…And Justice For All : 30 Years On

…And Justice For All was both Metallica’s shining achievement and also the straw that broke the band’s back. It was their most intricate, complicated, and progressive album of music, but also their most stunted collection of tunes. If the record had a face, it would be frozen in a perpetual scowl, seething at everyone else’s happiness. As a 14-year old going into my freshman year of high school that impenetrable sonic wall was nearly too much for my ears and brain(I was still digesting their earlier albums, as well as still being into some hair metal.) But by their Grammy nomination later that year I’d gotten thru the marble and granite toughness of the album’s exterior and found the bloody red center and couldn’t get enough of songs like “Blackened”, “Harvester of Sorrow”, “To Live Is To Die”, and of course “One”.

It helped that my older brother was playing the album on the regular as well, so I was sort of feeding off his enthusiasm for it as well. He’d been out of school and working full-time for 3 years by then, working for a printing company and several different gritty manufacturing facilities(mostly boat and mobile home manufacturers.) His level of jadedness and bitter sarcasm towards authority figures and governmental interference were at an all-time high. The nature and the ideas behind …And Justice For All were things my brother was contemplating daily(at least at night after work getting stoned and knocking back a few beers, expounding on it with a couple buddies.)

At 14, the headiness of the lyrical content was something I couldn’t really relate to yet. But the intricate time changes and James Hetfield’s bark was something I could. I think ...And Justice For All primed me for more progressive music that I’d find myself getting into just a year later. Knowing now how messed up those guys were on a regular basis(especially Hetfield), it’s amazing they could make something so dense and layered. Dealing with the subject matter they were, it’s all very well constructed for a bunch of Bay-area heshers.

One of the biggest aspects of …And Justice For All was the creation of the very first Metallica music video. I’m not sure if it was some stance against MTV or what, but up to this point Metallica shunned the idea of making a music video. They wanted the music to speak for itself, as opposed to shoving some art director’s concept of what they thought the song was conveying visually. With “One”, though, Metallica themselves were re-interpreting someone else’s idea, In-particular, Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war book Johnny Got His Gun. The story of a WWI soldier who’d lost his arms legs, hearing, sight, mouth, and nose. He was a torso and head with a mask covering his badly mutated face. Yet he was very much alive in his mind, trapped like a prisoner in his own psyche. The video was a mix of Metallica playing in a darkly lit room with excerpts from th 1971 film adaptation of the book, written and directed by Trumbo himself.

You need to realize just how big of a deal this video was. It was high art and high concept for the long hair crowd, man. My parents wouldn’t pay for cable, so I had to convince a buddy to let me spend the night that Saturday night so I could see its premiere on Headbanger’s Ball. My buddy wasn’t as nearly interested as I was about Metallica. He went to bed while I stayed up in his small apartment and watched the video at midnight or whatever ridiculous time it was. Even with the volume turned down to barely a wheeze, I was completely enthralled. I’d felt I’d witnessed history being made. Turns out it was just another video, but it was one I could stand behind nonetheless.

The other interesting thing to note about …And Justice For All was the album’s nomination for a grammy for best hard rock performance, to which they lost to Jethro Tull. Yeah, Metallica lost to Jethro Tull for best hard rock/heavy metal performance. I remember watching that live in February of 1989, sitting at home and thinking the Aqualung guys just beat out the Master of Puppets guys. It was the same sort of disbelief I felt in 2000 when Bush beat Gore. Still, it made for interesting conversation at the lunch table the next day at school.

If I’m being completely honest with myself I sort of put this record off to the side and it became a bit of a side note for me for many years. When I thought of Metallica I never even considered …And Justice For All. I pretty much just thought of Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets, as those seemed to be all you needed from them. And also, …And Justice For All brought us into the eventual dark period for Metallica, or their “alternative” phase. Yeah, like you I fell hard for The Black Album. It came out right as I was going into my senior year of high school and it sort of felt like this bridge between the heavy metal and hard rock crowds. It ended up being everyone’s album, not just the head-banging heshers that got stoned in their cars in the school parking lot.

It was a huge album that put the Bay Area band into the stratosphere. It was also where I got off the Metallica train. I pretty much got off the entire metal train right there, but especially Metallica. I preferred the “other” big three’s records that came out relatively around the same time; Megadeth’s Countdown To Extinction, Anthrax’ Persistence of Time, and Slayer’s Seasons In The Abyss. While Metallica hit stages in stadiums and played for over half a million in the Ukraine, the rest of the big four toured together on the Clash of the Titans tour(along with a young Alice In Chains) and played to a bunch of sweaty dudes hanging out on lawns of amphitheaters. That’s not a slight on Metallica or them finding mega success, it’s just that I was more interested in lawn shows that nosebleeds in arenas.

Eventually I moved away from metal music altogether, but a few years ago I found myself slowing building a collection of those classic metal records on vinyl. I’ve found the angst of adulthood far outweighs the angst of youth and records like Hell Awaits, Reign In Blood, Among The Living, and So Far, So Good, So What really do speak to me in middle age.  Fortunately Metallica bought the rights to their records back from the record company and they began re-releasing those classic speed metal LPs on their own Blackened Recordings record label. I’ve bought all of them up through Master of Puppets, and just this weekend I picked up their remastered …And Justice For All.

My thoughts? The album still sounds like an outlier sonically. The bass is nonexistent and the overall sound is still this massive tinny wall of noise. It’s a drum and guitar record, with the mids completely scooped out. The volume has been increased(the last reissue was extremely quiet.) Your ears feel numb and blistered by the end.

Despite all of that I think this is how the record should sound. The weird mix and lacking of bass guitar and mids is part of the experience of …And Justice For All. It’s an overwhelming record, both in sound and in concept. These are songs about fighting a losing battle with authority and the lack of justice for those on the bottom rungs of society. It’s the last great truly heavy record by a band that re-defined what heavy metal could be. I’ll still pick Master of Puppets over …And Justice For All any day of the week, but at nearly 45-years old I’ve found a newfound respect and love for a record that got beat out by those Aqualung dudes.



6 thoughts on “…And Justice For All : 30 Years On

  1. The video was an immense experience that sent shivers down my teenage neck. I liked the album but hated the sound. So did my brother and our friends. We saw them touring the album and the songs sounded better live + they had the cover art statue (‘Edna’ I think they called her) come crashing down on stage. Good days.

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