Maestro of Puppets: Metallica’s Place Among the Giants of 20th Century Music


The following is excerpted from THE GOLDEN AGE OF THRASH, the third volume of Badger’s HISTORY OF HEAVY METAL zine series. “Master of Puppets” – Master of Puppets (1986)

Not only a defining moment for the band and for the genre, but one of the great works of 20th century chamber music—the most aesthetically focused and musically definite since, I dunno, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune? Alright, so that’s doing a gross disservice to Maurice Ravel, Bela Bartok, Duke Ellington, Arnold Schoenberg, Steve Reich, Charles Mingus, and scores of others, but a great work of heavy metal is worth a little overstatement. It kicks off with a grand gesture harmonized in power chords: a low E5, followed by three beats of silence before leaping upwards by a minor seventh, then walking down chromatically to the minor sixth. I can’t imagine a better figure to lead off a thrash metal epic; its an intrinsically dramatic melodic contour (leaping upwards by a dissonant interval) that establishes not only the diatonic-minor grandeur of heavy metal melodrama (ending on that oh-so-Aeolian flat sixth) but also on the chromatic extension of that harmony into dense thickets of linear dissonance. And they make good on the premise right away, with the very first riff being practically a manifesto for thrash metal harmony, transforming the mock-operatic opening motif into a hellishly rattling engine-room powering the songs relentless momentum, filling in the rhythmic gaps with a ceaseless barrage of angular dissonance—a syncopated tumble down the chromatic scale, continually interrupted by the insistent pedal-point rumble of that elemental low E, turning a lamenting stepwise descent into a crazily jagged zig-zag of diminishing leaps. Its not atonal, but its not scalar, either—the initial suggestion of an Aeolian mode is completely overwhelmed by the chromatic onslaught. What it is, is a brute-force tonality—the constant rumble of the low E is an overpoweringly orienting force, no matter how unrooted the rest of the line my seem.

I mentioned Debussy before, and (believe it or not) that wasn’t a random pull. The obscurely chromatic but just-about-tonal haze of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune kicked off an entirely new approach to harmony, with its sensuous float between the poles of a tritone giving the whole world of music a very dreamy kick in the ass. The “Master of Puppets” intro riff opens up a similar set of possibilities for heavy guitar riffage, which isn’t to say that its actually particularly Debussyan, either in structure or in affect. Really they (and Metallica here is standing in for thrash in general, and lots of other metal besides) are more analogous to the later modernist Bela Bartok. Bartok developed a new form of spikily dissonant tonality from the modal eccentricities of Hungarian and Romanian peasant music, which he extended and abstracted into a new form of harmonic organization which would “use all 12 tones while still remaining tonal” (sound familiar?)—certainly metal has more in common with the pulse-pounding stabs of his string quartets than with the sensuous ambiguity of Debussy’s post-Wagnerian haze. What thrash metal did—and nowhere more clearly than here—was to develop its own spiky musical language from its own idiosyncratic low-art tradition. The insistent low-string pedal-point riff was a longstanding habit of rock guitar, being immanent both in the physical layout of the instrument (the intrinsic ease of plucking an open string in between other notes) and in the nature of the blues harmony from which rock music derives (the dominant tonic chord of the blues is an oxymoron in classical terms, but it works anyway because of its repetitive insistence in the context of a looping form, and also because the blues’ basic polymodality lets you slip in lots of chromaticism to begin with). The great realization of thrash is that the repetitive pedal tone is is sufficient to establish a tonal center all by itself—its not just for adding weight and drive to your minor-key or blues-scale figures, but actually is so overwhelming as a harmonic anchor that you can play whatever you want in between and it’ll still be perfectly comprehensible to the ear. Like I said, this riff uses all twelve notes and it sounds just fine.

That’s a lot of ink for a riff that’s only played for the first ~21 seconds of an eight-and-a-half-minute song, but if you’ve heard it then you know that the rapturousness is worth it. Not only that, but the whole damn thing is just as good, and at the risk of this entry turning into an unabridged adaptation of the score, here’s some more killer moves that you oughtta be on the lookout for across the tune’s epic length: the song’s second riff (which is the main theme, really), which trash-compacts a standard hard-rock guitar contour into a claustrophobically dense cluster of chromaticism while simultaneously darkening the modal implications of the harmony, kicking the tune one notch down the circle of fifths as it drags the chromatically obscured Aeolian sound further down to a chromatically obscured Phrygian; the jaggedly syncopated transition out of that riff; the third riff, with its weird rhythmic hiccup (its famously impossible to count and to transcribe) that jars itself out of alignment like a loose bolt jamming the works of a huge ship-engine; the riff after that, which develops the Aeolian aspect of the song’s opening gesture into a grand and utterly malicious half-time churn; the way the mournful interlude section crescendos into a mighty stomp and then into a darkly soulful call-and-response vocal leading into a shrieking guitar solo and then another two classic riffs, the first an ever further compacted take on the theme riff, and the other a grandiloquent Aeolian scalar gesture in dramatic contrast, finally collapsing into a riot of malign laughter and impressionistically layered guitars—there’s hardly a single instant of the whole damn thing that isn’t distinctly memorable and distinctly iconic. As good as metal gets. Hell, about as good as music gets.


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