Although still highly regarded, Metallica‘s 1988 opus ...And Justice for All is seen by many as the ugly duckling of the band’s celebrated ’80s repertoire. It’s a dark, angry, politically-charged, and complex thrash beast, chock full of creative ideas and stellar songs, easily overshadowing the album’s flaws and overreaching ambition. I was born in the early 1980’s, and via an older sibling, I was introduced to metal from a relatively young age. So Metallica‘s first four LPs, and their controversial but still rocking Metallica (aka Black Album), were in heavy rotation in my home. While other bands and individuals in my life played critical roles in sculpting me into a proud metalhead, Metallica‘s famed and nearly flawless ’80s canon will always hold a place in my heart. I fondly remember family car trips listening to Metallica cassettes on an old Walkman while reading along to the lyric sheets. …And Justice for All isn’t my favorite Metallica album, although it certainly was during various stages of my childhood, but it’s something of a sentimental favorite and an album I still cherish to this day.
Following up one of the greatest metal albums of all time was never going to be an easy assignment, but the task was made even tougher after the tragic death of influential bassist Cliff Burton in a tour bus accident in Sweden in 1986. They drafted young bass player Jason Newsted from Flotsam and Jetsam to fill the void. Though as will be touched on later, they may as well not as bothered on this recording, due to Newsted’s bass parts being rendered mostly inaudible. Nevertheless, …And Justice for All is a remarkably ambitious statement from Metallica, as they pushed themselves to the limits musically, while crafting lengthy, intricate, and often progressive compositions, without sacrificing their thrash roots and raw aggression. Yet through the complex layers, there’s plenty of instantly gratifying and timeless material to sink your chompers into.
“Blackened” is a fitting album opening companion piece to the legendary “Battery,” a downright thrash classic with all the trimmings. And along with the emotive melodies and stunning dynamics of the anti-war song, “One,” belongs on any custom-made Metallica ‘Best Of’ compilation. Faults can certainly be found in the album’s construction, but I find it hard to rag on one particular song. If anything, …And Justice for All features some of Metallica‘s more underrated songs, such as the sticky hooks and muscular thrash and rumble of “The Shortest Straw,” or the blazing thrash of closing statement “Dyer’s Eve.” “Harvester of Sorrow” makes its mid-tempo structure work through subtle shifts, addictive riffs, and an earworm chorus. Sadly, the lack of self-editing does make the album bloat on occasions. Metallica long had a penchant for lengthy songs, but here the balance isn’t as well maintained. Fat definitely could have been cut, especially from the powerful title track and the touching and often brilliant Burton tribute “To Live Is to Die.”
Guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett were both in sublime form, pushing themselves on a technical level, yet bringing an abundance of crunchy headbanging riffs, classic thrash stampedes, and strong harmonies. The flashier embellishments and evocative melodies were enticing, yet it’s the power of the mighty riff that dominates, certifying …And Justice for All as an absolute riff monster. Meanwhile, Hammett’s wild solos were alternately controlled, inventive, and just a little off-the-wall. Hetfield’s trademark rough snarl was in top form, as were his cutting and insightful lyrics. Say what you will about Lars Ulrich’s maligned drumming, he gets the job done competently enough, without delivering anything outstanding. Unfortunately the stripped back, thin production, although not completely at odds with the darker musical direction and lyrical content, is notably missing any decent low-end due to a controversial decision to virtually rub out Newsted’s bass. Metallica apparently passed up on the opportunity to right this wrong with their upcoming reissue of the album. However, for those keen on hearing a version with some bass cushioning, there’s a tidy bootleg dubbed …And Justice for Jason floating around the interwebs worth hearing.
Bloated and ambitious to a fault, …And Justice for All‘s resounding pros easily outweigh its niggling cons, signalling a fitting swansong for Metallica‘s celebrated ’80s thrash era. It was a triumphant end to a magnificent period of metal dominance and thrash perfection for Metallica, before their explosion into rock superstardom and larger-than-life egos eventually spiraled their musical output into an increasingly weak and watered-down product. Baffling production choices and some bloated song-writing aside, like its predecessors, …And Justice for All stands the test of time and is a bleak, pissed off, and essential thrash classic.