Metallica – ‘…And Justice For All’

It was time for Metallica to take over. After a full decade of bringing heavy metal kicking and screaming closer to the mainstream than anyone else, the San Francisco thrash gods were the most important band the genre had to offer in 1988. The only place left to conquer was the pop world. But Metallica’s true mainstream coronation would have to wait for another three years. Instead, they had to put out an album that, for better or worse, would become the blueprint for their studio albums going forward.

The fact that Metallica had even made it to One on One Recording in the first place was a miracle. Two years prior to the album’s release, bassist Cliff Burton died when the band’s tour bus crashed in Sweden. A covers EP, The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Re-Revisited, was released in 1987 to break in Burton’s replacement, former Floatsam & Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted. Following a string of successful concert appearances that year, Metallica took their latest material down to North Hollywood to begin crafting …And Justice For All.

Metallica had perfected their complex arrangements and dense riff-heavy approach to songs on their previous release, Master of Puppets. With …And Justice For All, the group doubled down, making nearly every song an epic of pure adrenaline. It’s a system that has served the band well, and apart from the experimental sound approaches, this would be how Metallica wrote and recorded their music going forward.

When taken as a whole, …And Justice For All has perhaps the greatest Metallica song of all time, along with eight other songs of varying quality. ‘One’ stands on its own and is the foundation on which Metallica built their empire. Taking the dark narrative themes and shifting tempos of tracks like ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ to their most logical conclusion, ‘One’ includes everything that made Metallica the kings of their genre. The opening guitar figures sing, and Hetfield actually approaches something close to a pop melody, while the dynamic and speed shifts give Metallica their own version of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

Beyond ‘One’, …And Justice For All falls into the trappings that have now been solidified as Metallica clichés. It’s not exactly fair to fault tracks like ‘Blackened’ and ‘The Frayed Ends of Sanity’ for originating the style that Metallica would lazily ape across the next 35 years, but those 35 years certainly haven’t done much to prop up the tracks either. From seemingly random double-time passages to shoehorned-in guitar solos to generic lyrical imagery about death and destruction, …And Justice For All feels like rote Metallica at its worst when you’re not in the proper mood to give it some slack.

Maybe that’s because (yeah, here it is) there is no bass to be found on the album. Take your pick on which explanation is the least embarrassing. Maybe James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett were purposefully trying to diminish the role of their new bassist. Perhaps there were some hearing issues going on with the band members following their most recent tour. There’s a chance that there was miscommunication between the band, producer Flemming Rasmussen, and the mixing team that led to the final product being completely devoid of low-end.

Whatever the reason is, …And Justice For All feels flat, thin, tinny, sterile, and just plain weird. The heaviest moments on the album can’t dig their heels in properly, leaving most of the LP in a strange no-man’s land of sonic purgatory. It’s something that generations of shitty stereos and maximum-volume listens have masked pretty well, but if you’ve wondered why there’s no real impact that comes from the hits on the album, it’s because there’s nothing resembling sonic depth anywhere to be found in the final mix.

All that being said, there’s still something indescribable about blasting …And Justice For All. Tracks like ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ and ‘Eye of the Beholder’ find Metallica working in a new groove, one that couldn’t be dampened even as they were finding a new identity with Newsted. The tribute track ‘To Live Is To Die’ is both lovely and punishing at the same time, featuring some of Burton’s final contributions to the Metallica canon. There are even early signs of the band’s embrace of more mainstream-friendly hooks throughout the album.

But …And Justice For All is far from the best work that Metallica ever did. In the years following the album’s release, most of the tracks would be relegated to a single medley in live performances, if they were played live at all. If it wasn’t ‘One’ or ‘Harvester of Sorrow’, the tracks on …And Justice For All would largely be ignored by Metallica during live shows apart from occasional special appearances.

The complexity and majesty of …And Justice For All has been dulled by its terrible production sound and Metallica’s subsequent reliance on the formula set by its content. But the album still scratches that headbanging itch all of 35 years later. Coming in between arguably Metallica’s two most important albums, …And Justice For All just doesn’t hold its own quite as well. But on the surface, the album contains everything that makes Metallica one of the greatest bands ever.

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