Vinyl Night: Master of Puppets

Metallica's Master of Puppets was accorded a rare honor in March 2016. Just a few weeks after the 1986 album celebrated its 30th anniversary, it was formally selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.

There it joined legendary albums recorded by the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Beatles; timeless tracks such as “White Christmas” and “Stand by Me”; and speeches delivered by Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and other leaders whose words have echoed through history.

Of the 450 recordings chosen to date, Master of Puppets is the only metal album.

It’s an apt selection. And while the Library of Congress solidified the album’s place in American culture, its standing in the music world has never required such official validation. Master of Puppets is one of the most influential albums in the history of heavy metal and the standard by which every other thrash metal album is measured.

Smashing Through the Boundaries

The album possesses all of metal’s virtues – blistering riffs, searing guitar solos, pounding drum tracks – and none of its clichés. That’s particularly evident in singer James Hetfield’s lyrics: at a time when heavy metal music was awash in demons and mysticism, Master of Puppets offered a sardonic commentary on the ills and injustices of society.

It plays like a loose concept album, its themes of war, insanity, aggression, addiction, and corruption strung together by the motif of individuals succumbing to manipulative forces.

But amid all the sound and fury are haunting passages that give the album texture and depth. A dynamic album in a genre that trends one-dimensional, Master of Puppets demonstrates what was a growing sophistication in the band’s songwriting – with a notable diversity of influences.

From the Ennio Morricone-inspired intro to “Battery” and the Bach-ian bass swells of “Damage Inc.” to the David Bowie-inspired title of “Leper Messiah,” Metallica’s willingness to reach beyond the borders of its genre is what enabled the band to redraw those borders.

The result is a collection of complex arrangements that seamlessly blend anger and melody, aggression and nuance, intelligence and despair.

Master! Master!

And no song better displays that balance than the title track, which exposes listeners to the torment of an individual in the throes of a cocaine addiction.

“Master of Puppets” is famous for the blunt force of its opening chords and its relentless primary riff. But what’s most moving is the song’s dreamy middle section – almost like an addict’s respite, a moment of calm after finding relief in a fix – before the walls close in and the song races to its fierce conclusion.

It’s a pleasure to own this on vinyl (even though my version skips in two places). If nothing else, having the LP version makes it easier to admire the iconic cover art – a cemetery filled with white crosses affixed to marionette strings, controlled by hands that loom overhead in a blood-red sky. It’s a chilling portrait that visually conveys so much of the album’s grim subject matter.

More Beer!

Nothing about Master of Puppets screams “cocktail,” so I figured I’d pair this album with a beer. And that beer would have to be black, like the soul of this record. (And if you get the “More Beer!” reference above, good for you.)

Slumbrew’s Porter Square Porter is a rich, robust chocolate porter. It’s brewed with cocoa powder and cacao nibs, so the chocolate flavors are prominent.

But you also get notes of coffee and nutty flavors, even a little smokiness. It’s a malty beer with a bold, roasted aroma, and it’s well suited to these increasingly chilly autumn nights.

Also stands up well to the heaviest of metal albums.

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