In 1986, Metallica’s place in metal history was already quite secure. Their first two albums, Kill ‘Em All and Ride The Lightning were immediate classics that redefined what metal was capable of. Even if the Bay Area band didn’t *invent* thrash per se (you could probably credit British bands like Motorhead or Venom or even Washington DC’s Void for that), they definitely went a long way in making it a viable sub-genre. With that said, Metallica didn’t fully realize their potential until their third album, Master Of Puppets, which was released 30 years ago this week. The record was a stunning, sprawling album that launched the group into the stratosphere, rendering it an absolute certainty that they would go down as one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
While there are plenty of great songs on Master Of Puppets, when we consider this album, it’s impossible not to immediately think of the title track, which is an absolute masterpiece. From the opening riff, to the chant of “MASTER! MASTER!” to the surprisingly ornate middle section, the song is rarefied perfection. In some senses, it feels like the ideal metal song, yet in other ways, it changed the idea of what a metal song could be. If a band’s legacy could ever be ensured with one song, this would be it.
And yet, on this album, it’s just one great track amid so many others. Another classic and fan favorite, “(Welcome Home) Sanitarium,” details the life of a man locked away in a mental institution and due to the archaic and cruel attempts to cure him, he is driven further into insanity. To be sure, this theme had been explored in the metal world before — just a year earlier on Anthrax’s “Madhouse” — but James Hetfield’s evocative lyrics, and the dark vibe they created, elevates this song to a class of its own.
Elsewhere, “Disposable Heroes,” perhaps best known for its “BACK TO THE FRONT” chant, touches on the tragedy of war. Two years later, the band would release “One,” their first true hit, and yet, the anti-war themes of this song make it feel like a prequel of sorts. After exploring the issue of capital punishment on 1984’s “Ride The Lightning,” the band felt emboldened to take on more political themes in their music. This was also true of “Leper Messiah, ” a screed against the emerging televangelist movement of the ’80s. When we consider everything that would go down with Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart just a few years later, that track in particular can’t help but feel a bit prophetic in retrospect.