Editor's note: This article was originally published on 3 March to mark the 30th anniversary of Metallica's Master of Puppets. On Wednesday, the album was added to the National Recording Registry (NRR) of the US Library of Congress. According to the Library of Congress' website, each year the NRR "chooses 25 recordings showcasing the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage in order to increase preservation awareness".
In other words, Master of Puppets is now one of the 450 records deemed by the NRR to 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'. What might be of a little consternation is that the record is classified under the genre 'Pop (Post-1955)'. On that note, here's the 30th anniversary piece:
At some point in high school, a classmate/friend/second guitar teacher (the story about my first brush with the guitar is not worth revisiting) lent me a music tape.
While in itself, not a particularly remarkable occurrence, it was the first time he lent me an unsolicited tape. “Go on, you’ll like it,” he insisted. Inside that clear plastic jewel case was a hand-drawn (and painted, I assumed) cover depicting a bunch of crucifix gravestones with a couple of hands on either side pulling at faintly-drawn strings.
Each string connected to a gravestone.
The only other Metallica album I’d heard up to that point was the very underrated Reload — yes, that was my first introduction to the band — and I didn’t think twice about sticking the cassette into my Walkman. After that familiar crackle — a telltale sign that the contents of the cassette had been copied from a vinyl pressing — came that lush acoustic guitar intro.
You know the one.
The one that precedes those four power chords, the downstroke-heavy riffing and the crashing drums that ensue. What also follows is the indescribable urge to smash everything around you into smithereens.
The song, if I even need to point out, was Battery and the album was obviously Master of Puppets. It’s safe to say I had no idea of the aural smörgåsbord that awaited me.
And on 3 March, 30 years ago, the world got its first taste of the album (and presumably that urge to which I alluded above). Released by Elektra Records in 1986, it was in 2003 that the album was certified 6x platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America for having sold six million copies in the US. The internet reliably (or not) informs me that the record went sextuple-platinum in the UK and Canada as well. In 2006, Metallica played the whole of the Master of Puppets record end-to-end at Download Festival in Donington Park, UK to mark the album’s 20th anniversary.
But anyway, as it stands, Battery is still one of my favourite tracks, certainly off the album, but generally, as well. And I’m not alone. Flemming Rasmussen, who after producing the band’s Ride The Lightning record, produced Master of Puppets, agrees. “Battery, Master of Puppets and Welcome Home (Sanitarium) are my favourite tracks off the album,” he tells me in a brief chat while off touring the world.
Flemming, who is widely and (more importantly) accurately credited with creating frontman James Hetfield’s guitar sound, says, “My first impression of the band was that of a determined band, with a common goal, and had worked really hard to achieve this.”
That’s cool. Determination and having a goal are always good things. But what was different about recording this album, compared to the previous one?
“In the two years between, the band had matured, and the song-writing had gotten a bit better. They also played a lot better after intensive touring. I was looking forward to getting back into the studio with them a lot like a kid looks forward to Christmas,” says Flemming.
That’s exactly how newbies (yes, if you haven’t heard the album yet, I’m talking to you) should and long-time fans do approach the album. Showcasing a great sense of sophistication, both musical and lyrical, Master of Puppets is largely centred around the theme of control, manipulation and being enslaved – whether a slave to anger (Battery), war (Disposable Heroes), evangelism, specifically televangelism (Leper Messiah), senseless violence (Damage, Inc.), those who are supposed to help people battling issues of mental health (Sanitarium), or cocaine (as alluded to in the title track). Note: For the longest time, I couldn't make sense of the line "chop your breakfast on a mirror" in said title track.
In the form of an aside (perhaps not so interesting to you, as me), listening to my own copy of that copied cassette, I never heard the mid-section of the album’s instrumental track Orion — bear in mind, most cassettes could only handle 45 minutes-worth of music on each side, so naturally, the track cut out) until over a whole year later when I eventually splashed out on the CD.
But digressions apart and getting back to the topic of how the damn thing was recorded, it took a major jaunt across Los Angeles before drummer and band founder Lars Ulrich and Flemming were able to settle on a studio to record the album. And guess what? It wasn’t even in the United States. “Lars and I went on a two-week tour to find a studio in LA where we could record Master of Puppets, but did not find a studio with a live room like the one in Sweet Silence (the Copenhagen studio in which Ride the Lightning was recorded). So eventually, the band decided to record in Denmark,” elaborates Flemming, before adding wryly, “It was totally the band’s decision.”
On a side note, the days of hunting for a studio may well be over for Flemming, who recently finished building and fitting out a new studio in Helsingør, Denmark. “That took some time,” says the producer who works on all sorts of projects these days, but by his own admission, focuses mainly on rock bands.
Nevertheless, compared to the band’s last stint at Sweet Silence while recording Ride the Lightning – when they slept on the floor in the room above the studio – the recording of Master of Puppets saw them sprawling (between recording sessions) in the lap of luxury at the Scandinavia Hotel, with Lars and James sharing a room, and guitarist Kirk Hammett and the band’s late bass player Cliff Burton sharing another.
“The entire recording process went very smoothly,” says Flemming, who over the years has spoken at length about the band’s proficiency at that stage – particularly James, who according to the producer, could lay down rhythm tracks in one take. But unlike Ride the Lightning, it wouldn’t be Flemming who would see the album to its logical conclusion. It was onetime Accept guitarist and music producer/engineer Michael Wagener who would put the final touches on Master of Puppets.
What’s up with that?
“The recording process took a bit longer than expected,” explains Flemming, “So I was booked and didn’t have any more time. The band then decided to let Wagener mix the album.”
And what we were left with was an absolute masterpiece – and one that is often imitated but rarely replicated, whether in terms of its heaviness, its subtlety or as an overall package. It’s hard to pick a favourite Metallica album particularly with the enchanting wizardry of Ride the Lightning, the raw brutality of Kill ‘Em All or even the reinvented style and verve of Reload (I’m not even going to get into the car-crash from which you cannot peel away your eyes that is St Anger). But, Master of Puppets arguably sits atop the pile.
It’s been said and written that at the time of smashing out this record, Metallica and particularly Lars were growing weary of the ‘thrash metal’ tag that was slapped against their names – that may have contributed to a layman’s sense of caution while approaching the band’s music. So was it a conscious decision to move away from ‘thrash’ (conceptually and musically) with Master of Puppets?
“No idea,” replies Flemming, “We never talked about doing anything like that. We just made as good an album as we possibly could.” The band’s producer on later albums (from the eponymous album to St Anger) Bob Rock was sometimes accused of trying to be the fifth member of Metallica – a notion that was crystallised by the documentary Some Kind of Monster, or at least that’s the way the edit shows it. Flemming admits he was also portrayed that way. “Yes, all the time,” he says.
When asked about how he feels about the album 30 years on and whether any modern-day record can be dubbed this generation’s Master of Puppets, the producer of the album says emphatically, “I am proud of what we achieved with the album. I’ve never thought about comparing it to anything!”
As for his relations with the band in 2016, Flemming says, “I’m closest to Lars these days. We talk on and off, but I see the whole band when they play in Denmark.”
Which brings us to the million dollar question:
As a major influence on the band’s sound, a producer of some of their best tracks and a person who remains close to the band, what direction would Flemming like to see Metallica take now (particularly with a new album reportedly set to be released in 2016)?
“I think I will let the band and their people decide that,” says a satisfied man.
Great. Only thing left to do now is listen to the album, embedded below for your convenience. Happy Birthday, Master of Puppets!