Considering how immediate the best of it feels, it’s always a little bit surprising how well metal music ages. While not everything still sounds fresh, many of the genre’s cornerstone releases hold up extremely well. Slayer’s Reign in Blood still sounds as fresh and vital as it did when it first came out, and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid remains top-shelf. While not all of their albums hold up well, Metallica’s Master of Puppets — which came out on this day in 1986, a full 25 years ago — remains a stone cold classic and an album by which other metal albums should be judged.
The thing that stands out about Master of Puppets all these years later is how hard the whole thing is. Every chord crunch, every drum hit and every bellow from the throat of frontman James Hetfield is jagged and punishing, like the musical equivalent of a steel-toed boot constantly stomping on your face. Even the slower, slightly quieter moments (most notably on “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”) are infused with a snarling menace that permeates everything. Most people consider Metallica’s self-titled 1991 album (the one with “Enter Sandman”) to be their crossover, but Metallica is a full-on heavy album (a vibe they would inhabit for the remainder of the ’90s). Master of Puppets is hard, and in retrospect, it actually does a better job than Metallica of splitting the difference between what the band was (the thrash-happy noisemakers of Kill ’Em All, Ride the Lightning and …And Justice For All) and the band they were becoming (a stadium-filling anthem machine of epic proportions).
Indeed, it’s the fact that Master of Puppets is so undeniably catchy that stands out more than anything else. Sure, the pounding rhythms of “Disposable Heroes” and the epic shred jam “Orion” are for hardcores only, but “Master of Puppets and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” are absolute singalongs. You can clearly hear the roots of more obvious crowd-pleasers like “Sad But True” and “The Unforgiven,” and it’s pretty thrilling to be able to heard a band at the top of its game evolving in real time.
Of course, there’s a lot of sadness attached to Master of Puppets, as it ended up being the final album the band recorded with original bassist Cliff Burton, who died in a bus accident on September 27, 1986. A certain era of Metallica was over, and a new one began shortly thereafter with the arrival of bassist Jason Newsted (and the creation of Metallica, of course). There’s also an argument that Master of Puppets was the last great metal album of the ’80s, which is not unreasonable (although fans of Tesla’s The Great Radio Controversy would probably raise a stink). And considering Nirvana’s Bleach came out only a year after Master of Puppets, change was already in the air for all of rock music. If Master of Puppets sounds like the end of days — and it does — that’s probably because it sort of was.
How do you think Metallica’s classic album holds up? Let us know in the comments!