by Ivan J. Sheehan
By 1986, Metallica was widely accepted as the heir apparent to the heavy metal throne. The band's crowning achievement was Master of Puppets, an album that not only pushed the limits of the metal genre in terms of sheer musicianship and creative force, but also redefined the paths to success and critical acclaim.
Metallica's meteoric ascent began in earnest with the release of 1983's Kill 'Em All, introducing the band's sharp thrash attack – a potent brew of New Wave of British Heavy Metal, punk and hardcore – to an audience far beyond their Bay Area stomping grounds. Although the record featured songs co-written by former bandmate (and future Megadeth leader) Dave Mustaine, the album was a cohesive thrash onslaught with little variation among arrangements and archetypal lyrics that encouraged listeners to "Jump In The Fire," "Seek & Destroy," have "No Remorse" and join a "Metal Militia." At its core were the intricate rhythm guitar and brash vocals of James Hetfield, the skillful lead guitar work of Kirk Hammett, the powerful percussive backbone of Lars Ulrich and the inimitable bass stylings of Cliff Burton.
A year later, the quartet took an evolutionary leap with the release of Ride The Lightning, an album that introduced elements of prog rock, including extended, more complex arrangements, an instrumental composition, aspects of classical music and a concept-album adhearance to a unifying theme. The album saw Hetfield taking a more introspective approach to lyrics with eight songs singularly focused on death – from the title track narrative of a man moments before being condemned to the electric chair, to the war commentary of "For Whom The Bell Tolls" to the stirring suicide lament "Fade To Black" to the self-explanatory "Trapped Under Ice." Musically, the arrangements had grown in scope to complement Hetfield's more expository musings. Acoustic guitars, Hammett's haunting lead lines and a wall of distorted guitars in lieu of a chorus gave "Fade To Black" depth; "Fight Fire With Fire" opened the album with a quasi-classical guitar intro followed by a volume swell that preempted a pummeling all-band incursion more furious than any track on Kill 'Em All; and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" launched with the ominous chiming of bells, chugging, palm-muted low-end riffing from Hetfield and Hammett, and Burton's menacing lead bass line, all culminating in an affecting outro that mimics the cacophony of an air strike. The impact was such that it helped garner a deal with Elektra Records.
After seemingly non-stop touring, Metallica retreated to Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, to record Master of Puppets in 1985. Although it lacked the paradigm transition from Kill 'Em All to Ride the Lighting, Master of Puppets took the band's increasingly ambitious approach to songwriting and honed it into what many consider the pinnacle of heavy metal. The arrangements were nuanced and complex, with varied time signatures, tones and textures that introduced greater subtlety. The playing was impeccable, each band member showcasing a virtuosity that came together as a tight, unified four-person front. Lyrically, Hetfield's tack continued to favor blunt overtures over poetic suggestion, forming a record that captured the doom and despair of merciless subjugation – a concept echoed in the cover art depicting a cemetery field of white crosses tethered to strings manipulated by a pair of hands in a blood-red sky. The album opened with "Battery," its lyrics (Whipping up a fury / Dominating flurry / We create the battery) reflected in the brutal pace and the layered, lacerating score of distorted guitars that cut through the mix. The title track's harrowing admonishment of addiction – Master of puppets, I'm pulling your strings / Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams / Blinded by me, you can't see a thing / Just call my name, 'cause I'll hear you scream – musically took shape as a 9-minute epic that featured a collection of the band's signature muscular riffs and driving rhythm, though tempered with a gentle interlude that propelled the song from an unrelenting aural assault to a dynamic composition and counterpoint to the stark lyricism. Also clocking in at more than 8 minutes, "Disposable Heroes" was a sprawling, unrelenting blast that framed lyrics such as Back to the front / You will do what I say, when I say / Back to the front / You will die when I say, you must die, in addressing the notion of men and women fighting and dying for callous leaders. The dual guitar interplay of Hetfield and Hammett helped guide the evocative instrumental "Orion," which featured unique passages that vacillated between subdued and thundering yet flowed as a single piece. "Damage Inc." bookended the album in an aggressive fury of speed and dextrous playing, an emphatic declaration of heavy metal power. Upon its release, the band went on tour, during which Burton was tragically killed when Metallica's tour bus ran off an icy road in Sweden. The band continued performing and recording, bringing talented bassist Jason Newsted on board.
Despite virtually no airplay and no music videos, the album sold more than 500,000 copies in its first year of release. It peaked at 29 on the Billboard charts, and remained on the Billboard 200 for 71 weeks. As of 2003, the album had been certified six times multiplatinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Metallica was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.