CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Obey Your Master

I guess it's a bit strange that the music that calms me down the most is renowned as one of the angriest albums of all time. But even so, I feel the need to reflect on the beauty that hides beneath Master of Puppets.

Master of Puppets is not your average speed metal album. It's not your average metal album. It's not even an average album by any means. Of the eight tracks, not one is less than 5 minutes. It's so thematically united that it could easily be a concept album. It achieves a rare feat for any type of music; it expresses human emotion in its rawest form. And, most importantly, it reveals the underlying psyche behind so much anger.

Every song in Master of Puppets deals with the notion of being powerless. Whether it be slavery to alcoholism ("Master of Puppets"), religion ("Leper Messiah"), or higher powers in general ("Sanitarium" and "Disposable Heroes"), the subjects taken on by James Hetfield have a deep resonance with our own fears. We all want to be in control of our fates, and it hurts to find out that there's always someone else behind the wheel. Imposters control your beliefs. "Experts" decide if you're fit to be in society. Men go off and die because some figurehead says it's for the "greater good." And when you try to escape from the system, you sink yourself in a pit of drugs and alcohol. You've lost all control. But it's only when you have nothing left to lose that you can strike out against those who have hurt you. This is what Metallica speaks about from the first words of "Battery" to the final utterings of "Damage, Inc."

But the messages of Master of Puppets would be lost without the expertly crafted music behind it. "Battery" lulls you into a false sense of security with it's acoustic opening before shattering all expectations with its grandiosity. The main feature Master of Puppets holds over the similar sounding Ride the Lightning, besides the lyrical supremacy, is the massiveness of its sonic landscape. It's immaculately composed, with Hetfield's rhythm guitar driving the charge that holds most of the album together. Even when the album slows down for a breather, as in "Sanitarium" or "Orion," it is the epic nature of each song, with strong guitar harmonies and separate segments of each song bordeing on operatic, that keeps the album's sound unified.

Of course, the show-stopper of the album is the title track. It is the longest track at 8:38 and represents the apotheosis of the album's thematic heft. It has become emblematic of the entire underground metal movement of the 80's (and in fact, all of heavy metal music) through the sheer intensity of its sound and subject matter. The song, which talks about alcoholism from the point of view of the bottle, even includes a section in which the tempo slows down, representing the possibility of the bottle relinquishing its grasp on the helpless victim. But just when you have your hope, the music quickens again, and all hope is lost. The bottle is your master and you must obey.

Master of Puppets is an unrelenting album. It is not for those with weak eardrums, and I wouldn't recommend it if the sun is shining through your window. It is dark, complex, and so filled with rage that you might get infected. But there is a beauty hiding under the surface. Its complexity comes from the intricacies of the compositions, and one who is willing to go the distance with it can find it to be one of the few pieces of music that can so eloquently express the anger that sits in our hearts. You may join in the anger, but I can only revel in the underlying textures. Somehow it's soothing to know that, even in this most rageful of works, there is still beauty in this world, even if it's hidden.

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