35 Years Ago: Metallica Unleash ‘…And Justice for All’
For three consecutive albums, Metallica triumphed by raising the bar on itself musically and aesthetically. Kill ‘Em All set the stage with the first full-blown display of thrash metal tunes and a wild instrumental bass solo. Ride the Lightning upped the ante by combining speed with nuance and technicality, showcasing both Metallica’s first metal ballad “Fade to Black” and their debut full band instrumental “The Call of Ktulu.” Master of Puppets took the group’s songwriting to an even higher and more structurally complex plateau, and contained the even more multi-textured instrumental “Orion.”
Metallica’s plan to evolve into the outer reaches of technical thrash metal reached an apex with …And Justice for All, which came out on Sept. 7, 1988. To a large extent, the album was yet another first-in-the-air victory — a 65-minute-long epic that featured the band’s most intricate arrangements, most socially conscious lyrics and most vulnerable song, “One,” which spawned their first huge MTV video. The album was a hit right out of the chute, debuting at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and going platinum nine weeks after its release. However, as successful as it was, …And Justice for All was born from pain and strife and its creative process was marred with tension and hostility.
As they began planning for the album, Metallica were still reeling from the 1986 death of bassist Cliff Burton, and they took their frustrations out on his replacement Jason Newsted, too often treating him like a fraternity pledge. “They threw my clothes, my cassette tapes, my shoes out the window,” Newsted said in Enter Night by Mick Wall. “Shaving cream all over the mirrors, toothpaste everywhere, just devastation. They go running out the door, ‘Welcome to the band, dude!’ I was definitely frustrated, fed up and kind of feeling unliked. I didn’t sleep properly for three months after I joined Metallica.”
“There was a lot of grief that turned into spite towards Jason,” frontman James Hetfield added. “…One could argue we didn’t give [Jason] a fair shot. But we also weren’t capable because we were 22 years old and we didn’t know how to deal with stuff… other than to jump to the bottom of a vodka bottle and stay there for years.”
Despite the tension, Metallica started out working on songwriting as a full band and Newsted came up with the main riff for the opening cut “Blackened.” But he quickly faded into the background, leaving Hetfield and Lars Ulrich to compose the bulk of the new material. “We were waiting for Jason to write some big, epic stuff but it never came,” guitarist Kirk Hammett said in Birth School Metallica Death. "It was great that he was there and he was enthusiastic, but he didn’t make any huge contributions.”
Hetfield and Ulrich worked on …And Justice for All in Ulrich’s damp, smelly garage on Carlson Boulevard in El Cerrito, Calif. Instead of striving to lock into a groove for each song and ride it out, the band sought to incorporate as many riffs and tempo shifts into the songs as possible, forcing Hetfield to plot the structures of the songs on written charts. Applying the band’s tried and true formula, the guitarist came up with most of the riffs and Ulrich helped assemble them into coherent form.
Guitarist Kirk Hammett contributed to five songs, but only after the bulk of the structures were written, and he played all the solos on the album, but none of the rhythms. The band paid homage to the late Cliff Burton by using some of his ideas in the nearly 10-minute-long instrumental “To Live Is To Die,” and Hetfield based “One” on a conversation he and Burton once had about a soldier returning home from war as a deaf and blind quadriplegic who couldn’t communicate, but whose mental capacities were intact.
With nine songs demoed by the end of 1997, Metallica entered One on One Studios in North Hollywood, Calif., in January 1998 to begin tracking with producer Mike Clink, who had worked on Guns N’ Roses' Appetite for Destruction. While Clink received engineering credits on “The Shortest Straw” and “Harvester of Sorrow,” it quickly became clear that his working style clashed with the Metallica’s and the producer was sent packing. “We realized that working with Clink wasn’t working out,” Ulrich said in Birth School Metallica Death. “[He] was a super nice guy, [but the] vibe just wasn’t happening.”
Metallica, "Harvester of Sorrow"
Resorting to contingency plans, Metallica flew in Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen, who had produced Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. At first, Rasmussen worked with the band for between 12 and 14 hours a day, starting at 11 a.m. But soon the members were staying out late at night and partying until the wee hours, forcing Rasmussen to adjust the schedule. Still, Metallica were ambitious and productive, and were able to track most of the parts for the songs in less than three months. Towards the end of the session, engineer Toby Wright spent a single day working with Newsted on bass lines for the songs.
As complicated as the rhythms were, the bassist had practiced along with tapes of the songs and was able to quickly knock out all of his parts. But isolated from the rest of the band, and even Rasmussen, Newsted felt like he was being left out of the process. “My situation was very awkward,” he said in Birth School Metallica Death. “We started with ‘Blackened’ because that’s the one I know best. The rest of the songs were like a double-black diamond level of difficulty in terms of technical demands. I wasn’t used to having 14 or 18 parts a song, but I was ready for it.”
While Newsted’s parts for …And Justice For All were loud and clear when the band finished tracking, somehow they got turned down during mixing to the point where they’re almost inaudible on the record. There are numerous theories for why the bass was so low in the mix. Some have guessed that Hetfield and Ulrich deliberately turned it down as a part of Newsted’s hazing, others surmised that the songs were so dense with guitars that they would have sounded muddy and cluttered if the bass was louder. Then there are those that blame the crisp, crackly sound of the album on the producers and engineers.
Rasmussen, who did not mix the record says it sounded full and dynamic when he recorded it and blamed the omission of low-end sounds on mixers Steve Thompson and Steven Barbiero, who worked on the album in May 1988 after the producer had already flown back to Denmark. Rasmussen suggested to Sound on Sound that Thompson and Barbiero used the close microphones on the mix and not the room microphones, giving the album a thin, bass-free sound. Thompson later told One on One With Mitch LaFon that Ulrich was solely responsible for setting the levels of the instruments during the mix and rendered Newsted’s parts inaudible. The drummer says that if that’s the case it wasn’t intentional.
“It wasn’t, ‘F--k this guy — let’s turn his bass down,” the drummer said in Birth School Metallica Death. “It was more like, ‘We’re mixing, so let’s pat ourselves on the back and turn the rhythms and the drums up.’ But we basically kept turning everything else up until the bass disappeared.”
Regarding the situation, Newsted told Loudwire in 2013, "Historically, [the album] stands up over time. Maybe not the mix, but the songs do. The other day … a kid comes up and gives me ‘…And Jason for All.’ He’s remixed the bass tracks back into ‘Justice.’ … He was like, ‘Dude, this is for you, how it was supposed to be.’ I think how it was supposed to be is how it came out and how it made the mark on the world."
The absence of bass hasn’t been much of a blow to …And Justice For All, which remains Metallica’s second best-selling album. The album charted for 83 straight weeks after it was released, and by July 19, 1989 it was double platinum. Sales escalated consistently and in June 9, 2003, the record was certified eight-times platinum.
As immensely popular as it was, …And Justice for All marked a crucial turning point for Metallica. Playing the songs on tour required intense concentration and by the time Metallica were ready to start writing their next album they were determined to craft songs with more groove and less musical acrobatics. They stopped trying to be the masters of prog-thrash and looked for inspiration in the straightforward, simple songwriting of AC/DC, the Misfits, Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones. And the seeds of the Black Album were planted.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends, co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.