Few bands possess a more polarizing reputation than Metallica. To some, they’re the forebearers of thrash and arguably the most influential and successful metal band of all time. The group, who in just over a decade went from an underground sensation to Grammy award-winning icons of popular culture. That isn’t to say that their meteoric rise hasn’t been met with backlash. Others see them as nothing more than a shell of their former selves. A band who compromised integrity for success, and now exist as a soulless corporate entity of the very establishment they once stood against.
A point of contention for some is the groups’ fourth album, …And Justice for All (1988). It arrived at the end of the decade that embodied both triumph and tragedy. 1986 had seen the release of their magnum opus, Master of Puppets as well as the death of bassist Cliff Burton. Steadfast and determined, the group soldiered on with newcomer Jason Newstead. In describing the album in question, the most appropriate terms contradict one another. It’s a showcase of complexity and technical proficiency, yet it’s bloated and needlessly drawn out. If anything, …And Justice for All personifies the ego and megalomania that’s sometimes associated with James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich. While there are moments of clarity throughout, the collective vision of the group at this point was now firmly in control of the two. It’s almost ironic that an album known for its subject matter regarding corruption and control serves as an accurate self-portrait.
First and foremost, the elephant in the room is the albums production. While this would be the third collaboration with Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen, the departure from Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets is not only noticeable, it’s painfully obvious. The nearly inaudible bass track has become a topic of both discontent and discussion. Alternative mixes with an enhanced bass pop up from time to time, the most popular being titled …And Justice for Jason. It’s hard to comprehend why such a decision would be made. Hetfield and Ulrich’s obsessive need to be at the helm of the project is apparent in both the drummer’s obsession with his drum sound, and Hetfield’s songwriting direction, which could easily be described as complexity over substance.
There are essentially two sides to James Hetfield. There’s the thrash guitarist, the person who can take a few chords and craft a riff of uncompromising devastation. “Damage Inc”, “Fight Fire with Fire”, “No Remorse”, “Disposable Heroes”—all possess a ferocity that’s akin to warfare. Then, there’s the singer/songwriter aspect. Songs such as “Fade to Black”and “My Friend of Misery” show Hetfield’s ability to craft introspective compositions that touch upon inner turmoil and personal struggles.
Remarkably, both of these personalities come together on “Dyer’s Eve.” Closing out the album, the tenacity of Hetfield’s’ down picking and lyrics such as “Dear mother, dear father, what is this hell you have put me through?…Day in day out, live my life for you” foreshadow much of the songwriting that would follow on subsequent releases. In the years since, Hetfield has opted to “got to the well” as it were to write several first-person narratives that stem from his past struggles. Remarkably, this could be seen as the turning point in his creative direction. This subject matter would be a major part of their self-titled “black” album a few years later. Despite any misgivings one might have in regards to the direction Metallica has taken, the prolific nature of Hetfield’s songwriting capabilities is remarkable.
While one should never trust a book (or album for that matter) by its cover, the artwork for …And Justice for All is indicative of the subject matter the band decided to focus their attention on. The statue of Lady Justice, bound by rope, money lining her scales, a grim reminder of the corruption that exists in government and law. Lashing out at the establishment was certainly nothing new for the band. Master of Puppets in particular had no shortage of songs detailing discontent with the status quo. Targeting religion (“Leper Messiah”), Warfare (“Disposable Heroes”), the use of agent orange during the conflict in Viet Nam (“Master of Puppets”) and even branching out into the metaphysical world of Lovecraft (“The Thing That Should Not Be.”) The albums’ title track, spanning almost ten minutes details the abuse of power. While much of the album is hampered by unnecessary time changes, “And Justice for All” manages to have an ebb and flow. “The ultimate in vanity, exploiting their supremacy” and “Power wolves beset your door, hear them stalking” are easily some of the best lyrics on the album, and some of Hetfield’s best as a songwriter. Arriving after the albums crushing opening track, “Blackened”, the album hits its high water mark relatively early.
If …And Justice for All has a single defining moment, it’s “One.” The song, based on Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, is a journey into the mind of a soldier horribly disfigured in war. The opening sounds of machine-gun fire and cries of agony sets the stage for the song that explores the pain and suffering with razor-sharp precision. This would also mark Metallica entering the world of the music video. Although the art form has evolved over the years, “One” can easily lay claim to being the greatest, even to this day. There’s no question that the music video revolutionized the entire 1980s. MTV’s constant rotation brought the new medium to the masses. “One” is not only the antithesis of a decade commonly associated with vibrant colors and excess, it coincides with the film adaptation of Trumbo’s book. The film Johnny Got His Gun (1971) utilizes color schemes to contrast scenes that take place in the hospital, which are filmed in black and white, with fantasy and memory, that are shot in color. The scenes from the film which are interspersed with the black and white footage of the band playing accentuate the subject matter of the song and help it take on a life of its own. The macabre spectacle illustrates the horrors of war and touches upon the human experience.
Lyrical content aside, …And Justice for All ultimately suffers from songs that have a haphazard structure and are a far cry from the thrash formula that the band had perfected over the course of their previous three albums. “Eye of the Beholder” in particular, with its bizarre vocal effect and constant tempo changes hinges on utter tediousness. More than any other song on the album, it shows a band being needlessly complex for the sake of being so, and the songs suffer as a result. The “Frayed Ends of Sanity” and “The Shortest Straw” also fall into this trap. While still brimming with aggression, Hetfield’s new vocal style doesn’t quite fit the mold. In contrast, when Megadeth released their technical masterpiece Rust in Peace (1990) a few years later, Dave Mustaine and company would craft complex and intricate songs that would work to the benefit of the album and not hinder it.
A staple of the previous two Metallica albums had been the instrumental. While both “The Call of Ktulu” and “Orion” had been breathtaking numbers that showed off the band’s ability to weave in and out of aggression and melody, the same can’t be said for “To Live is to Die.” A tribute to Cliff Burton, it’s overwrought and one dimensional. Truth be told, this is where the absence of an audible bass track is most disheartening. Burton’s bass contributions to the aforementioned numbers had been nothing short of exceptional. This was a moment where the torch could have been passed to Newstead, but as would happen many times until his departure, he was held down by the egos of Hetfield and Ulrich.
It would be easy to dismiss …And Justice for All as a failed experiment and an exercise in selfish ambition. Truth be told, it’s an endeavor that’s very middle of the road. For every moment the album shines, there’s at least two were the tarnish of ego makes itself known. Be that as it may, it’s a transitional work of art and the first signs of the band heading in a new direction. It wouldn’t be long until the group teamed up with producer Bob Rock, and plotted a course that would lead them to become household names and one of the biggest acts in the world. No matter what your personal feelings on the band might be, there’s no denying the impact they’ve made.