Review Summary: A triumphant end to 80's Metallica, but not quite perfect.
Metallica must have been under a lot of pressure at this point in time. They had just released their 1986 album Master of Puppets album, which went gold without any airplay at all, and was considered one of the best thrash albums of all time, not to mention metal in general. Needless to say, they had a lot to follow up. So, what did they decide to do? "Go bigger and better!" And that's just what they did. The problem with this is, though, is that they went too
See, the track times are probably the biggest problem with this record. The shortest track time is over five minutes, and there are two tracks knocking on the door of ten minutes. I don't have a problem with long track times, so long as they make an attempt to keep the listener interested. Take, for example, Iron Maiden's Paschendale, which clocks in at over eight minutes, but is littered with tempo changes, interesting bridges, and all kinds of little nuggets to keep the song from being a chore to listen to. Such is not the case for a lot of songs in AJFA. They tend to be repetitive, and have simple song structures: (verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, solo/instrumental section, verse 3, chorus). The biggest culprit for this is the title track, which runs for 9:46. It starts off with an acoustic intro, which is likely the most interesting thing the track has to offer as far as variation goes. After that, the heavy riffs come in. Don't get me wrong; this is a great song with a great intro and verses and chorus, but it starts losing me during the instrumental section after the solo and it goes through another verse, chorus, and outro before it ends. The members of Metallica have acknowledged this themselves:
"'Justice' was a bit much for me. I couldn't stand watching the front row start to yawn by the eighth or ninth minute."
Other songs have similar repetition such as The Shortest Straw and The Frayed Ends of Sanity. The former is saved by it's relentless pace and blistering solo. The latter is OK, but it never really did much for me besides a memorable tribute to The Wizard of Oz in the intro. It is the only track I can do without. To Live is to Die is beautiful, but my least favorite Metallica epic instrumental, because it is too long, and honestly doesn't seems like it has a direction.
Well, now that we got rid of the negativity out of the way, let's focus on the good, of which there is a lot. The guitarists Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield are in top form delivering excellent riffs and solos at each turn, including the famous guitar solos in Blackened and One. James Hetfield's voice is angrier than ever, and has developed and deepened substantially since their earlier albums. Even Lars Ulrich, usually considered Metallica's poster boy for his below average performances in recent years, was excellent on the drums, particularly on the track Dyer's Eve, which is a template for what drummers should strive for. Sadly, the bassist Jason Newsted is invisible in the album, which is another criticism for the album, as well as the dry production.
Similar to Metallica's previous albums, there is a central theme that winds its way through the album. For Master of Puppets, it was control; for Ride the Lightning, it was death; and for Kill Em' All, it was METAHL RAWKS! For this album, the band matures a little and discusses their views on politics. Topics include the Apocalypse, greed, limitations on freedom of speech, war, and blacklisting. Harvester of Sorrow and Frayed Ends of Sanity deal with mental illness; a more traditional theme for Metallica. The final two songs are much for personal. To Live is to Die is a ten-minute-long semi-ballad semi-instrumental with only a few spoken-word lines dedicated to their bassist Cliff Burton, who was tragically killed in a bus crash. The final track, Dyer's Eve, is a "f*ck you" to Hetfield's parents for sheltering him as a child. The lyrics are very well done, and are the best of any Metallica album overall.
Without a doubt, One is the best song on the album, the best song by Metallica, and one of the best songs ever written. The song tells the heartbreaking tale of a soldier who lost his limbs and senses in an explosion and is forced to spend the rest of his life trapped in his immobile body in a hospital bed. The song starts out slow and ballad-like, like previous Track 4's Fade to Black and Welcome Home. After time, the song grows in heaviness, and after the vocals cut out, the song really takes off, showcasing that famous machine gun riff and face-melting solo. It's incredible from start to finish.
Other standouts include the opener, Blackened, which is speedy and heavy all the way through, featuring an excellent intro, solo, riff, bridge, chorus, etc. Harvester of Sorrow is the darkest song ever put out by the band. You gotta love the clean intro to this one. Eye of the Beholder, which is often considered filler, is another winner, mostly for the main riff and vocal melodies. Dyer's Eve is one of the fastest, heaviest Metallica songs out there, with standout drumming.
So, there you have it! Yes, the flaws are formidable, but that should not stop you from picking this up. A must have for any thrash-metal fan.