Master of Puppets still looms tall.
The number of metal albums as thoroughly, universally canonized as Master of Puppets could be counted on one hand even if you sliced a few fingertips off in an industrial accident. The crest of a growth curve that saw Metallica first cement the nascent thrash genre before expanding it in dizzyingly complex and unexpectedly commercial ways, the band’s third LP expanded the range and ambition of Ride the Lightning to vivid new heights. Like all antisocial, highly classified forms of rock music, metal is extremely susceptible to the effects of constant escalation. What was nightmarish and society-inflaming at the time looks almost quaint with only a few decades of distance. But Master of Puppets still looms tall, and it still shocks for its technical sophistication, lyrical power and overall conviction.
Roaring out of the gate with “Battery,” one of the all-time great entries in the storied canon of heavy metal fan tributes, the album traverses a wider subject range than its predecessor. Drug abuse, insanity, war, evangelical Christianity and late capitalism all figure among the lyrical targets at a time when metal was just emerging, with the band’s help, from a lost decade of errant fantasy and generic angst. Metallica puts faces to the malaise, and does so with a compositional authority that manages to outpace even the deft increase of chops that defined Ride the Lightning. Where that album found the band adding progressive structures into the hardcore strains of thrash, here the group completely fuses subject and form; “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is structured like “Fade to Black” but replaces that song’s howl of anguish with a dead-eyed, medicated trudge occasionally broken up by silent screams of impotent rage at a hijacked mind. “The Thing That Should Not Be” returns to the Lovecraft well cracked open on “The Call of Ktulu” but swaps perspectives. No longer playing the brutal ritual that summons the Old One, the band instead grapples with the dawning horror of realizing that they have stumbled across something vast and inconceivable, the guitars lurching in halting, descending steps that pause on precipices they then tumble down.
Given a minor touch-up a few years ago when mastered for iTunes, the album has been more thoroughly retooled for this new reissue. The results are exemplary, easily the best of this series so far, with an added punch that elicits even more of the band’s gut-punch intensity. “Disposable Heroes,” the best political metal song since “War Pigs,” now thunderously solidifies itself as the album’s finest track, a prog-thrash epic that rolls through time signature changes on a dime yet never seems to move at anything less than a dead sprint. As James Hetfield screams “Barking of machine-gun fire/ Does nothing to me now/ Sounding of the clock that ticks/ Get used to it somehow,” Metallica’s contemporary declarations of apolitical commercial appeal are downright laughable, and proof of something permanently lost from the group’s trailblazing dynamic. “Battery,” a refinement of Kill ‘Em All’s primitive trash, now slams harder than anything on that record, charging faster but also filling a larger sonic field with a metal onslaught.
The greatest beneficiary of the remastering job is the late Cliff Lee Burton, whose unintended swan song now speaks all the louder to his voluminous talent as performer and arranger. On the album’s breakneck bookends, Burton fingers bass chords with abandon, not only keeping pace without a plectrum but hitting the strings so strongly that the notes belch and scream as he gallops faster than Steve Harris himself. The stop-start shuffle of “The Thing That Should Not Be” can test the patience, but the chasms of menace now opened up in Burton’s chugging, shuddering bassline put much of the lost menace back into the track. Most impressive are how much more open and rich the title track and instrumental “Orion” are. The title track’s breakdown can now be heard in its full depth, which calls attention to just how delicately Burton threads the entire track together, transitioning from shuddering fills to the gossamer web of the middle passage. “Orion,” meanwhile, stands tall as Burton’s crowning achievement, boasting his most elegant, soul-searing solo and building around it a keening, searching composition that retains its fragile beauty even at its heaviest. Being able to hear just how deftly Burton weaves through the guitars, taking lead at all times but always working in tandem with the band to ensure cohesion, is worth acquiring at least the album remaster alone.
Of course, like the previous two Metallica reissues, there’s far, far more than just the album to consider. In addition to the album itself, the band has outdone themselves with a deluxe box set that contains 11 hours of music, not counting material on accompanying DVD. Comprising a slew of demos, riff tapes and bootleg-sourced live performances, the package could be optimistically described as “generous” and more accurately described as “downright ridiculous.” Not even the most devout fan is likely to wade through the thicket of riff tapes, pre-demos of either Hetfield or Hammett noodling by themselves as they toy with ideas. Likewise, the sheer glut of actual demos makes the prospect of tracing the album’s evolution and consolidation in the studio more daunting than intriguing, though there are still entertaining quirks to be found, such as a stripped-down, stretched-out tinkering of the title track complete with a breakdown more brittle and exploratory than elegiac. The principal points of interest among this stretch of the set are two covers, one a brief but rollicking jam on Bay Area punks Fang’s “The Money Will Roll Right In” that anticipates the band’s later turn toward mid-tempo groove, the other a thrashing run through Diamond Head’s “The Prince” (later re-recorded with Jason Newstead as the b-side to the “Harvester of Sorrow” single).
The main draw, naturally, is the live material, which once again testifies to the frustrating lack of professional documentation of Metallica’s earliest period. Tinny fan recordings reduce the band’s complicated interplay to a muted buzz, and the limitations of cheap mics lead to all the heaviness being filtered out, stripping Hammett’s caterwauling solos of their stacked feedback. In many cases, tapes are switched on in the middle of a song, or some poor sod’s spool ran out in the middle of a song’s extended breakdown. Yet there’s something endearing about this, not least because these deluxe sets have shown just how far Metallica has come in repairing fan relations after the Napster debacle, and there’s an overriding sense that the band members want to do justice to what a seismic event the album and its tour was, not only for them but for metal as a whole.
More to the point, the sheer grandeur of this set is a testament to the group’s desire to pay as much tribute as possible to Burton. Sure, the setlist varies little among the live shows, and its fluctuating quality is a distraction, but you still get to hear Burton’s rampaging basslines, supple breakdowns and wild, effects-driven solos in greater quantity than ever before. The set actually comes with his final show, played mere hours before the bus crash that ended his life. For all of Metallica’s massive success and attendant, Spinal Tap-esque moments of colossal embarrassment, they have never once failed to honor and respect the legacy of Cliff Burton, and this marks likely their last offering of material with him in it. The direct, emotional nature of this outpouring of music retroactively clarifies the purpose of these box sets to date: not only daft exercises in fan service but the band’s gift to themselves in the form of fan-submitted material that they might never have heard. Combined with the rich bass of the remaster, this stands as the band’s last, most sweeping, most emotional tribute to their friend.
Somehow, that’s still not all. Toward the end of the set are recordings of Newstead’s auditions for the band to replace Burton, as well as his first performance at a “secret” gig after joining the band (oddly enough the best-sounding of all the concerts here). It’s a sharp reminder than in spite of the artistic breakthrough and subsequent deep tragedy that Master of Puppets represented, the band’s biggest commercial peaks still lie ahead. The thick tones of Newstead’s basslines in these recordings also make one hope that the band approaches their next remaster with the same level of low-end care brought to this one.