35 years ago today, Metallica left a crater in the metal world that no other band has ever been able to replicate or fill. Coming off of the mounting success of 1984’s monumental Ride the Lightning, the California quartet upped the size of their thrash metal sound while incorporating heavy doses of atmosphere, melody, and believable anguish. The result was Master of Puppets, an album that proved heavy metal was more than a kids’ game over the course of eight crushing tracks (it’s sometimes mind-blowing that Master is that short — changing history in under 10 songs is a truly incredible feat).
Ranking the tracks on Master of Puppets is harder than ranking orgasms; even orgasms can be disappointing or ill-advised, and this record is awesome every goddamn time. But to honor this album turning the big 3-5, we decided to arrange the eight tracks (only eight!) thereon in order of radness. Here’s what had us crawling faster…
8. “Leper Messiah”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “Leper Messiah” — it is to this day a killer anti-religious metal song. The reason it ranks lowest on this list, though, is that it’s only a killer anti-religious metal song. While perhaps more thoughtful than some of Metallica’s peers’ rants against the church, the track is the only one on this album that could’ve potentially been written by another band. Last among legends still makes you a legend.
7. “The Thing That Should Not Be”
When Metallica went fantastic, dragons and zombies weren’t enough — they needed the mind-bending cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. “The Thing That Should Not Be” is sort of a pan-Lovecraft tribute, with a heavy emphasis put on the great god Cthulhu. Not only does the track stomp menacingly, but it includes James Hetfield screaming the words, “DEATH MAY DIE!” at his most unhinged. If any band could do the Ancient Ones’ size justice, it was ‘86 Metallica.
Though perhaps lacking some of the impact that the album’s more traditional songs do, “Orion” is where Metallica truly showcase their musicianship. Spacey and ambient without sacrificing its serrated edge, the track gives the band room to try interesting things and let one’s mind do the storytelling. That’s perhaps the song’s great superpower: it tells a tale in the listener’s head without giving them any narrative as guidance. That, among many other things, is why it’s widely considered the great instrumental metal track of our time.
5. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
After the success of “Fade to Black” — hilariously labeled the band’s ballad by chapped ’80s thrashers — Metallica knew they could convincingly include slower, eerier songs with psychological themes on their album. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” takes this approach to a creative peak, using the band’s heavier moments to frame the lyrics’ stark asylum horror (a very real one for young metalheads in the mid-to-late ‘80s, too, as more and more parents began sending their kids to programs that would cure them of anything from being angry to being gay). A new level of darkness for the band, and one so based in reality that it feels relevant to this day.
The kick of “Battery” is the sonic equivalent of watching a cathedral get demolished. Metallica’s opening braid of acoustic guitars sets up a sense of beauty and artistry that proves them something greater than that which the world perceived them — and then, they bring it all down in a deluge of thunder and lightning. The ripping thrash song that follows is an absolute classic, but that intro is what makes it the timeless track it is. With this one, Metallica launched a new era in metal, and the world loved them for it.
3. “Master of Puppets”
DUHN. DUHN DUHN DUUUUHN…The opening chords of Master of Puppets’ title track are arguably the most iconic in heavy metal history. With this song, Metallica achieved something thrash bands were believed to be incapable of: they wrote an epic, a sprawling musical journey that’s awesome all the way through even as it breaks the eight-minute mark. And by confronting cocaine abuse — a rampant phenomenon in 1986 — the band also showed that they were more cultural aware than their castle-obsessed brethren. Simply amazing.
2. “Disposable Heroes”
The unsung gem of Master of Puppets, “Disposable Heroes” doesn’t get nearly enough lip service for the absolute rager that it is. Though long-form and full-figured, the song is lean as fuck, without an ounce of unnecessary dawdling or self-indulgence. It also takes the record’s military themes to new levels, with the scream-along chorus of “BACK TO THE FRONT!” giving listeners a mantra for the war of everyday life. An undeniable bruiser that proves that even in this record’s darker corners, the slaughter never ends.
1. “Damage, Inc.”
If any track is a testament to Metallica’s timeless, blistering, no-nonsense power, it is “Damage, Inc.” While other tracks on Master of Puppets are nuanced and catchy, this one is as destructive and merciless a thrash anthem as has ever been written. The far-out intro that leads into its misanthropic gallop only increases the chaos of its unfolding, offering listeners a zen sort of calm before the inevitable storm. More than that, though, the title and themes of “Damage, Inc.” cement the core tenet of the band’s identity: we’re here to show up and cause massive destruction, because that’s our goddamn job. Fuck it all, fucking no regrets.
Words by Chris Krovatin