Bringing Thrash Into The Mainstream: 35 Years of Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’

Released on this day back in 1986, discover how the album brought the underground Thrash scene into the spotlight.

Arguably the most successful and well-renowned Metal band to ever exist, it was on this day 35 years ago that Metallica debuted their third studio album- Master of Puppets

Remaining one of their most successful and highly-rated albums of their extensive, four-decade-long discography, discover how the release catapulted the Thrashers out of the underground metal scene into global stardom.

In the run-up to 1986, Metallica were already beginning to create waves across the metal scene for their help in forming the Thrash genre and solidifying American Metal music throughout the industry. Yet, following the release of their second album, Ride The Lightning, the band remained a pillar of the Underground music scene rather than the commercial success and household name to which they are now known.

That is why when it came to writing their next album, Metallica saw the opportunity to prove themselves more than ever before and created an album that established Thrash as a genre worthy of both commercial success and critical acclaim.

Aiming to provide a more refined and mature approach than in their previous releases, the writing for Master of Puppets also reinvented the structure of the band and juxtaposed the reputation they had already created for themselves. 

Initially nicknamed ‘Alcoholica’ by fans and critics (due to their excessive drinking and rambunctious lifestyles), Metallica’s newfound desire to break out of the Underground scene saw the members sober up and incorporate more technical dexterity into their music than many thought they were capable of.

Almost entirely written by both Hetfield and Ulrich in mid-1985, the band, for the first time, chose to conduct the recording process outside of the US. This came as a result of their new, heightened standards and dissatisfaction towards the quality and capability of American studios.

Trying to capture an increasingly refined sound and a greater sense of detail, Metallica rethought their approach to their instruments and took numerous steps to make their playing abilities the highest possible. To achieve this, Ulrich underwent drum lessons, Kirk Hammett commissioned guitar-legend, Joe Satriani, as a mentor and Hetfield attempted to commission Rush’s Geddy Lee as the producer before the members flew to Denmark to record the album.

Now, paying more attention to their technical abilities and songwriting capability, the band set their eyes upon ambitious and politically-aware lyrics- aiming to capture critical reception and establish themselves as more than an amateur, underground band.

Using Hetfield’s new controlled and melodic vocals (as opposed to the harsh, uncontrolled shouts of the first two releases), Metallica strived to represent the alienation and powerlessness of the everyday man, victimised by those who wield power– raising some of the most important issues at the time into question.

Exploring themes including the exploitation of the common man, the abuse of power by authority figures and the subconscious manipulation of televangelism, the motifs behind Master of Puppets were intentionally crafted to generate controversy and place Metallica into discussion within mainstream society.

Tracks ‘Battery’, ‘Master of Puppets’, ‘Disposable Heroes’, ‘Leper Messiah’ and ‘Damage Inc.’ all followed this premise- shedding light on the lack of personal liberty the band saw across 1980s society. 

Here, the band also saw their opportunity to highlight other taboo subjects that were restricted in mainstream media. Although predominantly about the vulnerability of mankind, the lyrics also tackled issues of drug addiction, the hypocrisy of religion and the trauma of PTSD faced by those sent to war.

A world away from the initial lacklustre meanings behind their earlier tracks such as ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Motorbreath’, when Master of Puppets made its debut, critics were caught off-guard by the newfound maturity and political commentary the four-piece had produced.

Providing overwhelming praise to the band for their courage to express their perceptions, the album was marked as triumph and said to represent the unspoken paranoia that laid beneath 1980s society. For the first time, critics, who were initially reluctant to take Metallica seriously, credited Master of Puppets as one of the most important releases of all time and began holding Metal music in a higher regard, rather than shunning it.

What’s more, using references from novels, the band took inspiration from literature. Referencing H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu in ‘The Thing that Should Not Be’ and Ken Kelsey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’, Master of Puppets began to redefine connotations of Metal and challenge naïve preconceptions. 

Consistently trying to counteract the genre’s ties to rebellion and violence, Metallica’s new sense of ambition and perfectionism throughout across the release brought the usually-shunned genre to the forefront of mainstream media- forcing society to reevaluate their prejudices towards the Thrash scene.

Outright refusing to release any singles or music videos ahead of the release, Master of Puppets beat the odds to become an immediate success upon its debut. Alongside the uproar of positive reviews, the album also became an instant fan-favourite, selling over 300,000 copies in its first three weeks and remaining on the Billboard 200 charts for over 72 weeks consecutively.

Landing them a five-month-long tour with Metal legend, Ozzy Osbourne, and regular appearances on MTV, Master of Puppets catapulted Metallica into commercial success for the first time in their careers.

Their first release to be certified Platinum, it was only now that the American Thrash Scene was solidified- providing a new-surge of interest towards other releases including Megadeth’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? and Slayer’s Reign In Blood.

However, despite proving to be their most commercially successful release yet and allowing them to delve into the most nuanced and technical songwriting of their career, the tour with Osbourne proved to be one of the most tragic turning points in metal history.

Whilst allowing the band to play stadiums for the first time and win over Metal fans worldwide, Metallica were prone to several accidents during their time on the road, with one proving to be fatal.

After enduring a skateboarding accident, Hetfield suffered a broken wrist- leaving guitar technician, John Marshall forced to fill in as the rhythm guitarist for several tour dates. Yet, things proceeded to get worse as the band rolled into the European leg of the tour alongside Anthrax.

Passing through Stockholm on September 26th, the band’s tour bus rolled over due to poor weather conditions; throwing original bassist, Cliff Burton, through the window as the bus overturned- tragically killing him aged just 24. Following the accident, the tour was cut short, the band flew back to San Francisco and the driver of the tour bus was charged with manslaughter but never convicted. 

Although the incident marked the end of an era for the band, the legacy left behind by both Burton and Master of Puppets allowed Metallica to form into the band we know today. 

Now, seen as the pinnacle of the American Thrash scene, the album has gone on to represent the memory and talent of Cliff Burton and has been featured in Robert Dimery’s book, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Selling over 6 million copies in the US alone, it was also ranked the fourth-greatest guitar album of all time by Guitar World.

Leaving behind their rambunctious angst and underground image in exchange for technical proficiency and political awareness, Master of Puppets continues to stand as one of Metallica’s most successful releases and will go down in history as the album that established Thrash as a genre worth taking seriously.

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What are your thoughts on Master of Puppets? Let us know via the comment section!

For more about Metallica, be sure to check out our pieces on both The Black Album HERE and Hardwired… To Self-Destruct HERE!

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