Whether or not this decade’s musical offering has become one of the best in recent history, it matters not considering that it marks 30 year landmarks for albums of the 80s. Nestled in an era of complete musical excess and eccentricity lies Metallica’s first four albums. Each one building on each other to define the ‘thrash metal’ era along with the rest of the ‘Big Four’ who, whilst historically significant, lack the masterful nature of the San Francisco quartet – it ends with 1988’s …And Justice For All, which celebrates its 30th birthday today.
Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All could all replace the Big 4 of thrash metal in their own right, being the brash, heavy, melodic and distinctly beautiful gems from the earliest of metal careers, when the era had a renaissance alongside some shitty glam rock acts. 1982’s Kill ‘Em All stands as one of the most fully realised debuts to this day: fresh, vicious, and a channelled expression of young adulthood aggression, still holding some fan favourites, but ultimately being fairly one dimensional. Of course, late bassist Cliff Burton’s phenomenal bass virtuosity on ‘(Anaesthesia) – Pulling Teeth’ later became fully realised in his teaching of classical music arrangements, leading to the expanded horizons yet not completely flawless Ride the Lightning, then the critically acclaimed and universally adored Master of Puppets, featuring some of the group’s most eclectic experimentation which does a hell of a lot more than just ‘pay off’.
‘Shrouded in a magical mysticism, …And Justice For All is as refreshingly strange, confounding and genius as ever’
Absolutely, the 1986 classic is perhaps the most cherished metal record of all time, and even one of the music world’s greatest achievements, pretty much making me feel remorse for anyone that hasn’t ever touched the record. Following Cliff Burton’s tragic death and the immortal legacy paved by that gem, Metallica certainly had a task on their hands, and that firstly defines ...And Justice For All as my top pick from the lads, as well as being it’s most understatedly controversial effort. Yeah, the subsequent Black Album was commercial and punished upon release, but suck it up and agree that it still destroys.
Musicality aside for a moment, simply the set-up of Metallica in the late ‘80s bathes this album in mystery and intrigue. The hunt for a new bassist following Burton’s death led to the hiring of Jason Newsted, blessed by Burton’s parents as the torchbearer of their son’s bass legacy, not that the same adoration was seemingly met by frontman James Hetfield and drummer/diva extraordinaire Lars Ulrich; their poor frat-boy ‘hazing’ treatment of Newsted has been documented although hardly elaborated, the deep sea part of this bizarre ‘new bassist treatment’ iceberg. Once Newsted had recorded the bass parts, however, Ulrich reportedly did his best to get his parts removed completely, clashing heads with mixer Steve Thompson to the point of the latter almost abandoning the project altogether, and reluctantly giving in to Ulrich’s desire to keep his drums sounding like farts. Buried deep beneath the mix are bass parts which, despite following similar lines to Hetfield’s rhythm playing, are still yearning to be heard. Newsted, Ulrich and Thompson’s ears are perhaps the only ones with the pleasure of being able to remember exactly how they sounded.
Hence, this album’s production is still absolutely torched to this day, not without conviction. Limited bass and punchy, vacuum cleaner-esque drums defy the epic, masterful touch (pun intended) of their 1986 effort, produced by Flemming Rasmussen who duly engineered this one too. Yet, by marking both the end of Metallica’s thrash roots, as well as a new beginning for them entering the next decade (where their output certainly slipped), this still holds up as their most seminal work, I believe.
Criticism for the sound quality shouldn’t mask the purely beautiful aggression that defines …And Justice For All; mainly abandoning the cinematic sprinklings of the former two records for a burgeoning, negative and full-on assault of cynicism, both in the brutal playing of start/stop riffage and Hetfield’s improved apocalyptic lyrics. The graphic anti-war stance of ‘One’, remaining a staple of a Metallica live setlist, fan favourite and one of the most recognisable metal solos of all time, is brilliant, and the hate-fuelled rasp of JAAAAAAMES HETFIIEEEEELD-AH! has hereby become just as iconic, especially the hilarious demonic laugh at the closing moments of ‘The Frayed Ends of Sanity’. Then again, the ‘cinematic’ quality is also here, but been met with a swathe of hate this time around; the feature length songs at times clock in at almost ten minutes. In a live setting, the band reported were disparaging of playing the sprawling title track live from just being bored shitless with it, pissing fans off in the process. In hindsight, surely just accept that, if you want Metallica, you want riffs. What do they give you? RIFFS FOR DAYS, so stop complaining.
The constant shifting of rhythms and the dichotomy of simplistic rhythm sections and soaring shredding leads from ‘the band nice guy’ Kirk Hammett are never more apparent in their whole discography than right here. Then again, Hetfield’s main riff to thrust the listener into ‘Blackened’ is far from easy. Still my favourite song of theirs (“Colour our world blackened! **dun dun** […] BLACK-ENED!” Unreal.) is just about as amazing as an opener can be. Every single second of this album is a game changer: the churning, palm-muted rhythms and virtuoso playing are both a guitarist’s paradise and hell (the rambunctious leads on ‘The Shortest Straw’ being a particular highlight), and some curveballs such as the seemingly out of place intro and closure to epic instrumental ‘To Live is To Die’, or the creepy The Wizard of Oz marching sample on ‘The Frayed Ends of Sanity’. These are random picks thrown into the heady mix of …And Justice For All’s pre-existing debauchery and magical mysticism, and it’s as refreshingly strange, confounding and genius as ever.
30 years later, the fourth effort from thrash’s godfathers remains their most debated masterpiece. Amongst a swathe of brilliance that came before it, it kept their streak as metal masters firmly in place, abandoning arguably their most experimental and critically acclaimed flourishes of orchestration and production for something raw, uncompromising and unforgettable, …and that’s what makes this the most noteworthy outing of their career. Still, a remastered reworking with the bass parts wouldn’t go amiss, thanks guys.
Image: Metallica/Mercury Records Ltd.