Thirty years have passed since the drummer and his Metallica bandmates released their mind-boggling masterwork, and it still sounds as powerful as it does fearless. Master of Puppets originally came out on March 3rd, 1986, and it remains a high-water mark for not just the band but for metal as a genre. Its eight songs make up a deep and visceral look at manipulation in all its forms, but thanks to a mix of headbangable riffs and rhythms, it never trades heavy for heady.
The LP came out just five years into Metallica’s career, and in that half-decade they had already pioneered thrash metal on their debut, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, and added intricate and elegant melodies to the mix on the following year’s Ride the Lightning. But it’s in the twists and turns of Master of Puppets’ title track, the breakneck, scattershot rhythms of “Disposable Heroes” and the heavy pull of “The Thing That Should Not Be,” among other songs, that the band reenergized and refocused its sound. It’s a record with a legacy that Metallica, whose members’ average age was 23 at the time, couldn’t escape now even if they tried.
In the years since, the record’s moody “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and brutal “Battery” have become set-list staples, while its title track – a nuanced showstopper about drug addiction – has become Metallica’s most-played live song. “A couple of years ago, we did a tour in Europe where we let fans pick the set lists, and, out of 20 or 30 shows, ‘Master of Puppets’ was the Number One most requested song at every show,” the drummer says. “It’s crazy.”
The album is also irrevocably tied to bassist Cliff Burton, who had co-written close to half its songs and who died in a freak tour-bus accident six months after the record came out. In recent years, the band has begun playing Master’s eight-minute instrumental “Orion” in deference to Burton.
The album by itself would be enough to secure Metallica’s place in metal’s pantheon – even if they hadn’t regrouped later that year and, after a few releases, went on to record the mega-selling “Black Album” and become one of the biggest bands in the universe. It’s a legacy that will be explored in depth this fall in Back to the Front, a new book by author Matt Taylor that examines the Master of Puppets album and subsequent Damage Inc. Tour via previously unseen photos and interviews with the band and its crew. In celebration of the album’s anniversary this week, though, Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and co-producer Flemming Rasmussen spoke with Rolling Stone about what Master of Puppets means to them three decades later.
“It was a crazy time,” Ulrich remembers of the summer of 1985. That spring, band members had wrapped months of touring in support of Ride the Lightning and returned home to the San Francisco Bay area. Hammett went camping and fishing, according to a 1986 interview with Ulrich, while Hetfield and Ulrich traveled around the country, following Deep Purple. When they felt settled and ready to write, the singer and drummer, who shared a house in El Cerrito, began woodshedding new material, using cassettes of Burton and Hammett’s ideas, in their garage. They’d all get together and jam and eventually recorded them with the other members on a boombox.