If I had to sum up this album in one word it would be “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”
Most bands, I believe, have a defining album in them. It might not be a good album, it might not be a popular album, but it’s an album that you can point to and say, “this is the album that you need to buy to understand what this band is about.”
Metallica has had two.
Master of Puppets was Metallica as the kings of thrash metal. While I wouldn’t call it a genre defining effort (I’d argue that Slayer’s Reign in Blood still, ah, reigns in that regard) everything they did before Puppets was Metallica preparing for it and …And Justice For All was them pushing the formula to it’s logical conclusion.
Then there’s Metallica. If you ask fans of the first four albums, this is the album where Metallica sold out to become the radio rock that they’d always previously made fun of. Critics like to say that this is the album where Metallica’s songwriting and production finally matched their energy. I say this is the album where Kirk Hammett’s wah-wah use went from “overdone” to “insufferable.”
Every. Single. Solo.1 goes “wah-wah-wah-wah-waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.” or, alternately, “waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah-wah-wah-wah-wah.”
The problem, I’ve determined, isn’t that Hammett uses the wah so much. I mean, Tommy Victor easily uses the wah as much as Hammet, but his spastic, restless leg syndrome style doesn’t sound like anyone else2
Hammett, however, still sounds like someone just gave him his first Crybaby and he needs to use it on everything in the most beginner way possible. Looking back on my musical life, this album is one of the reasons that I still hesitate to touch a wah to this day.
So what about the rest of the album? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag. I spent the last week listening to it every single day and it’s really hit and miss. “Enter Sandman” is a song that I really liked 20 years ago, that hasn’t aged well. That being said, of all of the songs on this album, it was the perfect opener, a strong statement of radio rock intent. “Don’t Tread on Me” is just a collection of tired, “patriotic” jingoistic sayings layered over “Frayed Ends of Sanity”‘s Lollipop Guild opening. Lyrically it’s a song that isn’t even good enough to be called trite, musically it sounds like James begging Pepper Keenan to let him into C.O.C.3
There’s also “Nothing Else Matters.” The only good thing that song did was give Reb Beach a reason to launch a non-stop anti-Metallica shit talking campaign that continues on to this day
But then there’s “Sad But True” which is just this massive, doomy slice of all that is heavy and “My Friend of Misery,” a song that just works on every level. Even Jay’s hated “The God That Failed,” I feel is a really good track. Also, here’s the rub, even the worst songs on the album will get stuck in your head. I, a Fox News hating, Obama disappointed because he hasn’t done enough, liberal will walk around humming “Don’t Tread on Me.” I know every note of “Enter Sandman.” I can sing every word of “Nothing Else Matters.”
OK, that last one is no accomplishment, it only has like two verses. But still.
In retrospect, Metallica didn’t succeed because it was good. It succeeded because AIDS and “Just Say No” had primed kids for rock music that was not about getting wasted and having as much sex as humanly possible, while still being catchy and sing-along-able. If this exact album came out today no one would care. There are hundreds of bands making this album even as I type this.
20 years ago, however, this was exactly the right album at exactly the right time.
3/5 for the actual music
5/5 for the timing.