TGR (The Grand Re-Listening) is a series of articles I am writing about trying to hear supposedly classic metal and rock albums as they were intended to be heard by the artists, and not through a filter of memories and non-musical context formed by years of exposure to the records themselves as well as the media and fans that surround them.
This TGR entry is about Metallica’s 1986 classic album Master Of Puppets, an almost universally beloved record to metal fans.
There are two ways I can listen to bands, firstly normally and secondly through a genre. Most often, I will be forced to listen to them through a genre, and much of my mental-time will be spent comparing the song to other songs within the same genre, analyzing recurring musical patterns and approaches within that genre and then cross referencing them against of the combined total of my knowledge and experience of that genre.
This is a largely involuntary process and in all honesty one that I would probably be happier without. Sometimes, with a band like Metallica, the music can just be enjoyed in the purity of ear stimulation, but sometimes I will be forced to listen to Metallica through the “THIS IS A THRASH METAL ALBUM”- mindset and study how it compares to other Trash Metal albums; which riffs, beats, lyrics and whatever else closely follow established Thrash Metal traditions and which ones don’t, as well as which bands (within my mental database) that the album influenced and were influenced by.
This album in particular is an album that I’ve had a long history with, having heard it before I even knew what metal really was and being exposed to it for almost a decade before I was able to understand it properly, upon which time I changed opinions about it regularly for almost another decade. I’ve thought almost everything about this album that there is to be thought about an album, its been everywhere on the good/bad scale, and everywhere on all the scales that I have at my disposal.
Right now I think of it as being excellent, I don’t listen to it all that regularly but enjoy it when I do.
When re-listening to it now for this series, I am trying to just hear the music as it comes out of the speakers, and will try not to get hung up on memories or indeed on whether Anthrax could use that riff, whether the production compares favourably to Endless Aggression, whether they were as influenced by prog as Voivod were or something similar.
When I hit play, I expected to here a fast metal moment right of the bat, and was treated to forty seconds of music that reminded me of cowboy films first. It seems I had forgotten the intro to ‘Battery’ and expected it to start at the 1.30 mark.
It is interesting to note how much higher pitched James Hetfield’s voice was here than on subsequent albums, and how it is clear of the country influence from when he really developed as an astounding singer with the likes of ‘Outlaw Torn.’ Apparently, having heard this song so many times live, I am actually fairly unaccustomed to the actual vocal take that was used on the album and when thinking about this song, am more likely to hear the vocal take from their S&M live album in my mind’s-ear.
I know that I am trying to keep the Thrash-thoughts to a minimum, but I just noticed for the first time how much this song reminds me of Testament and now actually understand my friend’s youthly assertion that Testament sounded too similar to Metallica for the first time.
Master Of Puppets, the title track itself, is one of the most mechanically pleasing songs that has ever been written. I sometimes think that I don’t like it because of having heard so many ropey cover versions of it in my teens, and even learned to play it poorly on the drums myself only a few years ago on the insistence of people I knew at the time.
Actually hearing the song however, I know that not only do I not dislike it, but I outright love it. Especially four minutes in, when the echoey arpegiated section kicks in and brings with it a real sense of sad triumph, like having saved the day in a film but still losing too much in the process.
The other thing about this song worth mentioning is the guitar solo. I love Rob Arnold from Chimaira’s guitar solos and Rob Arnold clearly loves Kirk Hammet’s guitar solos here. The mixture of melody and shred is perfectly balanced and the effects make it sound so much better than many other solos of the time.
When the first two songs are over, fourteen minutes of truly inventive and perfectly formed music have passed in the mental time of about three minutes. This would be a good album to have on in an airport waiting room.
The next track, ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’ was never a song that I was ever that big a fan of. I remember at some stage coming to the conclusion that it was really ahead of its time and foreshadowed a lot of music from the decade that followed, but even at that wasn’t especially keen on it.
Hearing it now, I can’t really understand why I would dislike it. I assume that I have just grown to like it over time and whatever irrational reason I had to mistrust it has since been quashed by my more open adult mind, this would sure be a good thing if it is true. The reason I started the TGR series was essentially to irradicate the last remaining hiding places of the irrational and immature thought patterns that remain in my brain, the patterns which hide deep in long held beliefs that usually go unchallenged.
As an adult, it is easy not to form any new immature opinions, but not entirely easy to exorcise (like an exorcist, not like an athlete) the ones that you have already formed. Had I formed any racist or homophobic opinions or anything like that, the process of challenging and dismissing them would be evidence that I had grown significantly as a person.
Being a liberal metal nerd however, my irrational opinions are more like ‘light songs are crap’ ‘this album is overrated’ etc, and so banning them from my brainspace doesn’t benefit me (or the metropolitan community) in the same way, but is something I intend to do anyway.
‘Sanitarium’ and ‘Leper Messiah’ are both great songs and I don’t have anything in particular to say about them save that some of Lar’s drum fills are really unique and that I have a half formed memory of telling someone in Primary school about Leper Messiah, even though I didn’t really know it myself and them making fun of it, and also under the misunderstanding that it was ‘Leopard Messiah.’
As a thrash fan, the slow drum beat in the first minute of ‘Disposable Heroes’ just hurts my brain, and seems like a deliberate attempt at subversion by Lars who may in fact be choosing to play the least appropriate beat that he can still get away with over that amazing riff. It sounds fine when I can calm the barking dog that is the thrash center of my brain, but as discussed calming that isn’t always easy for me.
It seems a bit redundant to say at this point, but the guitar solo in this song is absolutely phenomenal. I know the album is considered a guitar players handbook already and there is no praise high enough to heap on it in most people’s minds (barr contrarians deliberately ignoring its virtues to appear cool or promote another amazing guitarist like Mustaine) but at the same time, I feel compelled to add another thumbs up to the song’s already impressive thumb throne.
One thing I’ve never understood is the catastrophic popularity of Cliff Burton and more specifically both ‘Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)’ and ‘Orion.’ I realize that initially this may have been an immature example of myself being a deliberate contrarian, but even after I outgrew such things I still don’t think that the public opinion on the matter is proportional to the quality… I was about to type objective quality there, but if we’re being honest this is something that can only ever be subjective.
Dimebag Darrel, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix are other examples of where the death of a musician results in the public drastically upping the intensity of perceived love, respect and taboo-of-criticism for the musicians and also tracks that clearly display their talents.
I know that Cliff Burton was an amazing bassist, a true pioneer and beyond influential even before his death, but even at that, I understand it up to the point where it still exists.
The only way I can think to convey this properly is with some made up numbers. So, if most bassists are 40units and the best bassists in classic metal bands are 50 units, then Cliff Burton was maybe a whole 70units, that’s three times as much better than great bassists as a great bassist is better than your average bassist.
The problem is that some weird black cloud hangs around and forces everyone into a perpetual state of denial and hyperbole, insisting that it is an unarguable fact that Burton (or Dime or Jimi) are in fact 4,000units.
They are 70units, which is huge in itself… why go mad and insist on 4,000units ? the gap is so big it removes credibility from your own argument.
Orion as a song to me was always about 30 units, and when I really got into music, understood recording and talent more clear I revised that up to 40units, eventually conceding that it probably was that golden 70 and that the 30unit deficit was due to my original contrary stance still leaving a stain even after being washed off.
But time and again, people will insist Orion has a value far beyond the already superhuman 70units and in the thousands or perhaps even hundreds of thousands. Things are never going to change, and perhaps just to be nice to dead people maybe we can argue that they shouldn’t change… but I’d like to present my side of the argument anyway.
Anyway, Damage Inc. was a song that I never really came across a lot in my youth,; I certainly never really “heard it” –heard it, if you get my meaning, until I bought my own copy of the album in around 2004/2005 to replace my brother’s long careworn copy.
This is another great song, even though I’ve heard it the least it still evokes a nostaligia in me at this point, not of my childhood like ‘Leper Mesiah’ but of my Thrash-fueled mid-teen period. That sentence sounds so unbelievably wanky and like the kind of thing I avoid, but at present I’m unsure how to reword it so I guess you’re stuck with it, and I’m a knob.
It will never be able to be my favourite Metallica album because I didn’t discover it for myself (another personality flaw of mine) but it is certainly a good album that is as good that it is – 70 units, an amazingly high 70units.