The Criterion Contention

The Criterion Contention: Metallica’s Master of Puppets Vs. The Black Album

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the criterion contentionUpdate, March 10: Well, it wasn’t even close… Master of Puppets is the winner, crushing the competition with 2,149 votes to The Black Album’s 286 votes. And so Master of Puppets becomes the first album to be inducted into The MetalSucks Criterion Collection! Come back next month to learn about the next two candidates for this prestigious list of canonical metal albums!!!

Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Criterion Contention! In our new monthly series, two writers (be they members of the MetalSucks staff or guest bloggers) will debate the superiority of two albums which will somehow be thematically connected — they may be by the same band, or from the same part of the world, or just in the same genre. Then, at the end of the debate, YOU will vote for which one you think is ACTUALLY the more important record. The winning album will be announced one week after the initial debate, and that album will then be inaugurated into The MetalSucks Criterion Collection as a canonical work that every metal fan should know. Then the process will repeat a month later!

We begin the series with MetalSucks co-founded/co-editor-in-chief Axl Rosenberg squaring off against “Overground” columnist Angus Jung as to which Metallica album is the greatest of all time: 1986’s Master of Puppets, or 1991’s self-titled “Black Album.” Here we go…

Axl: Lemme just start by saying… Angus… you sure you wanna do this, bruh? Arguing for the superiority of The Black Album over Master of Puppets is like getting into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson in his prime while you’ve got both hands tied behind your back. I almost feel bad throwing a punch, y’know?

Angus: Your elitist intimidation tactics do not scare me, sir. Proceed with your argument.

Axl: Okay… don’t say I never gave you an out…

Where does one even begin heaping praise on Master of Puppets? It’s one of the most celebrated albums in the history of metal, and rightfully so — it’s as close to goddamn perfect as a record can get. I would argue that Metallica hadn’t yet found their creative voice yet until they made Ride the Lightning — but Master of Puppets is when they honed that sound into something truly spectacular. 

Angus: Just so we’re perfectly clear: I love Master of Puppets. I am in no way arguing that it’s a bad album. I just think The Black Album is better — and, more importantly given the purpose of this debate, more of a stand out in the history of metal.

You say that the band found their voice on Lightning before honing it on Puppets, which is a fair assessment… if you’re just talking about compositional skills. The artistic leap from Lightning to Puppets isn’t very far; people may have been blown away when Puppets came out, but no one said, “Wow, I can’t believe this is the same band that made Ride the Lightning!” Whereas The Black Album is a creative evolution of monumental proportions, like if the first creature to ever crawl forth from the sea then immediately morphed into a homo sapien.

Axl: Okay, but… what the fuck does that matter when the results are lesser in quality than the work that preceded it? I mean, you could make the same argument about the “evolution” in the band’s sound from Load and Re-Load to St. Anger; that doesn’t make St. Anger a better album.

Angus: But your comparison isn’t applicable here. Only the most tight-assed snobs hate The Black Album. It’s not just Metallica’s best-selling record, it’s probably the best-selling metal record of all time!!!

Axl: Are you seriously gonna argue that higher album sales signify a better album? Is Transformers 4 a better movie than Boyhood just because it made more money at the box office?

Angus: Normally, I would never do anything so crass. But, again, your comparison isn’t applicable here.

The box office disparity between Transformers and Boyhood tells us nothing about how those films will be perceived throughout history. I don’t think I’m just being optimistic when I say that people will probably still be watching Boyhood in forty years, and will have long forgotten about Transformers. As a matter of fact, over a long enough timeline, Boyhood may end up making more money than Transformers (purely from the point of view of percentages, it’s probably already the more profitable investment of the two).

On the other hand, The Black Album is twenty-four years old, and Puppets is almost thirty years old. So we already have a sense of how history will view these two records. And The Black Album still sells 2,000 copies a week! That’s not just because, as you have joked, “40-somethings couldn’t find their copy” of the album — it’s because there are still people discovering and falling in love with it today. In fact, it may spur some fans on to check out Master of Puppets… it could be their “gateway” album into the world of Metallica and metal in general, and should win this contest for that reason alone.

And this is my larger point: the songs on Puppets are great, but the songs on The Black Album are GREAT. The fact that “Enter Sandman” is now played at every sporting event isn’t a strike against The Black Album… it’s a point in FAVOR of The Black Album. What band doesn’t want their work to live on and on and be beloved by generation after generation? “Enter Sandman” has become an anthem on the level of “Satisfaction” and “Back in Black.” Maybe it’s not as heavy as “Battery,” but it has connected with countless more people over the past two decades.

(P.S. And that’s not just because The Black Album got more MTV and radio support. There is no world in which “Disposable Heroes” was ever going to be as popular as “Sad But True.”)

Axl: You wanna talk about each album’s legacy? Go back in time and erase Master of Puppets from existence, and metal as we know it probably no longer exists. Go back in time and erase The Black Album from existence, and… what? We lose an Avenged Sevenfold album? Maybe Dave Mustaine never makes Risk

You’re right: “Disposable Heroes” would never be a hit on the level with “Sad But True”… because “Sad But True” is a less challenging song. Again, you’re equating popularity with quality; maybe Master of Puppets will never connect with as wide of an audience as The Black Album, the same way 2001: A Space Odyssey will never connect with as wide of an audience as Star Wars, and The Bible will always be more widely-read than Finnegan’s Wake. Some art asks you think to and engage with it; some art allows you to have a mostly-passive experience. 

And, hey, guess what? Metal isn’t SUPPOSED to be for everyone! I love my mom, but I wouldn’t wanna run into her at a Gojira show, y’know? As our pal Anso once said, “Isn’t metal supposed to make the mainstream feel discomfit?”

Angus: I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree here, friend. To me, when a work of art connects with THAT many people over THAT long of a stretch of time, that’s proof positive that it’s connecting with people on a deeper level (dare I say… it’s connecting with their souls?).

Axl: I got your deeper level right here, Angus.

Angus: Axl, you are as charming as ever.

Alright, folks — now it’s your turn! Which Metallica album will enter our Criterion Collection? Vote now!

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