Metallica emerged from the 1980s as a well-oiled machine. After single-handedly turning heavy metal music on its head with their first album, Kill ‘Em All, their third album, Master of Puppets, became a genre classic, mixing hard rock riffs with some of metal’s fastest tempos.
No one expected bassist Cliff Burton to be taken so quickly, and the decade concluded with the band in mourning.
It’s difficult to envision the album And Justice For All not being released in the aftermath of Burton’s disappearance.
The dizzying sounds of reverse guitar start the song ‘Blackened’ in the album’s opener, as though the rest of the band were recuperating from the terrible event they had experienced.
Burton’s death would be difficult to overcome, but the band determined that the only way to move forward would be to disregard the matter totally.
Despite Jason Newsted proving himself to be a suitable successor to Burton, his bass is completely muffled in the final mix, having been pushed down so low in postproduction that no one can hear it.
During an interview for The Black Album, Newsted reflected on the project and expressed his dissatisfaction with his portions being toned down so low, recalling: “The Justice album didn’t feel good for me because you really couldn’t hear the bass. And there are many reasons for that and me not being there properly.”
That quote represents Newsted’s diplomatic approach. Looking back on Newsted’s hazing during his initial years with the band, James Hetfield didn’t feel particularly passionately about the Justice album, recalling, “It was clear that we needed guidance. The Justice album, I’m not knocking it. It was at the right time, and it felt good, but you can tell who was recording and mixing the whole thing. Y’know, the drums are really loud, and guitars are really loud, so that would be me and Lars.”
When the band asked him to dial down the bass on the record, the mixing engineer believed they were joking, producing a handful of dry mixes that sound terribly old compared to their thrash metal peers.
Aside from the lackluster production, And Justice For All is undeniably one of Metallica’s most adventurous albums during their thrash metal era.
Aside from the dryness, this is Metallica’s closest attempt at a progressive rock project, building songs like skyscrapers by cramming in every riff they can.
The album also has a stronger lyrical focus, with Hetfield addressing the shortcomings in America’s legal system as well as the wrath in every metal fan bred to break the rules.
The urge to be one of the most complicated thrash bands in the world did, however, have an expiration date, and the aim for the band’s following album was to compose more plain songs in comparison to where they had been.
The Black Album featured Bob Rock behind the mixing board and included sonic vignettes previously unknown to thrash artists like ‘Nothing Else Matters’ and ‘Wherever I May Roam’.
Because Metallica would change dramatically over the next few decades, this was the last glimpse of the band’s heaviest side.