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Metallica - ...And Justice for All Music Album Reviews

Written after the death of bassist Cliff Burton, Metallica’s infamously abrasive masterpiece gets its 30th-anniversary treatment at a time when its sociopolitical rumblings are painfully relevant.

…And Justice for All is the biggest metal band’s best album. I see you, Master of Puppets people, but I’ve strapped on the blindfold of Lady Justice and let the scales tip where they may: Justice wins. The songwriting of singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich is their most complex and vicious, retaining the power of their early thrash while jettisoning its simplistic schoolyard chants and avoiding the less-compelling hard rock tendencies to come. Use, abuse, experience, and enough beer and Jägermeister to make Keith Moon drive a luxury car into a swimming pool had tempered Hetfield’s reedy yell into something fuller and more forceful, with none of his later cigar-chomping bluster. The lyrics are a ground-level portrait of bureaucratic order pushing down on people too powerless to fight back. And the sound is nearly industrial in its ear-killing intensity, a piece of serrated steel designed to carve you and leave its nihilism in the wounds. Oh, and maybe you’ve heard this: You can’t hear the bass.

In celebration of its 30th anniversary, Justice has been remastered and re-released in a variety of formats—from a three-disc reissue with bonus material to a six-LP, four-DVD, 11-CD monstrosity that features a hardcover book of photos and liner notes and is stuffed with enough prints, patches, and assorted swag to fill a Christmas stocking. Three decades later, Justice arguably stands as the only Metallica album that’s as beloved as it is controversial. (The rest tend to skew one way or the other.) After the death of original bassist Cliff Burton in a 1986 bus accident, the band hired Jason Newsted as his replacement. They toured with him, recorded a covers EP with him, gave him moments in the spotlight on stage, and... absolutely buried him in the mix of Justice, his first-full length with Metallica. The result is the most abrasive-sounding album to sell over eight million copies ever. It’s as if, instead of adding canned crowd noises or fake room tone, Metallica preloaded it with tinnitus.

Newsted’s absence from the final mix is easy to explain, if not excuse. Some of the factors are innocuous: The three original members and the newcomer were not yet accustomed to each other’s playing styles, which led Newsted to track his basslines mostly to Hetfield’s rhythm guitar. Hetfield himself aimed for a low, pulverizing sound, eating up much of the range Newsted’s bass might have occupied. But reading the accounts of various producers, mixers, and engineers included in this set’s extensive notes suggests a more direct, less savory explanation: The bass isn’t there because the band, namely Ulrich and Hetfield, didn’t want it there.

Was this an extension of the extensive hazing to which “Newkid” was subjected by the band for years and which contributed to his departure years later? Was it an unspoken form of denial, processing Burton’s death by erasing his replacement in the studio? Was it simply a power trip by the band’s most dominant personality, Ulrich, whose vision for the sound of his own instrument was so specific and demanding that the people who helped realize it still speak about it with horror? The answer is likely “all of the above.”

But with the exception of producer Flemming Rasmussen, whose enthusiasm for Newsted’s largely unheard work makes him one of this story’s most endearing figures, and mixer Steve Thompson, who regrets having to follow Ulrich’s orders, all involved seem at peace now with the result. Even Newsted argues that “‘how it’s supposed to be’ is how it came out and what made a mark on the world.”

To the great credit of everyone involved, this reissue is no Star Wars Special Edition-style attempt to rewrite the past. You may hear a little more snap and pop and dimensionality here and there, but this is a restoration, not a revision. Everything that’s made Justice sound assaultive and insane for the past three decades—closer to Ministry’s “Stigmata,” released around the same time, than the band’s own “Enter Sandman”—remains. (Should the itch for more bass persist, YouTube can scratch it.) It’s tough to muster much anger that the remastered version isn’t …And Justice for Jason when Jason himself feels justice has been served.

Justice begins and ends at a breakneck pace. Opener “Blackened” serves the same role as “Battery” on Master of Puppets—ahead at full speed. It’s a meditation on nuclear annihilation and global extinction that, with a few tweaks, could apply to our worsening climate crisis: “Fire is the outcome of hypocrisy… Color our world blackened,” Hetfield shouts, his clipped words another piece of the percussive array. A screed about Hetfield’s “undying spite” for the parents who coddled him in conservatism, closer “Dyer’s Eve” is as intimate as “Blackened” is apocalyptic. As a parent now myself, I hear my own worst fears about tossing my children into “this hell you always knew” echoed.

Between those points, the songs are expansive affairs, in length (nearly all of them clock in beyond six minutes) and in the techniques Hetfield, Ulrich, and guitarist Kirk Hammett use to make their sociopolitical points. The riff of “The Shortest Straw,” a song about the victims of political hysteria, speeds atop the song like it’s trying to outrun the mob. The slower, near-sludge sound of “Harvester of Sorrow” reflects its first line: “My life suffocates.” The martial hook of anti-conformist anthem “Eye of the Beholder” fades in from the distance, like an approaching armored convoy. In a rare moment of humor that comports with the band’s hard-partying profile outside the studio, “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” incorporates the “ohh-WEE-ohh, YOOO-ohh” chant from The Wizard of Oz. LL Cool J must have been taking notes.

Justice’s centerpiece is, of course, “One,” the nearly eight-minute song about a mutilated war veteran. It sparks like an extended fuse before exploding in its final minutes with a Hendrix-style “Machine Gun” simulation and a Hammett solo that sounds like a panic attack. Thanks to an almost comically uncompromising video that spliced no-nonsense, black-and-white footage of the band with harrowing scenes from an adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, it’s the song that broke the band to the world, receiving heavy airplay on MTV despite having nothing in common with anything else on the network. Listening again, it’s amazing how little time and familiarity have dulled its impact. All its elements—from the dour four-note hook with which it begins to that gunfire burst—work as an experiential unit. You strap in and follow where it leads, even if that’s the “life in hell” of a limbless, eyeless, earless, voiceless shell of a man.

At nearly 10 minutes long and with a dozen different time signatures, the title track employs many of the same techniques. Lyrics about the utter unfairness of the American legal system convey despair with force. “Hammer of justice crushes you,” Hetfield asserts before the chorus runs, “Nothing can save us/Justice is lost/Justice is raped/Justice is gone.” But these are not the distant, doomsaying pronunciations of some gimlet-eyed observer. Hetfield is also trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and it’s getting to him, too. The chorus and the song itself conclude, “Find it so grim, so true, so real.” Hetfield draws out the last word as if to reassure himself that he is not hallucinating these horrors, that this is really happening. These humanizing touches give the otherwise impenetrable music a necessary air of vulnerability, a quality inaudible in the machinelike mix.

In that sense, “To Live Is to Die” stands as the Rosetta Stone for Justice. A lengthy, plodding instrumental with sections where the guitars simulate melancholy strings, it’s the band’s tribute to its late bassist and an artistic outlet for their sublimated grief. Burton himself (with help from either the German writer Paul Gerhardt or John Boorman’s King Arthur movie Excalibur) provides the lyrics for the brief spoken-word passage, and they are bleaker than anything the band recorded before or since: “When a man lies, he murders some part of the world,” Hetfield murmurs as Burton’s voice from beyond. “These are the pale deaths which men miscall their lives. All this I cannot bear to witness any longer. Cannot the Kingdom of Salvation take me home?” In “One,” the chorus runs, “Hold my breath as I wish for death”; here, Metallica mourn their late friend by posthumously publishing his own death wish. This isn’t The Black Album, but the spirit is as black as it gets.

Despite the demons present in Metallica’s work and the largely unspoken trauma inflicted by Burton’s death, they played on. Along with a deep dive into Hetfield’s vault of riff experiments, writing sessions, demo recordings, and B-sides that include many covers, the set features six concerts (and snippets of three more). These demonstrate Metallica’s determination to plow past their recent tragedy, a recurring theme in the liner-note interviews and a visible throughline in the book’s hundreds of playful photos from photographer Ross Halfin and others.

The recordings range from the previously released Seattle ’89 to a DVD of the bands performance at the tiny Delaware rock club The Stone Balloon. (Ulrich insisted on the gig just so he could say they’d played in every state). Though they vary in sound quality and though some include no more than a single Justice song, these sets document the group’s growing realization—audible in their blistering pace and Hetfield’s rising swagger—that they could blow any other band off the fucking stage. In his essay here, Sammy Hagar actually recounts that the pressure of having to follow Metallica on the Monsters of Rock Tour caused poor ol’ Dokken to break up.

It would cheapen the power of ...And Justice for All to say it speaks to our present moment in some uniquely prescient way. Metallica weren’t predicting the future; they were describing what they saw around them. It made them world conquerors for a reason. But if Justice sounds like Now as much as it did then, it only proves the album’s point. And by refusing to soften the blow and reshape the record’s sonic signature into something more ear-pleasing, this reissue correctly implies that the music stands the test of time as well as the words. It does justice to every nightmare note.


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