Master of Puppets

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Not to be confused with Puppet Master or Puppeteer.
This article is about the Metallica album. For the title track of the album, see Master of Puppets (song).
Master of Puppets
Studio album by Metallica
Released February 24, 1986 (1986-02-24)
Recorded September 1 (1-09) – December 27, 1985 (1985-12-27) at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark
Genre Thrash metal
Length 54:46
Label Elektra
Producer Metallica, Flemming Rasmussen
Metallica chronology
  • Master of Puppets
  • (1986)
Singles from Master of Puppets
  1. "Master of Puppets"
    Released: July 2, 1986 (1986-07-02)[1]

Master of Puppets is the third studio album by American heavy metal band Metallica, released on February 24, 1986 by Elektra Records. It was the band's last album to feature bassist Cliff Burton, who died in a bus crash during the album's promotional tour. The album peaked at number 29 on the Billboard 200 and became the first thrash metal album to be certified platinum. It was certified 6× platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 2003 for shipping six million copies in the US.

Master of Puppets was released to rave reviews from music critics and has been included in several publications' best album lists. Its driving, virtuosic music and angry, political lyrics drew praise from critics outside of the metal community. The album is considered the band's strongest effort of the period, and is one of the most influential heavy metal albums. Many bands from all genres of heavy metal have covered the album's songs, including tribute albums.

The cover was designed by Metallica and Peter Mensch and painted by Don Brautigam. It depicts a cemetery field of white crosses tethered to strings, manipulated by a pair of hands in a blood-red sky. The original artwork was auctioned at Rockefeller Plaza, New York City for between $20,000 and $30,000.[2]

Background and recording[edit]

When I saw two kids who worked there in London wearing T-shirts of a local San Francisco band, I knew I was onto something. When I heard their record, I knew they were the one band that could sell to both mainstream and underground metal audiences.

— Cliff Burnstein, on signing Metallica[3]

Metallica signed with Elektra Records in the fall of 1984. The label reissued the band's second album Ride the Lightning on November 19, and the band began touring larger venues and festivals throughout 1985. After parting with manager Jon Zazula, Metallica hired Q Prime's Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch. During a busy summer, the band played the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington, alongside Bon Jovi and Ratt in front of 70,000 fans.[4] The group began writing new material in mid-1985. Drummer Lars Ulrich and frontman James Hetfield were the main songwriters on the album, already entitled Master of Puppets. The two developed ideas at a garage in El Cerrito before inviting bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett for rehearsals.[5] Hetfield and Ulrich described the songwriting process as starting with "guitar riffs, assembled and reassembled until they start to sound like a song". After that, the band came up with a song title and topic, and Hetfield wrote lyrics to match the title.[6]

Metallica recorded the album with producer Flemming Rasmussen in Copenhagen from September 1 to December 27, 1985.[7] Rasmussen stated that the band brought well-prepared demos of the songs, and only slight changes were made to the compositions in the studio.[8] In a retrospective interview for Rolling Stone, Hammett stated the group was "just making another album" at the time and "had no idea that the record would have such a range of influence that it went on to have". He further said that the group was "definitely peaking" at the time and that the album had "the sound of a band really gelling, really learning how to work well together".[9] Rasmussen and Metallica did not manage to complete the mixtapes as planned. Instead, in January 1986 the master tapes were sent to Michael Wagener, who had previous production experience with Mötley Crüe, Dokken, and Accept, and who finished the album's mixing.[5]


The songs explore themes such as control and the abuse of power. The lyrics describe the consequences of alienation, oppression, and feelings of powerlessness. Author Ryan Moore thought the lyrics depict "ominous yet unnamed forces of power wielding total control over helpless human subjects".[10] The lyrics were considered perceptive and harrowing, and were praised for being honest and socially conscious.[11]

"Battery" is about anger and refers to "battery" in the sense of "assault and battery". Some critics contend that the title actually refers to an artillery battery; interpreted it as "Hetfield [singing] of a war tactic as the aggressor" personifying destruction. The theme of the title track is cocaine addiction, which according to Tom King was a theme one "couldn't be open about at the time".[12] "The Thing That Should Not Be" was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's short story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", whose main protagonist battles unearthly forces.[13] Referring to the epic proportions of the songs, BBC Music's Eamonn Stack stated that "at this stage in their careers Metallica weren't even doing songs, they were telling stories".[14]

"Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" is based on Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and conveys the thoughts of a patient unjustly caged in a mental institution.[13] According to philosopher William Irwin, it is perhaps the most revealing of Metallica's songs dealing with insanity.[15] "Disposable Heroes" is a tale of a young soldier whose fate is controlled by his superiors. "Leper Messiah" unveils "the flimsy ruses of false prophets".[16] Irwin wrote that the song "describes how people are willingly turned into blind religious followers", and that the fact that "people are religious" is not what annoys Metallica, but that they "mindlessly do whatever they are told".[15]

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 5/5 stars[17]
Chicago Tribune 4/4 stars[18]
Robert Christgau B–[19]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music 4/5 stars[20]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide 5/5 stars[21]
Sputnikmusic 4.5/5[22]

Master of Puppets received positive reviews from music critics.[23] Editor Tom King said that Metallica was at an "incredible song-writing peak" during the recording sessions, partially because Burton contributed to the songwriting.[12] The album was hailed as a masterpiece by critics outside of the heavy metal audience and cited by some as the genre's greatest album.[17] In a contemporary review, Tim Holmes of Rolling Stone asserted that the band had redefined heavy metal with the technical skill and subtlety on the album, which he described as "the sound of global paranoia".[16] Kerrang! wrote that Master of Puppets "finally put Metallica into the big leagues where they belong".[24] By contrast, Spin magazine's Judge I-Rankin was disappointed with the album and said that, although the production is exceptional and Metallica's experimentation is commendable, it eschews the less "intellectual" approach of Kill 'Em All for a MDC-inspired direction that is inconsistent.[25]

In a retrospective review, AllMusic's Steve Huey viewed it as Metallica's best album and remarked that, although it was not as unexpected as Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets is a more musically and thematically consistent album.[17] Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the songs were the band's most intense at that point, despite veering towards "the progressive tendency of Rush."[18] Adrien Begrand of PopMatters praised the production as "a metal version of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound" and felt that none of Metallica's subsequent albums could match its passionate and intense musical quality.[13] BBC Music's Eamonn Stack called the album "hard, fast, rock with substance" and likened the songs to stories of "biblical proportions".[14] In a less enthusiastic review, Robert Christgau said that the band's energy and political motivations are respectable, but felt that they evoke clichéd images of "revolutionary heroes" who are "male chauvinists too inexperienced to know better".[19]


Master of Puppets has appeared in several publications' best album lists. In 2003, the album was ranked number 167 on Rolling Stone '​s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.[26] Time magazine included it in its 2006 list of the 100 best albums of all time. According to the magazine's Josh Tyrangiel, with Master of Puppets, Metallica "reinforced everything good about heavy metal ... while undermining at least a few of the clichés".[27] Slant Magazine placed the album at number 90 on its list of the best albums of the 1980s and wrote, "Master of Puppets isn't just Metallica's best album, it's also their most heartfelt".[28] The album featured in Robert Dimery's book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.[29]

In 2007, IGN named Master of Puppets the best heavy metal album of all time. The website's editor Spence D. stated it was their best album because it "built upon and perfected everything they had experimented with prior" and that "all the pieces come together in glorious cohesion".[30] Music journalist Martin Popoff also ranked it the best heavy metal album.[31][32] The title track ranked number 61 on Guitar World '​s list of the 100 greatest guitar solos.[33] In 2006, the album was voted the fourth greatest guitar album of all time in Guitar World.[34] The April[when?] edition of Kerrang! was dedicated to the album and offered readers the cover album Master of Puppets: Remastered.[35] In March 2007, the guitar magazine Total Guitar ranked it in the 100 greatest riffs of all time and the main riff of the album's title track was ranked number seven.[36] In August 2014, Revolver placed Master of Puppets on its "14 Thrash Albums You Need to Own" list.[37]

Sales and impact[edit]

Released in early 1986,[38] the album had a 72-week run on the Billboard 200 album charts and earned the band its first gold certification.[4] The album debuted on March 29, 1986, at number 128[39] and peaked at number 29 on the Billboard 200 chart.[6] Billboard reported that the album sold 300,000 copies in its first three weeks.[40] Despite virtually no radio airplay and no music videos, the album sold more than 500,000 copies in its first year of release.[41] In 2003, Master of Puppets was certified 6× platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), having shipped six million copies in the United States.[38] Between the beginning of the Nielsen SoundScan era in 1991 and 2009, the album has sold 4,578,000 copies.[42]

Master of Puppets became thrash metal's first platinum album and by the early 1990s it successfully challenged and redefined the mainstream of heavy metal. Metallica and a few other bands headlined arena concerts and appeared regularly on MTV, although radio play remained incommensurate with their popularity.[43] With Master of Puppets, Metallica were labeled "innovators of the genre", paving the way for significant subsequent developments.[44] The album, in the words of writer Christopher Knowles, "ripped Metallica away from the underground and put them atop the metal mountain".[45] David Hayter from Guitar Planet recognized the album as "one of the most emotionally intelligent and affecting metal albums ever made" and "the benchmark against which all new metal albums are measured".[46] MTV's Kyle Anderson had similar thoughts, saying that 25 years after its release the album remained a "stone cold classic" and "an album by which other metal albums should be judged".[47] Carlos Ramirez from Noisecreep felt that, since its release, the record "evolved into one of the most essential albums of its genre".[48]


Metallica spent March to August 1986 touring as the opening act for Ozzy Osbourne in the United States.[4] The band usually played a 55 minute set often followed by an encore. Referring to that occasion, Ulrich stated: "We think Ozzy is great. He's been really good to us on this tour. We're honored to play with him. He's one of the people who started this whole thing." Hammett recalled Osbourne calling Metallica "the Black Sabbath of the 80s".[3] According to Ulrich, the audiences in bigger cities were already familiar with Metallica's music, unlike in the smaller towns they've visited. "In the B-markets, people really don't know what we're all about. But after 45 or 50 minutes we can tell we've won them over. And fans who come to hear Ozzy go home liking Metallica."[49] Metallica won over Osbourne's fans and slowly began to establish a mainstream following.[50]

While touring Europe, the band's bus rolled over on a patch of icy road outside of Stockholm on September 27, after a performance there. Burton was thrown through a window and killed instantly. The driver maintained that he hit the patch of black ice, but Hetfield disputed that.[23] The band returned to San Francisco and hired Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted to replace Burton.[51] Many of the songs that appeared on the band's next album, ...And Justice for All, were composed while Burton was still alive.[52]

Live performances[edit]

We had played almost all the songs live before, 'cause they were all, I guess, songs that needed to be played live. They have that energy, that fire; they're still youthful. I think every song on that record is really good and it stands up to time.

James Hetfield, on playing the album live[53]

The title track became a staple of the band's setlist and is the most played Metallica song. When played live, the crowd fills in some of the vocal parts while the group performs the instrumentals. Loudwire's Chad Childers characterizes the band's performance as "furious" and the song as the set's highlight.[54] The live performance was qualified by Rolling Stone as "a classic in all its eight-minute glory".[55] While filming their 3D movie at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, crosses were rising from the stage during the performance of the song.[56]

"Battery" and "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" are also regularly played live. "Battery" is usually played at the end of the setlist or during the encore, accompanied by lasers and flame plumes.[57] "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" is the second-most performed song from the album.[58] The live performance is usually accompanied by lasers, pyrotechnical effects and film screens.[56] "Disposable Heroes" was recently performed live at the fifth annual Revolver Golden Gods Awards in May 2013.[59] It also appeared on the live video album Orgullo, Pasión, y Gloria: Tres Noches en la Ciudad de México (2009) filmed in Mexico City, in which the song was played on the second of three nights at the Foro Sol venue.[60] One of its recent live exposures was at the Orion Music + More festival in June 2013. Adam Graham, writing for The Detroit News, called the song a "classics from the band's deep catalog".[61] Rolling Stone observed Hetfield's rhythm guitar playing as "impeccable on the lengthy and infrequently-performed Master of Puppets cut "Disposable Heroes".[57]

The rest of the tracks are rarely played live. "Orion" is the least-performed song from the album, having been played 45 times.[58] The first live performance was during the Escape from the Studio '06 tour, when the band performed the album in its entirety, honoring the 20th anniversary of its release.[62] The album was played in its entirety in 2006 at Rock Am Ring.[63] They played it again the following day at the Rock Im Park festival in Nürnberg. The band performed the album's eight tracks in the middle of each night's set.[64]

Track listing[edit]

All lyrics written by James Hetfield

No. Title Music Length
1. "Battery"   Hetfield, Lars Ulrich 5:12
2. "Master of Puppets"   Hetfield, Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, Ulrich 8:36
3. "The Thing That Should Not Be"   Hetfield, Hammett, Ulrich 6:37
4. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)"   Hetfield, Hammett, Ulrich 6:27
5. "Disposable Heroes"   Hetfield, Hammett, Ulrich 8:17
6. "Leper Messiah"   Hetfield, Ulrich 5:40
7. "Orion" (Instrumental) Hetfield, Burton, Ulrich 8:28
8. "Damage, Inc."   Hetfield, Burton, Hammett, Ulrich 5:29
Total length:


Credits are adapted from the album's liner notes.[66]


Technical personnel[edit]


Chart Peak
Australian Albums Chart[68] 33
Belgium Albums Chart[68] 94
Dutch Albums Chart[68] 17
Finnish Albums Chart[68] 7
French Albums Chart[68] 111
German Albums Chart[68] 31
Mexican Albums Chart[68] 66
New Zealand Albums Chart[68] 33
Norwegian Albums Chart[68] 30
Spanish Albums Chart[68] 52
Swedish Albums Chart[68] 14
Swiss Albums Chart[68] 18
UK Albums Chart[69] 41
US Billboard 200[70] 29


Region Certification Sales/shipments
Argentina (CAPIF)[71] Platinum 60,000x
Canada (Music Canada)[72] 6× Platinum 600,000^
Finland (Musiikkituottajat)[73] Platinum 81,051[73]
United Kingdom (BPI)[74] Gold 100,000^
United States (RIAA)[75] 6× Platinum 6,000,000^

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone


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External links[edit]