Controversial mix and all, …And Justice for All remains a canonical metal album.
Heavy metal’s supreme “what if?” document, Metallica’s …And Justice for All is simultaneously a universally beloved classic among fans and an album that will never be as good as it is in those fans’ heads. Its notorious final mix, which completely washed out new bassist Jason Newsted and reduced Lars Ulrich’s drums to the hollow pounding of a hangover headache, remains so controversial that when this deluxe 30th anniversary edition was announced, some of the first promotional material for the release actually consisted of band members and the album’s producers and engineers preemptively pointing fingers over responsibility for the sound.
To cut to the chase: no, Metallica have not remixed …And Justice for All for its anniversary to address this endless controversy. Though the album does sound richer and more cleanly separated than ever, the low end is still washed out under James Hetfield’s down-tuned rhythm guitar, and Ulrich’s drums still thwack with a dull stomp that slices through the mix. The album still fundamentally sounds like the first thing you put on after having just come from a metal concert, as if the band were planning ahead for heshers to thrash out to it on the way home from one of their gigs.
As for the music, it remains the most challenging and ferocious of Metallica’s LPs. Where the band’s previous two albums began with bait-and-switches that teased elegant acoustic intros that suddenly lurched into pummelling thrash, “Blackened” fades up on a wall of pure electric squall that escalates the tension from the first seconds before sprinting into an opening freak-out that settles into one of the band’s finest, knottiest riffs. No other Metallica opening track has ever so tidily summed up the album to follow: its hairpin turns, riff-upon-riff structure and blinding speed hit so hard that even in the album’s thin bass mix it hits like an anvil. The song also announces Metallica’s full-bore leap into political material, something always present in their work but threaded amid more personal narratives of existential despair and just plain good-time thrash anthems about breaking shit with your mates.
All of Metallica’s early material holds up, but it’s remarkable, if bleak, how well the lyrics of …And Justice for All hold up. “Blackened,” a hellish vision of nuclear holocaust, now seems even more current as a travelogue of a planet burning humanity off of its surface like a fever roasting a virus. Elsewhere, the title track and “Eye of the Beholder” take on the skewed legal system and the various types of justice meted out depending on one’s level of wealth and social placement. Even “Dyers Eve,” Hetfield’s personal condemnation of his mother’s death from her religious aversion to medicine and a general castigation of older generations blithely passing down their worst beliefs and repressions onto their children, is as relevant as ever in a country where young people face an increasingly hopeless future thanks to the selfish voting of their elders.
Such heavy material is wrapped up in the band’s most ambitious songwriting. The absence of Cliff Lee Burton, whose compositional sophistication pushed even the rawest Metallica tracks into elaborate, contrapuntally compelling directions, could have spelled doom for the group’s swelling musicianship. Instead, the group’s fourth album is their most intricately structured. Just listen to the multiple movements of the title track and the band’s flawless transitions between them; the group’s slam back into the riff at the end of Kirk Hammett’s solo is one of the most thrilling, crushing moments in the history of heavy metal. “To Live Is to Die,” built on some fragments being worked out by Burton before his death, keeps the intensity of a Metallica instrumental but shows the band adding mournful dynamics that mark their first attempt to process the grief over their friend’s death. Then, of course, there’s the war epic “One,” which begins with a sparse, plunging guitar pattern, building and ebbing as its existential horror crests into outbursts of anguish that fade into morphine-dream lulls before all hell breaks loose as Hammett manages to split the difference between agony and rage in his solo as Hetfield, Newsted and Ulrich gallop underneath.
As great as the album remains, the remaster will settle none of the long-standing grousing over Newsted’s bass. Yet this deluxe set does, at last, offer justice for Jason; it simply lies among the copious bonus material. As with the other deluxe editions issued by the band, the discs of demo recordings are mostly curios. Here, however, one can hear the band before the final mixing would create the album’s trademark, controversial sound. Hetfield’s guitar, not yet down-tuned into Newsted’s range, leaves some space for the bass to come through with pounding, gurgling intensity, confirming that Newsted was merely tracking along with the melody but suggesting that his brunt energy could have lent the finished product some added punch.
Most especially, Newsted comes in loud and clear on the live recordings, which mark a significant improvement from previous box set concert material in the professional soundboard recordings of the Damaged Justice Tour. All of the prior Metallica reissues have come with soundboard-sourced recordings, but the primitive taping methods used left most of the included live material sounding murky and distant, with only a few conveying the deep low end of the band’s sound. But the Damaged Justice tour found the band fully, definitively breaking through in America, with a go-for-broke decision to book the group in arenas paying off wildly with increasingly devoted crowds as the album climbed the charts. With access to better venues and more audio equipment, the group finally started to be documented in earnest, and the very worst recordings here rival some of the better ones on previous sets in terms of sound fidelity.
That means you can actually hear the bass throughout, and as such it is easier than ever to pinpoint just what Newsted brought to the band. Even if his basslines on the studio album replicated Hetfield’s rhythm parts, in a live setting one can hear how much more crushing the songs are with his bass prominently added. “Blackened” transforms from an already vicious track into a nightmare, while “One’s” breakdown into the final segment reaches its apex as a descent into PTSD obliteration. On slower numbers like “The Thing That Should Not Be” or “Harvester of Sorrow,” the band’s churning grind sounds more like pioneering sludge metal than technical thrash. The Seattle 1989 show, heretofore only released on video in the Live Shit: Binge & Purge box set, is the highlight of the live sets and possibly the definitive live document of Metallica, has been cleaned up to bring even more focus onto how smartly Newsted updated classic Metallica material to his plectrum-picked bass style. Listen to one of the cleaner Burton-era tapes of “Master of Puppets” with the version in Seattle. Burton’s bassline, heavy but nonetheless sinewy and slightly twanging, is oddly seductive, the sound of the drugs coursing through one’s veins. Newsted, however, pares down the bassline to its hardest edge, still nailing some of Burton’s flourishes but otherwise opting for a jackhammer intensity that ties closer to the track’s lyrics of strung-out addiction and the endless chase for that first high. Newsted flips the dynamic of the old band; where once Burton deepened and explored the contours of a track while Hetfield and Hammett blazed with punkish intensity, here Newsted hangs back and holds things steady while the guitarists handle the technical dazzle.
Newsted’s sturdy, matter-of-fact bass attack also coincides with the band sorting out its shit as a live outfit. Previous live recordings depicted a band with endless energy that often overrode their sense of timing; all over the gigs on the last three reissues, you could hear all four members of the band playing in a different tempo. Here, though, you can feel the pressure the band felt when they were booked into arenas before their actual commercial breakthrough. With rare exception, each of the concerts included in this set finds the band working fluidly and with heretofore little-seen focus. The Seattle show in particular strikes the perfect balance between the ferocity of the band’s early days with the coming polish of the group’s megastar years.
…And Justice for All would mark the end of the original Metallica album formula, with its bookending thrash, proggy title tracks, elegant instrumentals and mid-sequence dark ballads. Following the grueling challenge of replicating this record’s tracks, the band would reasonably decide to scale back for their next record. The results, well, everyone knows the results. Metallica was about to experience a level of success unfathomable for an extreme metal pioneer, and it would permanently alter their trajectory into a mainstream pantheon act. Controversial mix and all, …And Justice for All remains a canonical metal album, and this is the finest of the band’s reissues yet. Where previous reissues provided the invaluable service of offering fans more Cliff Burton, this box set manages to both cement the case for Newsted as a worthy successor to Burton and to show how quickly the band started to lay the steps to their eruption onto the global stage.