Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘...And Justice For all’ the 1988 album from Metallica.
The perceived wisdom is that '...And Justice For All' is slightly weak by the standards of the first five Metallica albums. Some would say it is badly produced and musically over-complicated. Let’s try to blow all that out of the water, and get our readers to reconsider this magnificent and sprawling album.
Firstly, the only criticism that really holds water is that the bass is a little low. Actually, it’s not that low, it’s more a humming bass sound somewhat like a background keyboard part that producer Fleming Rasmussun favoured in place of the more front and centre bass sound metal fans expect. But no matter, this album is about songs, guitars and singing.
If The Kinks helped invent the modern rock guitar riff in the ‘60s, I am sure we all agree the likes of Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page and other blues-rock artists helped master it in the ‘70s, only to be refined further by the likes of Iron Maiden in the ‘80s, as heavy metal came in to its own.
The guitar riff was taken to another level in that era, particularly by Metallica. Forget about their tantrums, their sometimes sloppy live shows (especially vocally) and their weaker later albums. Metallica took what had gone before and set the template for speed/thrash metal, particularly with their run of four albums from ‘Ride The Lighting’ (1984) through the ‘Black Album’. (1992)
Some would say ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986) is their best thanks to tracks such as Battery and Welcome Home (Sanatorium). 'Master...' was also the final Metallica album to feature bassist Cliff Burton, who was killed in a bus crash while touring the album. Burton's absence is keenly felt on ‘...And Justice For All’ . The aforementioned low levels of bass in the mix meant that replacement bassist Jason Newstead never really makes his presence felt, while the loss of Burton as a songwriter drove Metallica away from more diverse, non-metal musical influences, and into a harder, heavier sound.
The opening track Blackened is evidence of this. As any who saw them on that great 1988 tour with Anthrax will testify, this is an unashamedly brutal opener, so fast that it is hard to keep up with it.
Then we have the long powerful title track, a good example of Metallica’s masterful ability to shift tempos and dynamics, almost giving us two or three songs for the price of one. And this is the case throughout this album - every song is different and full of variety. Not many thrash metal bands achieve this level of sophistication.
We mentioned guitars. It is mainly James Hetfield crunching out the riffs while Kirk Hammett is the man playing the solo. Some may see metal soloing as being over the top, but Hammet brings subtly as well as string-shredding talent to the table, and particularly on this album. For a good example, check out his breaks on the almost-melodic Frayed Ends Of Sanity.
So, what else do we have? There is so much going on here, yet many of these songs are not well known. Harvester of Sorrow, a grinding trudge (in a good way) highlights Hetfield’s lyrical themes of disengagement and mental illness. The Shortest Straw (a short song by the standards of this album) is possibly one of the best metal songs of the 1980s. Hetfield’s vocals soar amidst a fast-moving band performance. Lars Ulrich’s drumming on this song alone justifies his reputation in the metal sphere.
And of course we couldn’t write a review of this album without a strong commendation of its most famous song, One. A metal band writing about the disillusionment of several generations of Americans that had endured pointless wars, the potential for cliché was huge, but Metallica avoided this by writing from the perspective of a badly injured soldier. The first part of the song is in ballad form, before romping home with an explosively loud and fast-moving second half. The successful marriage of musical styles further emphasising Metallica’s considerable but often overlooked creative abilities, the moving video for One (the band's first) received heavy rotation on MTV despite being over seven minutes long.
The album finishes with the furious blast of Dyer’s Eve, another half-forgotten metal classic. From here, the band moved to the tighter, more commercial and cleaner sound of the Bob Rock produced 'Black Album', an album not quite as expansive or bold as ‘...And Justice For All’.
So, back to the present (2015), what will Metallica come up with next? The one new song they played live in 2014 was an indicator that they may have got their song-writing and musical chops back in sharp focus, just as they had in 1988. Let’s hope so.