In 1986, it didn't matter if you supported the anti-rock mothers of the PMRC, loved pop playboy Robert Palmer, or subsisted on a no-carb diet of hardcore punk; there were two kinds of people: 1) those who bowed and worshiped Metallica's new thrash-metal masterpiece Master of Puppets, and 2) infidel nonbelievers who were not part of Damage, Inc. Fuck with those razorbacks, and you would feel their hell on your back.
Released later the same year, Slayer's faster, fiercer Reign in Blood generally gets props as the best thrash album, the pinnacle of metal at its heaviest. But with fewer songs and at nearly twice the length, the artier Master of Puppets is probably number two. Compared to most metal before and since, the multi-movement epics from the first three Metallica albums sound like classical music, and Master of Puppets represents the band at its uncompromised, pre-commercial peak, all Jägermeister, testosterone and ambition. True believers still care about the band in 2006, and it's not because Load and St. Anger rocked the house.
Covering one song apiece, three generations of head-bangers pay tribute to Metallica's thrashterpiece, re-creating it in its entirety on Remastered, available only in the April issue of U.K. metal mag Kerrang! (visit www.kerrang.com to spare a possible wasted drive to your local Borders and Barnes & Noble). Seldom in the sordid history of the tribute album has a disc come out this solid.
Of course, we're talking about modern metal all-stars, so it gets a little ugly. First the bad: Fightstar singer Alex Westaway's impersonation of Nickelback's Chad Kroeger doesn't help the otherwise serviceable "Leper Messiah." But with the exception of Mendeed's bargain-basement take on "The Thing That Should Not Be" and Funeral for a Friend's metalcore puking-style vocals on its rendition of the Metallica-and-fans-against-the-world anthem "Damage, Inc.," the bands hit their selections out of the park, faithfully re-creating them with only slight nods to the trends that appeared in their wake. Drummer after drummer spikes Lars Ulrich's groundbreaking pummeling with hints of mechanized blast beats. It's a safe bet that most of these guys (they're all guys) have listened to the disc more times than they've eaten hot meals.
Chief on a short list of Metallica's heirs apparent, lumbering rock titan Mastodon nails instrumental "Orion." Neo-thrash group Trivium lives up to its surrounding hype on "Master of Puppets," a loud-soft-loud anti-drug statement that showed the party-hard heshers knew where to draw the line. Metalcore-generation Iron Maiden clones Bullet for My Valentine re-create "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)," allowing their emo genes to deal only minor damage to the eerie classic that rages from ballad to breakneck rampage. If you once loved Metallica, Remastered will take you right back to the first time you felt its fury.
The most noteworthy of the many worthy tributes is "Disposable Heroes" from Cleveland's Chimaira, who bridge the gap between throwback and retro. At the time of their issue, Metallica's political commentaries always seemed purely academic, as if the Bay Area longhairs were rotely acting out their punk-informed conscience. Two decades and two wars later, the speedy indictment of military culture is freshly relevant, and could have been inspired by the tragic friendly-fire demise of Pat Tillman, the patriotic NFL safety turned martyr Army Ranger. (And when it's time to pay tribute to . . . And Justice for All, landmine mutilations and battlefield amputations will be far more common than they were in '88.)
As for the lyrics -- wow, could young James Hetfield write. None of this emo sad-boy shit that's rusting the bottom out of metal. No slow-jam ballads or sequels (see "Unforgiven," parts one and two). Witness "Battery": "Crushing all deceivers/Mashing non-believers/Neverending potency/Hungry violence seeker/Feeding off the weaker/Breeding on insanity," and "Circle of destruction/Hammer comes crushing/Powerhouse of energy/Whipping up a fury/Dominating flurry/We create the Battery." Speaking of which, remember: In '86, moshing was like aerial skateboarding maneuvers in the mid-'70s -- it was theoretically possible. And maybe some rare incidents had occurred. But slam-dancing was alien to metal, still part of the then-distinct punk domain. Prior to '86, no metal had really emerged that made you just lose your shit, go nuts, and thrash your way across the general-admission pit. Metallica did as much as anybody to change that. (Slamming to metal seemed like a good idea at the time.) Try to remember that kindly next time you hear "Fuel" on the radio.
As metal reintroduces the skills competition to the genre's escalating fight for across-the-board superiority, this version of Master of Puppets could be a contender for top metal album of the year once again. And given Slayer's last LP, Remastered has an even better shot at number one.
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