me to be a musician myself and their music was always something that guided my early days of practice and research. After all these years, I can still come back to Master of Puppets and remember every word, drum beat, guitar riff, and guitar solo. I know that I have plenty more albums to hear in my lifetime, but Master of Puppets will no doubt continue to be one of my favorite records of all time.
I find it hard to talk about albums I really love without going into large amounts of detail about my personal life, so be warned: this is a bit like those recipes you find online, where the author tells you their entire life story before finally getting to the recipe 2,000 words later. I apologise in advance, but this is the story of my experience with the incredible album that is Master of Puppets.
It’s hard for me to believe that there was a time in my life when I didn’t know Metallica existed, and even harder to believe there was a time when I knew they existed, but was convinced I hated them (having heard probably three songs, if that). In fact, at the ripe old age of 14, in all my infinite teenage wisdom, I decided to post a status to my freshly created Facebook account stating how much I disliked dubstep, rap, and, specifically, Metallica (I confess, I did it to provoke a guy I liked at the time – again, very mature. To make matters worse, it worked, sparking several years’ worth of unnecessary, vague, validation-seeking Facebook posts. I was awful in my teens).
Ironically enough, in a fortunate turn of events, after posting that ill-conceived status something compelled me to check out the band I had just ripped into. I was home alone, and noticed an album in my parents’ CD collection, by a band called Apocalyptica. The album was called Plays Metallica By Four Cellos, and it was exactly what it sounds like: a collection of Metallica covers. It was the perfect gateway drug for a classical music snob like me – metal done in a context I could understand and appreciate. I was instantly hooked.
Barely a month after the anti-Metallica status, I admitted to my love for metal on social media, and everything went from 0 to 100 real quick. I posted about metal all the time, my friends shared metal memes to my timeline, I got tagged in anything even vaguely metal related, people were recommending me bands left, right, and centre. I joined a metal band – it was a wild time. I was a mess, and metal kept me sane, assured me I wasn’t the only crazy one.
I remember many Metallica firsts from that time in my life. The first time I heard “The Unforgiven”, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, “Until It Sleeps”, and “Master of Puppets” – but all of these were the Apocalyptica versions. The first time I remember actually hearing anything played by Metallica was Death Magnetic, on a flight from somewhere to somewhere else, and it knocked my socks off. I even remember seeing “Creeping Death”, the live version from Seattle in 1989, for the first time – it’s since become one of my all-time favourite Metallica live videos, and a shining example of everything Jason Newsted brought to the band. And I remember the first Metallica shirt I ever bought for myself, a Master of Puppets shirt with the tracklist printed in purple on the back – I still have it. But even though I remember all of these things in great detail, I can’t for the life of me remember the first time I actually heard Master of Puppets.
Again, that’s so strange to me now – I must’ve heard that album dozens of times, I know it inside-out. There’s something comforting about it, from the false security of the first few bars of “Battery”, to its adrenaline-fuelled conclusion in “Damage, Inc.”. There are no surprises anymore, and yet, there was a time when it was new, unfamiliar, and very much surprising. And, the more I write about my experience with it, the more I wish I could remember that first time.
Master is cleverly constructed, and extremely musical – the very antithesis of what so many people assume metal is about; there are no Cookie Monster vocals, it’s full of lulls and contrast as well as extremely well-performed and well-produced riffing, and the lyrics are not about Satan or killing people (not much, anyway). The songs all have a strong sense of flow and narrative, they’re definitely well thought out, not at all playing into the common misconception that it’s ‘all just noise’ and that ‘anyone could do that.’ Not just anyone could’ve written Master of Puppets, though many people will never gain an appreciation for it. There are plenty of people, though, who understand metal instantaneously, viscerally, without need for reason or someone else’s approval.
While I did instantly fall for “The Unforgiven” that first time I heard it on Plays Metallica By Four Cellos, I would be lying if I said it was a pure gut reaction. I’ve always been very into Western music theory, and I’ve always loved analysing things, music most of all. My appreciation for “The Unforgiven” was largely based on its solo, which is melodic in a very classical way. I spent time deconstructing it in my head, so my love for this song was based on both emotion and analysis.
I do remember having an instant emotional reaction to the sheer energy and force of both “Battery” and “Damage, Inc.”. They both drown out the judging voice in my head, and “Battery” always has been one of my favourite tracks from Master. To me, it’s the perfect song to open such a monumental album, with its deceptively chill intro that soon gives way to blistering riffs and Ride-esque Kirk Hammett solos. James Hetfield’s vocal performance on this track is outstanding too, oozing attitude and energy. It still has the rawness of youth, whilst certainly being a step up from Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning. He sounds much more confident and comfortable with his voice, especially compared to whatever he was trying to achieve on Kill ‘Em All. This is underlined by the much more subtle application of double tracking, a technique that was initially employed as Hetfield’s vocals lacked power. “Battery” retains the thrash energy of Ride, while introducing Metallica’s newfound sophistication in composition that is so typical of Master.
Of course, the title track is a stand-out, too; perhaps the most ‘Metallica’ Metallica song, it embodies everything I have come to love and appreciate about their sound – ruthless riffs, attitude, and the cleverly executed contrast of its middle section; if there was one thing 14-year-old me had not expected when first delving into Metallica, it was that they have so much contrast to them. Hetfield’s solo on this track is also gorgeous; his sensitivity to phrasing and melody shines through, overshadowing Hammett’s love for whammy and fast pentatonic licks. The lyrics, too, expand on the seriousness Metallica introduced on Ride. I could not imagine Kill ‘Em All era Metallica writing a song concerning matters so dark, and in which the lyrical content is so adeptly reflected in its musical ideas. My bandmates and I spent an afternoon pitting Metallica songs against each other in a sports-style tournament to determine which one was the best; despite our best efforts not to simply pick the most well-known one, “Master” won unanimously, and we stand by that decision.
“The Thing That Should Not Be” is an interesting track. Despite being slower-paced and musically simpler, it, too, marks a turning point in Metallica’s style. It’s not a ballad as such, plus Metallica had already released “Fade to Black” by that point, so it’s not the first song they wrote that was completely outside of the thrash bracket, but it’s the first time Metallica wrote something truly moody. It’s very restrained, almost bare. There are still aspects of thrash, but it tends much more towards what doom would later become – dreary, its riffs lumbering, but still with that classic Metallica tightness.
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” on the other hand is a ballad, not in lyrical content, but certainly in execution, especially its first half. I go through phases of adoring the shit out of it, and then spend months thinking it’s not really all that. Currently I dig it, but I have to be in the right mood for it. I think everyone has a specific situation they attach to a song, often the first time they heard it or the first time they recognised it as something great, but my one for this song is much more recent. I must’ve heard it dozens of times by this point, but I was listening to it one day while walking around the town I grew up in, and just as Hetfield crooned the opening lines ,‘Welcome to where time stands still/no one leaves and no one will’, I rounded a corner to see a house, a place I had spent much time in my late teens, and had many conflicting memories of. The glassy guitar arpeggios truly did make it seem frozen in time, and somehow smaller than I remembered, stripped of significance. Everything about the song was perfect for the situation: from its melancholic verses and wonderful mellow solos, through its heart-pumping, almost triumphant riffs and right up until its ultimate, stately demise, it perfectly captured every emotion I felt for this house and the memories associated with it. Even though the lyrical content didn’t reflect what I had experienced there, the attitude in Hetfield’s voice most certainly did.
“Disposable Heroes” builds on the feelings of discontentment and surpressed anger “Sanitarium” introduced, with its hefty riffing, sharp lyrics, and driving drums. Another song I don’t always feel, there are still many subtle things I really enjoy in this song – Lars Ulrich’s drumming in the second verse is executed with unusual precision and taste, the cymbal stabs exactly where they are needed. I’ve also always enjoyed the gang vocals in the bridge, and while the solo is shreddy bullshit, it fits the song perfectly, and I really dig the second half, where Hammett chills out and lets some melodies sneak into his playing. The simplicity of the riffs on this track adds to their badassery and power, and of course there’s the iconic Hetfield vocal moment in ‘I was born for dyiiiiiing’ before the song’s build-up into its final verse, again showcasing some very tasteful Ulrich drumming. The song does go on a bit, but all can be forgiven as it’s executed with such consistent passion, especially from Hetfield.
I have a very specific and non-eventful memory of hearing “Leper Messiah”, too. All I remember is walking down the main street in blinding sunlight. It was a totally normal Sunday, people out shopping, kids meeting at McDonald’s, students hanging out in groups or pairs. I wouldn’t have stood out, but I felt separate, isolated, in a good way. I love the way this song starts, Cliff Burton’s little preparatory slide and Ulrich’s bitchy voice counting the band in – I’m a sucker for that kind of shit. Again, it’s a pretty straightforward song, brought to life by Hetfield’s young, angry voice. But the way Metallica manipulate the same riffs on it into different shapes and moods is very cool – it just works. Plus, the main riff is groovy as hell, and its ending cracks me up.
The one song I didn’t get for ages was “Orion”. I never had beef with the song, but everyone was always hyping up the bass solo, and I just didn’t think it was that amazing. It’s pretty, sure, with nice harmonies, but the whole middle section always just sounded a bit too…consonant for my liking. In fact, even the riffs have something mellow and nice about them – I guess I always thought the song kind of lacked teeth. I was always much more drawn to “The Call of Ktulu” when it came to Metallica instrumentals. It wasn’t until I saw my friend play “Orion” live with a band for a guitar assessment he was sitting that I understood what the big fuss about the bass solo, and the song in general, was about. Now, it’s a comfort song. I still don’t think it’s particularly exciting, but rather than finding it a bit plain and beige, I find it homely and warm. The whole middle section reminds me of a spring evening, all the solos are gorgeous, sweet, and tasteful. Burton may not have stood out much on previous tracks, but on “Orion” he got his moment in the sunlight, and he basked in it, made it count. His tone was also impeccable – it sounds like he stole the larynx of an angel for this song. And the subtle layering of clean guitars is just that extra lushness that the song needs. It’s probably my favourite in terms of mixing on Master.
And finally, that blistering closing track, the last few minutes of such a mighty album. Although one of the shorter tracks on the album, “Damage, Inc.” packs a punch. It doesn’t fuck around. It’s concise, sharp, and assaulting. I’ve always liked this one – together with “Battery”, it bookends the album with energy and fury. Plus, it’s just fun! Cocaine-fuelled riffing, vocal bends, badass whispering, and a ridiculous Hammett solo – what more could I possibly want? This is not a song of contrast – it’s one big adrenaline injection of riff after riff, and leaves me with an elevated heart rate and ready to take on anything. ‘Fuck it all and fucking no regrets’.
Master of Puppets has retained its place in my life over years. It is as relevant to me now as it was when I was younger – I feel like it’s grown with me, or rather, I’ve grown into it. I may put it aside for months at a time, favouring Ride, or The Black Album, or Death Magnetic, but it never loses its significance. Beyond being of sentimental value, there is never a moment of doubt to me that it is also an extremely mature, sophisticated release. Its sense of flow is unparalleled on any previous or later Metallica release; they hit the nail on the head with this one. Every member of the band contributes something amazing to this album, be it fiery vocals and riffing, shreddy solos, great tone, or tasteful drumming, and if even one of the elements was missing, the album wouldn’t be quite as strong. I have no doubt that if I hear it for the first time today, I would still be just as impressed by it.
The massive, insurmountable legacy that Master of Puppets has can really be summed up by the scale of this very article. Here are four writers from different areas of the world all with keen, intense memories (or in the case of my pal Faisal, new memories) of this album, all varied in age and upbringing just enough to color our experiences differently. Now you get my side – kudos if you’ve read this far.
I was a ’90s kid through and through. Having parents that basked in music from their teens and twenties around my adolescence meant I did the same. Even though I didn’t know any better, I couldn’t imagine doing any better if I had the cognition and option to do so. Although I have various bones to pick with modern metal culture, metal made me who I am today, and Master of Puppets – really, early Metallica as a whole – is probably the most instrumental in that as far as my childhood is concerned. We’re about to get pretty personal here.
I remember hearing Metallica a lot. I don’t remember asking what my dad’s favorite band was at any point around then, but if I had to guess based on playtime and enjoyability, it’d likely be the thrash legends. He jammed them hard in the car, slamming his hand against the steering wheel and singing along with me in the car, grinding the gears of his cherry red Mazda RX-7 and, later, shit-ass Hyundai sedan because he sucked at driving. Also, he was high almost all the time.
Sometimes he’d let me borrow a CD of them, just taking it to my room and playing it on my first stereo boombox. Other times, I’d ransack his wooden music rack when he wasn’t around and lift his copy of Garage, Inc. to listen to their cover of “So What?”, originally by Anti-Nowhere League, a lascivious early punk slammer with slightly altered lyrics I… should not have been listening to at the time (‘Well, I fucked a queen/I’ve fucked fuck/I’ve even sucked an old man’s cock/So what?‘). You know, totally normal nine-year-old shit.
Master of Puppets was a regular choice renting from my familial Blockbuster-but-for-music (really aging myself here), but in my limited attention span, I never had much patience to try new songs out. The deep cuts, that is. I stuck to the title track, “Battery”, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, “The Thing That Should Not Be” – all the seminal hits that played regularly on the radio, in my area at least (thanks, 106.7 KPBI). It wasn’t until I was older that I bothered to play many albums all the way through. From radio to my dad’s worn-out tape deck in his car and stereo system at home, it’s an album I could call my oldest friend. I didn’t understand shit about it, I just knew it sounded great and was a good exercise in bonding with my dad, in addition to playing old video games with him.
Lyrics especially were tough for me and my little kid ears. Looking back with a wealth of knowledge and moderately less ignorance, Metallica was talking some serious shit. They tackle mental illness and insanity (“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” was inspired by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), not really with the weight and brevity that subject demands, but still; it’s an old-hat metal trope that for me began here whether I recognized it or not. Anti-war sentiment takes center stage with “Disposable Heroes”, the best deep cut on this album by a long shot. They even sang about Cthulhu and Lovecraftian horror in general on “The Thing That Should Not Be” before everyone else did it to absolute death (seriously, metal bands, find some other freaky occult shit to worship). “Master of Puppets” itself is one of the best metal songs ever written, and the hardest song ever about cocaine addiction.
These songs followed me throughout my whole life. I’m never too far from a Metallica relisten, whether it was this slapper of an album or my other favorite, …And Justice For All. When I was a teen and rhythm games were in, I’d lament my lack of skill at playing “Battery” on Rock Band 2‘s bastard-hard Expert difficulty on any instrument (I didn’t sing). It was one of the only songs I couldn’t consistently beat, so I dedicated a lot of my time to git gud – I eventually did. But more importantly than even its palpable musical legacy and progeny was the personal meaning for me, with it becoming a catalyst by which to realize a legacy is more than the past – it’s progression.
Fair warning: I briefly mention sexual abuse, including against a minor, in this next paragraph, so either skip it or tread lightly.
For most of my life, I associated Metallica with my dad. He’s the one that introduced me after all, how could I not? Much of my musical taste can be traced back to him and his arrested development, with his musical taste and general outlook on life coming to a screeching halt in maturity around his early twenties. Even after my dad cheated on my mom, devastated family finances to buy copious amounts of weed multiple times, and sexually abused both of us multiple times, I couldn’t let go of the memories I had with this album.
So, what do you do when your own father becomes the thing that should not be in your life? I found that Master of Puppets and a lot of other music went beyond the association with my dad, where the music stood on its own and I could see how it helped foster music as a therapeutic presence in my life. Many kids in my place would repress any good memories and shun the things once enjoyed together or that have association with an abuser, and I don’t blame anyone that does that to cope and move on. I, however, leaned into that shit.
I separated all the music I grew up with thanks to my dad and let it help make me a better person, to survive into someone that strives to never purposefully hurt the ones I love. The music became something that helped me grow up relatively well-adjusted. I also realized that, while I couldn’t change who my father was, I didn’t have to be anything like him. My mom didn’t know about any of the stuff he did to me until I was out of high school, far removed from the abuse I suffered, but still I carried those relics of the past with me. Then, and now when I hear albums like Master of Puppets, I hear growth. I hear power. I hear prosperity. I hear agency and control over one’s self. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Maybe I should be talking to a therapist about this, but instead I’m writing an article on why Master of Puppets kicks eternal ass. We all have music that means something special to us for one reason or another, and this is simply one somewhat extreme example. I’m comforted by the slow, deliberate riffs of “The Thing That Should Not Be”. I’m consoled by the milky bass in the middle of “Orion”. The strength in James’ voice gives me strength. That’s all I need, and I know where to go to get it. Also, “Master of Puppets” soundtracks one of the funniest scenes in any movie I’ve ever seen. Click that link and watch it to cleanse yourself of the downer ending I’ve supplied you with, and remember to unconditionally love the music that got you through some rough shit. Do it for me. Do it for others who weren’t so lucky. Do it for yourself.
What are your thoughts on/experiences with Master of Puppets? Are you a fan of Metallica, and if so, what’s your favorite album of theirs? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!