Review Summary: Top of its class! Well... almost.
Back when the name "Metallica" actually meant something to the metal community, there was a quadrilogy... a "tetrology" if you will... the four great champion albums of Metallica's otherwise polarizing body of work. Kill 'Em All was the raw attempt to kick the listeners' asses in a full-throttle riff fest; Ride the Lightning was the symbol of maturity, mixing aforementioned rawness with the air of progression; Master of Puppets is the magnum opus fans beheld as the climax, the absolute peak of the 80's metal movement. And where was ...And Justice For All in all of this excitement? In the annals of thrash history as their black sheep… for the 80’s, anyway (don’t even get me started on St. Anger or their more recent years).
While Master of Puppets presented a cleaner and more "developed" approach for the Metallica bandwagon, no one could have predicted the sudden change of pace their next album would bring. Even longer songs? Nearly nonexistent bass? An even more progressive approach to songwriting? Indeed, the album was an interesting departure from previous works, and despite the high sales of 8 million copies, many were poised to dislike it because of its oddities. In hindsight, however, this proved to be essential for the thrash band, harboring some of their best songs to date.
If there’s one thing that was always commendable about 80’s Metallica, or even in other Metallica records, it is the integration of honest emotional depth in their songwriting, and it shines in the best possible way here. Band staple “One” is perhaps the best example, combining building dynamics with extremely heartfelt lyrics about a soldier fighting in World War I (based on a book, mind you). The song has a real tendency to bring me to tears because of its subject matter and the emotional speed metal climax to close it off. Then there’s “To Live is to Die,” which barely uses any lyrics, but rather combines its interweaving guitar harmonies with multiple dynamic contrasts (mainly in the middle section in which Kirk’s guitar sound resembles two harmonizing violins) to get its point across. James Hetfield recites a poem near the end, symbolizing the loss of their previous bassist Cliff Burton and their mourning for him. This is a great example of what music is supposed to do; it should be able to tap into a listener’s feelings as if it’s an old friend that you can come back to anytime to share memories, whether happy or sad; it’s what makes us who we are today.
As if that wasn’t enough, the metal numbers are fantastic all the same. Songs like “Blackened” and “Dyers Eve” are the “Battery” and “Damage Inc.” of this record, ripping through your face as if it were tissue but still with fresh song structures and the occasional tempo change to boot. More variety is implemented as well, with “Harvester of Sorrow” having a slower groove than the usual thrash tune and “Eye of the Beholder” utilizing a strange mid-tempo atonal riff. Sure, “Blackened” used similar notation in its riff, but it was faster and much less noticeable. Just when you thought things were getting too conventional, the song slows down for a 12/8 section (once again tying in with that progressive style) and Hetfield starts singing in a more off-beat, syncopated fashion. It works, though, and keeps you wondering throughout.
Sadly, though, the lack of then-newcomer Jason Newsted in the bass department is quite disappointing. Supposedly, the band turned his bass volume all the way down so he wouldn’t overshadow Cliff’s playing, quite a controversial move on their part. While Newsted would get his big chance and succeed on The Black Album a few years later, the lack of bass here is disappointing, especially given the complexity of the record. Also, a few songs (especially the title track) have a tendency to drag a bit, occasionally creating a dull or repetitive moment where a solo or more varied section could have been added.
If that’s all that is wrong with this, though, that’s not saying a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. …And Justice For All is a true masterpiece in the thrash world (hell, even the metal world in general) and deserves the increasing praise it’s garnered in recent times. While it does have its clunky moments and flaws, the moments that are good are just flat-out triumphs. Honestly, those triumphs are exactly what makes this record work.
-Good emotional depth
-Surprisingly solid drumming
-Almost no audible bass
On this album, Metallica were:
James Hetfield – lead vocals, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, lead guitar
Lars Ulrich – drums
Kirk Hammett – lead guitar
Jason Newsted – bass