Following the release of Master of Puppets in 1986, California-based metal band Metallica had established themselves as the best metal act since the days of Ozzy-led Black Sabbath. Their first three albums: Kill Em All (1983), Ride The Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986) had all been released to positive reception, and are still played today. Really, the first five Metallica records are timeless.
Following the release of M.O.P., sometimes revered as the greatest metal album of all time, possibly better than classics like Paranoid (Black Sabbath) and Number of The Beast (Iron Maiden), Metallica was struck with tragedy. While on tour to support the album in Europe, the bus they were on skidded off the road, and flipped onto the grass. Then-bassist Cliff Burton, (arguably) the most technical bass player in hard rock/heavy metal history, was thrown through the window, where the bus fell on top of him. He died on September 27th, 1986, at the age of 24.
The three remaining members in the band (James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett) were faced with a decision. If the band chose not to play again, they would leave behind a legacy that includes three legendary albums, and they'd be going out on top. Or they could keep going. Soon after, they decided on the latter. They auditioned 40 new bassists, including Les Claypool (Primus), Troy Gregory (Prong), and Jason Newsted (Flotsam and Jetsam). They decided to go with Newsted, who they then hazed for years as a way of releasing their anger over Burton's death.
Now that they had a bassist, they could begin recording their next album. On January 28th, 1988, they began recording ...And Justice For All, their fourth studio album. While Metallica’s heaviness remains, many consider this effort a progressive metal album, which as a genre, hadn’t truly been developed. Today, when we think of prog metal, we think of Dream Theater, Tool, Opeth, Symphony X, or even modern bands like Mastodon. But at this point, (barely) 1988, none of those bands had even released a studio album, which goes to show the influence that Metallica has had not only in thrash, but also in progressive metal.
The tone is set right away with “Blackened”, a seven minute song. Most interpret this song to be about the end of the world due to nuclear war: “smouldering decay, take her breath away, millions of our years, in minutes disappears.” It contains the same heaviness of previous Metallica work, but you can tell it’s more rhythmic and progressive with more emphasis on a build-up within the song than most songs in their catalog.
Hetfield’s vocals are at their peak in this point. Despite having lost Burton, as a band they are just as good as they ever were. Hammett is still writing great solos, Hetfield’s vocals and rhythmic riffs anchor the song, and Hetfield and Ulrich continue to display the great chemistry that has carried the band to legendary status. About four and a half minutes into the song, the song breaks into Hammett playing leads over Hetfield’s riffs. Hammett solos for about 45 seconds, and though not a lengthy solo like Unforgiven, Master of Puppets, or Nothing Else Matters, it captures the progression of the song.
The next song, the title track, runs a strong nine minutes and forty five seconds. It starts with an acoustic intro, and like most tracks, progresses into something a lot heavier than what we originally started with. After a couple minutes of instrumental guitar work by Hammett and Hetfield, James inserts his vocals and this song is blatantly about the fact that justice is gone in America: “justice is lost, justice is raped, justice is gone. Pulling your strings, justice is done.”
After about five minutes, Hammett starts going to work on another solo, and it’s a classic, as usual for Hammett for this time. He uses some obvious wah pedal, which is something Metallica fans have grown to expect from “Wahmett”. The song continues to progress after his solo, and ends with Hetfield’s lyrics relating to dishonesty in society: “Just what is truth" I can not tell.”
The next track, Eye of The Beholder, contains themes of Americans’ freedom of speech limitations, and contains great contrast within the song tempo-wise. It contains everything you’d want to see from a Metallica song - heavy Hetfield riffs, a great Hammett solo, and lyrics questioning the direction of society.
One starts with that all too familiar acoustic and rhythm intro that work together so beautifully. Based on Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, it tells a story about a soldier hit with artillery who has most of his body destroyed. While his body is dysfunctional, his mind is fully operational, and he is trapped inside his mind. “I can not live, I can not die, trapped in myself, body my holding cell.”
The acoustic aesthetic of the song is consistent throughout, but as most songs on this album, it progresses from soft-to-heavy. Around four and a half minutes in, we get that thrashy, brutal sound from Metallica we have grown to love. It gets more distorted until Hammett pulls off one of the best solos in the history of heavy metal, and ends the song with solos between himself and Hetfield.
The Shortest Straw shows us how great Lars Ulrich once was, and how unfortunate it is that he’s no longer considered a threat behind a drum kit. He keeps up with Hetfield and Hammett throughout the song (which is no small accomplishment for this time), and it goes to show how cohesive Metallica is at this time.
One thing that can’t be overlooked - you wouldn’t think there’s even a bassist in the band at this time. They’ve even admitted it themselves - they muted the bass for this album as a way of hazing new bassist Newsted, and more than anything, taking out their anger for Burton’s death.
The next track, Harvester of Sorrow, is also thought of as a Metallica classic, and it’s easy to see why. The heaviness remains, with some acoustic elements in the beginning, great riffs and angry lyrical content. It’s about a man who is insane, and takes anger out on his family. As the song progresses, the lyrics tell a story of the man snapping and murdering his family. “Distributor of pain, your loss becomes my gain.”
Hammett’s solo is short and sweet, but the best part of this song is it’s diversity. In a genre like metal that can be pin-pointed into “what’s played the loudest"” this song, and songs throughout this record, contain many different sounds that are categorized under heavy.
Frayed Ends of Sanity is a forgotten song in the Metallica catalog, lost under classics like One, Fade To Black, Enter Sandman, and others. But it’s one of the best drum tracks in their library. As per the rest of the album and most of their early career, it has themes pertaining to mental health issues and insanity, and contains great progression and rhythmic changes throughout. “Twisting under schizophrenia, falling deep into dementia.” The riffs are consistent throughout, and Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett are perfectly in sync.
To Live Is To Die, in my opinion the best cut on the record, is co-credited to deceased bassist Cliff Burton, as the bass line was a medley of unreleased bass parts written by him. Running nearly ten minutes long, it starts with classical-sounding, Baroque-style guitar. It’s a different taste since we know a ten-minute Metallica song will get heavier at some point.
After about a minute, it gets heavy, and the instrumental is an obvious dedication to Burton. Much like baroque music, this song makes great impact expressing moods. It expresses anger, sadness, withdrawal, and grief all within one song. It’s a great dedication to Burton.
The final track, Dyers Eve, is a good end to a timeless record. It’s about parents who brainwash their children. “Dear mother, dear father, time has frozen still what's left to be. Hear nothing, say nothing, cannot face the fact I think for me.No guarantee, it's life as is, but damn you for not giving me my chance.” It starts out faster in tempo than most songs on the record, and the speed is consistent, and the solo might be the best on the album.
This album is a classic, and my favorite Metallica album. Though they don’t play the songs live due to their length, I think the quality of the songs stands up to anything in their catalog, yes, including Ride The Lightning, Master of Puppets, The Black Album, and Kill ‘Em All. One of the 30 best metal albums of all time.
While it gets some criticism for almost absurd length (65:29 in length despite only nine songs), that’s what I like about the record. It shows some progression in the style of Metallica and they couldn’t continue to play the same material now that Cliff, one of their most important members, was gone. They’d then be a Cliff-era Metallica cover band, except without Cliff and some guy from Flotsam and Jetsam playing Cliff-influenced basslines. It wouldn’t sound as authentic. Their progression was required in order for the band to make a classic album, as they did.