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 down and worshiped Master of Puppets, Metallica's new thrash-metal masterpiece, and 2) infidel nonbelievers who were not part of Damage Inc.
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 nearly twice as long, the artier Master of Puppets is probably No. 2. Compared to most metal before and since, the multimovement epics from the first three Metallica albums sound like classical music, and Master of Puppets represents the band at its uncompromised, precommercial peak, all Jägermeister, testosterone, and ambition -- 22 years of classic rock, punk, metal, and outcast frustration gushing out like so much black lava. 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 headbangers pay tribute to Metallica's thrash masterpiece, recreating it in its entirety on Remastered, available only in the April issue of U.K. metal mag Kerrang! (www.kerrang.com). Seldom in the sordid history of tribute albums has there been a disc 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 impression 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 "Damage Inc.," the Metallica-and-fans-against-the-world anthem -- the bands hit their selections out of the park, faithfully recreating them with only slight nods to later trends (drummer after drummer spikes Lars Ulrich's groundbreaking pummeling with hints of mechanized blast beats). Safe bet that most of these 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 the instrumental "Orion." Neo-thrash group Trivium lives up to the surrounding hype on "Master of Puppets," a loud-soft-loud anti-drug statement that showed that party-hard heshers knew where to draw the line. Bullet for My Valentine, the Iron Maiden clone for the metalcore generation, recreates "Sanitarium (Welcome Home)," the band's emo genes dealing only minor damage to the eerie classic that rages from ballad to breakneck rampage.
The most noteworthy of many worthy tributes is "Disposable Heroes" from Cleveland's Chimaira, which bridges 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, as though it could have been written yesterday afternoon.
As for the lyrics -- wow, could young Hetfield write. None of this sad-boy emo 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/Never-ending potency/Hungry violence seeker/Feeding off the weaker/Breeding on insanity," or "Circle of Destruction/Hammer comes crushing/Powerhouse of energy/ Whipping up a fury/Dominating flurry/We create the Battery." Prior to '86, slam-dancing was alien to metal, still part of the then-distinct punk domain. No metal had emerged that made you just completely 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, the next time you hear "Fuel" on the radio.
As metal reintroduces the skills component to its Darwinian competition for across-the-board superiority, this version of Master of Puppets -- like its predecessor -- ought to be a contender for top metal album of the year.