‘...And Justice For All’ was the end of an evolutionary line for Metallica, begun in 1983 with ‘Kill ‘Em All’. It drained Metallica of ideas so thoroughly that the 1991 self-titled follow up saw only a hollow shell of the band which had created four of thrash’s essential foundation stones. This album was a catharsis for the band still coming to terms with the loss of a member. It was also the band’s logical musical destination, as indicated on previous releases.
The effect of Cliff Burton’s death on the band and the final direction of this album can never be underrated. While many songs on ‘Ride The Lightning’ and ‘Master Of Puppets’ explored dark themes, those songs were nowhere near as sombre or personal as ‘...And Justice For All’. Every song has some link to death, whether it be literal or metaphoric, but instead of being detached, as an observer looking on in “Disposable Heroes” or attempting to empathise as in “Ride The Lightning”, it is real, and it is still raw. The shallower, more obvious theme of corruption skirts closer to the surface, and is Hetfield’s re-examination of the demons of his childhood, also explored on the previous two albums.
Jason Newsted had been brought into the band to replace Burton, but he had very little input into this album. He had only the one writing credit, for “Blackened”, as did Burton, for “To Live Is To Die”. James Hetfield wrote the lyrics for the entire album. This might seem a minor point, but looking at Flotsam and Jetsam’s back catalogue, Newsted was the main songwriter and lyricist. He was still suffering the “Newkid” jibes from fans and media, and was apparently suffering severe hazing from inside the band as well. However, he’d proved himself a more than capable player on the ‘Garage Days Re-Revisited’ EP, slotting into the band neatly, but being a covers EP it left him little space to prove himself. Not having the shared experience of the Hetfield/Ulrich/Hammett team may well have put him on the outer for this album.
When it came to the recording process, the drums and rhythm guitar were laid down before the bass, whereas the bass is normally the second instrument added to the mix. For much of the album, Newsted has little to do but follow Hetfield’s lead. This is perhaps the reason it seems Newsted’s bass has gone missing in action. There are bass frequencies there, fucking big ones at times (cheap stereos and speakers often bottom out during the introduction to “Eye Of The Beholder”), but it’s hard to determine which instrument is creating them. Hetfield’s monstrous rhythm guitar is the focus of almost the entire album. The riffs on the album were the sharpest and most focused he’d ever created, but the problem was, there were just far too many. Some of the songs suffer from a few too many ideas, as if there was too much good material to leave any out.
“One” escapes the tyranny of the rhythm guitar for a couple of reasons. First, Kirk Hammett produced the most stunning lead guitar work of his entire career on this song. Hetfield takes a back seat right from the first few notes he plucks. Hammett starts with a blues tinged opening passage, in total contrast to the scorching finale which any lead guitarist would have been proud to write. Best of all though, it all fits the song. Often, leads are afterthoughts, added because a song is supposed to have one. Without the solos, “One” simply wouldn’t have been “One”. The lead guitar adds the feel of beauty and lightness of life, contrasting the darkness of death and war.
Secondly, “One” was the best vocal performance James Hetfield had given to that point of the band’s career. The story of the disembodied soldier was not new, but it was a powerful anti-war message because of the unusual lyrical approach to the song. The despairing first person account is harrowing, a powerful piece of empathic imagination. The final passage simply lists the pathetic remains of a life: “Landmine has taken my sight/Taken my speech/Taken my hearing/Taken my arms/Taken my legs/Taken my soul/Left me with life in Hell”.
The other song which escaped drowning in riffs was album closer “Dyer’s Eve”. Basically, it’s Lars’ song. The guitar takes a back seat as he thrashes about like a man possessed, driving the fastest tempo song the band ever created. There have been many unkind jibes about Ulrich’s percussive abilities over the years, some of them undeserved. Rumour had it that he’d had problems with the rapid fire drumming on this song, so he played it slower and it was sped up in the studio. Adding further weight to the rumour, Metallica didn’t play the song live until 2004. However it was recorded, and whatever the reasons for not playing it live, it crashes out of the fading moments of “To Live Is To Die” like a meteorite. Hetfield’s biting lyrics take childhood angst far beyond mere melancholy into the realm of scorn and rejection. And Ulrich simply beats his drumkit into submission, like a stick wielding whirling dervish, in total contrast to the controlled aggression of the remainder of the album.
There is almost a progressive feel to some of the longer tracks, minus the indulgent excesses normally associated with prog rock. It’s more down to experimentation with song construction and dynamics than multi-instrumentalism or adding outside influences. The band thoroughly explored the furthest reaches of the guitar/bass/drums/vocal combination. Songs like “Blackened” are cut into a number of differing passages, each different from the last, using a range of tempos and feels. Title track “...And Justice For All” builds and builds upon itself, an enormous tower of Babel which never falls. The opening few riffs could very well have ended up sounding stilted and awkward if performed by a lesser band, yet they twist neatly around Ulrich’s floor tom drums, with a Hammett guitar line woven in. Where many bands of the time would have seen a need to add faster sections to the song, Metallica were content to power along at a constant pace, adding fills, cutting the song up, and sticking to the original theme of the song.
“To Live Is To Die” is the last Metallica song to have a writing credit for Cliff Burton. The lengthy instrumental could possibly have gone the same trippy, dreamy path of “Orion” from ‘Master Of Puppets’. Instead, it’s a bleak, harsh sounding song spread over almost ten desolate minutes. It is a decimated landscape, destroyed by humanity’s darkest sins. The heavy pathos is deepened by a short spoken passage, seen by many as a final tribute to Burton.
“The Shortest Straw” is total Hetfield. Sure, the rest of the band is still there, but he dominates the song completely, with wrist snapping riffing and gruff vocals. “Harvester Of Sorrow” is a huge sounding song, with a mechanised military march feel to it. The powerful lyrics are a great example of Hetfield’s writing technique where he removed any reference which made the meaning of the song too obvious, leaving it open to the listener’s interpretation. “The Frayed Ends Of Sanity” also starts with a march, but it’s more like a laboured slave driven procession, which gives way to the swaggering main riff of the song. The lyrics to this song leave no room for ambiguity at all- it’s about psychosis.
As a band, Metallica were somewhat dissatisfied with ‘...And Justice For All’. Ulrich has commented more than once that it is too dry and the band were unhappy with the way their songs were becoming unwieldy nine-minute-plus monsters. Whether subconsciously or entirely by design, this was their last true thrash album. The genre Metallica had helped found and mould had become at once too restrictive and too complex for the band to progress any further, so they regressed instead. When ‘...And Justice For All’ was released in 1988, no one could have foreseen what was coming three years down the track, and fans of this album often still can’t reconcile themselves with the self-titled album which came next.
As it stands, ‘...And Justice For All’ is a masterpiece beyond its flaws. It is a metallic Venus De Milo. There are major blemishes, but what remains is still a work of art.