Classic Album Review : Metallica - Master of Puppets (1986)
Whenever people argue over which Metallica album is best, it's always over the same two : Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. There is little to no doubt these are the iconic quartet's two most iconic records, but whichever is best comes down to personal preference more than anything else. But... the conventional answer is Master of Puppets. It's also my answer to this debate that long predates the existence of the internet, place where the art of debate is murdered every two weeks or so. What is it that makes Master of Puppets so special and... welp, transcendent?
It's what I'm going to try and break down in this classic album review.
First of all, there's the music. Metallica were not only considered one of the fastest and most aggressive thrash metal bands in the eighties, but they also were innovators and weren't afraid to step bash from their style's aesthetic to bolster their identity. Master of Puppets is the culmination of that. There are some killer thrash metal tracks on that thing, but always with a twist. Battery has this eerie and disquieting intro. Disposable Heroes, one of my personal favorites, has this conceptual staccato riff meant to mimic rifle fire and these interstitial melodic parts that texture the song. It's trash metal by definition, but never you get the feeling Metallica is trying to adhere to any set of rules.
Then, there's the more powerful stuff like Master of Puppets or Welcome Home (Sanitarium), where they really break up the form and aren't afraid to slow down the tempo in order to achieve the desired effect. The guitar and drums lead build-in after the slow interlude in Master of Puppets has become stuff of legend and it wasn't something they've done prior. Speaking of which, Orion is not exactly their first instrumental song, but it's their most powerful and accomplished. It's so bold and multifaceted, it often feels like you're not listening to Metallica at all. The music on Master of Puppets is a natural evolution from Kill 'em All and Ride the Lighting more than it is a reinvention. That.... uh, came later in their career.
What I believe truly sets Master of Puppets apart is their improvement as storytellers. And that informed the music to a certain degree. Master of Puppets marked the first time they had a cohesive, multilayered and self-conscious narrative to tell. There are some anti-war songs on the record, anti-religious, even Lovecraftian material, but it can all be interpreted through the allegory of being at war with yourself and with the world. The story of Master of Puppets (the album) is the story of a damaged psyche struggling to regain control of itself. Whether you want to see it as the mind of a returning soldier or your own is up to you, but it's why this album is so magnetic and transcends time.
Through passionate songwriting, Metallica became arguably the first metal band to move past the representation of chaos, destruction and/or epic battles into a more intimate and meaningful territory. That's why Master of Puppets is so beloved by fans. It tells the story of young people at war with themselves. Whether it's the title song where the protagonist struggles with an invisible puppet master and losing his free will or the Lovecraft-themed The Thing that Should Not Be, which highlights the fear of the unknown (especially within oneself), the theme of psychological battles is omnipresent on the record. It's not always straightforward, it's often allegorical, but it's why young people identified... and are still identifying with Master of Puppets today.
Was Master of Puppets Metallica's best album? It's not for me to answer. It's my personal favorite by a mile and a half, but whether you enjoy its versatility and its majestic storytelling more than you enjoy Ride the Lightning's musical breakthrough and aggression is up for you to decide. What I will tell you, though is that Master of Puppets is Metallica's most important and influential album. That, I don't think can be debated. Master of Puppets was so fucking good, Metallica's fans never forgave them. They're like addicts trying to chase a high they'll never get again. Every new album is compared to it and automatically becomes a deception. I'm sure it's frustrating to James, Lars, Kirk and friends, but few musicians have reached such an artistic apex in their career.