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27 Years Ago: Metallica Overcome Adversity With ‘…And Justice for All’

Elektra Records

After the devastating death of bassist Cliff Burton, on September 27, 1986, thrash metal heroes Metallica had to repeatedly prove the depth of their resiliency. This was first achieved by even having the strength to carry on and achieve the most victorious album-tour cycle of their young career in the face of that unspeakable tragedy; then by producing both a video tribute to Burton (‘Cliff ‘em All’) and finally, by breaking in his replacement, Jason Newsted, via 1987’s warmly received The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited.

But the real test to Metallica’s inexorable career ascension would rest on the success or failure of their fourth studio album, …And Justice for All, which arrived in stores on Aug. 25, 1988.

And what was the outcome?

Well, commercially speaking, Justice was a resounding triumph. It was built as much on the band’s overwhelming stage performances over the course of the world-spanning, 13-month Damaged Justice tour as it was on MTV’s heavy airplay of Metallica’s first true music video (devised for the morbid power ballad, “One”). Before too long it duly conquered mainstream radio and should have won the Grammy that was given to Jethro Tull.

But, for all intents and purpose, Justice was, structurally speaking, essentially Master of Puppets on steroids. The long songs were longer (both the title track and the instrumental, “To Live Is to Die,” nearly broke the 10-minute mark), the fast songs were faster (namely “Dyer’s Eve”), the slow songs (“Harvester of Sorrow”) were slower, the dark songs darker (lest we forget that “One” was beyond disturbing), and the technical displays, well, sometimes too technical.

What’s more, Metallica seemed to have lost not only Burton’s one-of-a-kind talent, but their trademarked sound’s distinctive bottom end. It was as though James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett were subconsciously trying to punish Newsted for being chosen to take Cliff’s place. As a result, …And Justice for All’s somewhat flat and tinny production (the last overseen by stalwart band engineer, Flemming Rasmussen) lacked in power and, in retrospect, could almost be considered a distant precursor to St. Anger‘s wholesale production disaster of historical propositions.

So while scores of new fans, shocked and awed by the band’s sheer songwriting invention, were showering thrash metal’s biggest ambassadors with acclaim, many diehard fans who had accompanied their rise from Bay Area obscurity to global domination were enduring their first minor letdown. And that, in itself, was arguably less traumatic than seeing the scrappy underdogs they’d steadfastly championed for years, with no real hope of a major breakthrough, suddenly transformed into stars. The war had been won, but victory had changed one and all.

Whether you view …And Justice for All as the ultimate Metallica LP or the band’s first stumble, two facts are undeniable:

The first is that the album pushed the original ’80s thrash metal template to its absolute limits in terms of songwriting ambition, instrumental technique and cerebral subject matter to the point that Metallica themselves felt the need to reinvent themselves and rebuild their sound from scratch for 1991’s ensuing “Black Album.”

The second was that …And Justice for All first introduced the notion of ambiguity into Metallica’s heretofore rabidly unified fan base, because that deeply polarized debate would come to dominate discussions about all Metallica albums ever since, no matter which course their music took.

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