Metallica was like a well-oiled machine coming out of the 1980s. After single-handedly flipping the script on heavy metal music with their debut album, Master of Puppets became a genre classic, marrying hard rock riffs with some of the fastest tempos in metal history. No one was prepared for bassist Cliff Burton to be taken so soon, and the decade ended with the band grieving through the process.
It’s hard not to imagine the album And Justice For All not being in the wake of Burton’s absence. In the intro to the album, the disorienting sounds of backward guitar opens the song ‘Blackened’ as if the rest of the band is recovering from the awful trauma they had witnessed. Burton’s loss wouldn’t be easy to overcome, but the band decided the best way to soldier on would be to ignore the problem entirely.
Despite Jason Newsted proving himself to be a worthy successor to Burton, it’s impossible to hear his bass on the final mix, being turned down so low in postproduction so no one could hear it. Looking back on the project during an interview for The Black Album, Newsted voiced his frustration about his parts being turned down so low, remembering: “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 is Newsted taking the diplomatic approach. Looking back on the hazing of Newsted during his first years with the band, James Hetfield didn’t feel that strongly about the Justice album either, remembering, “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.”
The mixing engineer behind the project even thought that the band were joking with him when they asked him to turn down the bass on the album, leaving a bunch of dry mixes that sound incredibly dated compared to their thrash metal counterparts. Outside of the lacklustre production job, though, And Justice For All is undoubtedly one of the most adventurous albums of Metallica’s thrash metal years.
Outside of the dryness, this is the closest that Metallica would ever get to doing a progressive rock project, building songs like skyscrapers by shoving in every riff they can. The album also has a greater lyrical focus, as Hetfield goes after some of the flaws in America’s justice system and the rage in every metal fan born to break the rules.
The need to be one of the most complex thrash bands in the world did have an expiration date, though, and the focus for the next album was to write more straightforward songs compared to where the band had been. The Black Album brought in Bob Rock behind the mixing board and took on different sonic vignettes that were once alien to thrash acts like ‘Nothing Else Matters’ and ‘Wherever I May Roam’. Since Metallica would change drastically within the next few decades, this was the last glimpse of what the heaviest side of the band could be.