Review Summary: It may not be one of heavy metal's all-time greatest albums, but it certainly comes close in many respects.
Whether or not you believe that Metallica have completely sold out and crafted wave after wave of shitty albums in recent times (and, barring Death Magnetic, I'd probably agree with you), there should be no denying that Metallica were the force behind some of the most legendary records in metal history. While many of their 80s thrash metal peers were concerned with being as fast and aggressive as possible and cutting the musical "fat," Metallica were bent on retaining their more progressive roots stemming from the likes of Queen and Rush. Coupled with the virtuosity of the late bassist Cliff Burton's playing and slightly slower (sometimes drastically slower) tempos than your standard thrash act, this was a band who preferred longer and more complex arrangements. That's obviously not to say they weren't a full-fledged thrash band, however - songs like "Battery," "Trapped Under Ice," and almost all of Kill 'Em All certainly solidified the band's presence with the Big 4 of Thrash alongside Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. And despite Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning being 80s metal masterpieces in their own rights, Master of Puppets might just be the pinnacle of the band's work.
In many ways, Master of Puppets seems to be a refined retread of Ride the Lightning. Right down to the nature of the track placements and similar song structures, the latter seems rife with nods to the former; however, a numerous key elements ensure that both can be separated and judged on their own individual merits. First off, James Hetfield's voice is simply better and sounds more confident on this thing. His softer voice sounds more emotional and sensitive here than his singing on "Fade to Black" and his harsher offerings fit the high-intensity riffs - right from the beginning verses he spits in "Battery" to the ominous whisper that concludes the speedy closer "Damage Inc." But, as usual, the music is what it's all about - and Master of Puppets' variety is what really makes it stand out above their other records. There's no question about Ride the Lightning being the more thrash-oriented record when comparing both albums, but the slight lack of thrash in Master of Puppets actually works in it favor. The classical guitar introduction that precedes the crazy riff-fest known as "Battery" offers a wonderful buildup that flows perfectly into the song at hand by ratcheting up the intensity by increments before exploding into its speedy tempo. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" and "Orion" operate in a similar way, but much more gradually. Both could be considered the most progressive songs on the album, and weave through multiple intricate guitar arrangements before revealing their big payoffs.
However, it's more than just that. It's not just the variety in the music that impresses, but the variety in every aspect of the record. The production is varied, being brash and loud for the faster tunes while laying low and giving off an ominous atmosphere for other songs such as "Welcome Home" or "The Thing that Should Not Be." Likewise, the atmosphere and overall mood of the experience is very diverse; "Orion" feels epic and climactic, "Battery" and "Damage Inc." are destructive and harsh, "Master of Puppets" and "Disposable Heroes" feel more like cautionary tales (and, considering their subject matter, pretty much are), and so on. This feels like a thematically "complete" record; there are barely any loose ends musically, and the entire thing just feels pieced together meticulously. The only thing dragging the album down is, funny enough, the feeling that some of the compositions drag a bit. "Orion" and "The Thing that Should Not Be," while great songs, tend to be the worst offenders when considering how long it takes to trudge through to each song's peak. It's nice to hear such drastic tempo changes to switch things up, but not if it hurts the pace of the album. Regardless, it's a small blemish in an otherwise amazing overall product.
Critics may be stretching their points pretty far when considering Master of Puppets one of the best metal albums all time; hell, many have gone on to consider it THE best metal album ever made. Seeing as there's such a vast well of amazing metal music out below the popular surface that's just waiting to be heard and enjoyed, it's tough to make a case for Master of Puppets being the be-all-end-all album for the genre. With that said, one should at least respect the hell out of the record for what it's done to influence rock music as a whole, as well as for its bevy of amazing thrash compositions. It ain't perfect, but it's a real damn force to be reckoned with. If you love thrash and/or love heavy metal in general, this is essential listening.