The Shortest Straw: Metallica’s …And Justice for All at 35

Looking back on the metal legends’ classic double album

…And Justice for All poster (Image: eBay)

When Metallica’s 1985 album Master of Puppets broke the band into new heights of popularity, they should’ve been at the top of the world.

Yet, tragedy struck on tour when a bus accident claimed the life of bass virtuoso Cliff Burton. And it was under these difficult circumstances that the band, with the blessing of Burton’s family, soldiered on and began to write and record their fourth full-length. …And Justice for All was released on September 7th, 1988.

Despite all the adversity heaped upon Metallica, …And Justice for All proved to be another groundbreaking record for the band. The original recording sessions began with producer Mike Clink at the helm, known for his work with Guns N Roses and Triumph among others, but the results left the band disappointed. Metallica pivoted and was able to bring back producer Fleming Rasmussen, who they worked with on Master of Puppets. However, the end product sounds drastically different than their previous album.

Metallica …And Justice for All, Elektra Records 1988

The opener “Blackened” shows the band performing as heavy as ever, their brutality never standing in the way of success. But where Master of Puppets benefited from a warm and balanced recording, …And Justice for All displayed a cold, almost clinical atmosphere. The sounds almost seem reflected in the color palettes of the album covers, the former with its reds, whites, and browns while the newer release presented a more monochrome white and black. 

The riffing throughout the album possesses the same clinical attack. After the clean guitar introduction, the title track features complex rhythm guitar patterns performed with surgical accuracy. The same holds true for the interlocking drum and guitar tracks on “Eye of the Beholder “; the entire album is characterized by this kind of relentless precision. 

Yet, there’s another notable aspect of…And Justice for All’s production. If the record was notable for Burton’s absence,  it’s equally notable for his replacement’s absence as well. Former Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted won out over several others in the audition process, becoming the band’s new bass player, but sonically he’s conspicuously absent in the mix. His bass is rendered completely inaudible in the final mix. Years later, Rasmussen blamed James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich for the decision to mix Newsted out of the record, yet he did say those basslines were incredible for the studio staff who did get to hear them. For their part, Hetfield and Ulrich claimed their ears were shot from constant touring, but many have speculated the decision was tied to their mourning the loss of Cliff Burton. 

Also noteworthy, Burton received a posthumous writing credit on the instrumental “To Live is to Die.” Newsted played bass lines his predecessor had recorded at home before his death. Despite the inaudible bass lines, the piece is another in a series of brilliant instrumentals Metallica has placed in each of their albums so far. 

While trials, tribulations and criticisms have marred the album since before, it was even recorded, very few actually question the quality of the songs themselves. In this era, Metallica often started and ended their albums with their fastest tracks, in this case, the aforementioned “Blackened” and “Dyer’s Eve.” The former is a scorched earth rumination on nuclear war while the latter is a venomous condemnation of James Hetfield’s strict religious upbringing. The title track possesses a labyrinthine structure but also overflows with vocal hooks.

“Eye of the Beholder,” “The Shortest Straw” and “Harvester of Sorrow” all take advantage of terrific rhythmic interplay to create intensely heavy tunes. Lars Ulrich has often been criticized for his drumming and these tunes have led to much debate over how much his performances were edited to achieve these impressive results. None of this takes away from the listening experience. And one has to wonder how many modern metal drummers cut their teeth learning these tunes?


VIDEO: Metallica “One”

If one song stands out though it is the haunting “One.” At times ballad-like, the lyrics describe a soldier who loses his arms, legs and jaw in combat. Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammet construct intricate and complimentary guitar lines in both the quiet and heavier sections, while the bridge consists of one of the most iconic riffs in metal history. The song is a masterpiece.

The video for the song proved equally powerful and important. While edited to a more MTV-friendly length, both sounds and visuals from the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun were injected into the video. The result is a phantasmagoric nightmare, with the majority of the speech reflecting the thoughts of the soldier trapped in his own mind, unable to communicate with the outside world. He attempts to bob his head in Morse code, simply begging “kill me”. Despite its bleak content, the song went into surprisingly heavy rotation on MTV. They then performed it at the 31st Annual Grammy Awards. It truly marked their entrance into the mainstream. 

…And Justice for All came out when I was in 8th grade and my relationship with the album is likely similar to many others. Spending a year or so obsessing over Guns and Roses, Motley Crue, and Skidrow, everything about Metallica and “…And Justice for All” was an escalation. The brutality, the complexity, and the political content opened up new worlds to my younger self. This is one of those seminal albums that sent me down unexplored territory. And in writing this, I can remember where the record store in the mall was located where I bought it, those absurdly long plastic boxes the cassette was locked in, and the giant poster of the cover in the store. This was truly a gateway to darker and heavier music. 

Little did we know at the time the stylistic change Metallica would undergo for their next album. 1991’s self-titled album would see them embrace more radio-friendly formats as they continued to expand their fan base and artistic reach. Many have reconciled the Metallica before this and what came after. I wish I could, but count me among those who couldn’t follow them where they roamed.

For us, …And Justice for All proved to be the capstone for a damn near perfect set of albums that possessed a magic that could never be recaptured.



Todd Manning

 You May Also Like

Todd Manning

Todd Manning is a recovering musician who mostly writes about Metal and Jazz various places around the internet, including Burning Ambulance, Cvlt Nation and No Clean singing. He lives in Indianapolis, IN.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *