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After having set the world afire with its brash NWOBHM inspired debut, two records of cleverly written thrash metal, and a brief exercise into more technical realms San Francisco metal act Metallica decided to go into the exact opposite direction. It’s one of the most about face turns in the annals of the genre, and one with far reaching consequences that still haunt the band’s now extended discography. The 1990s were a difficult time for metal with the rising popularity of the Seattle grunge sound all over America, and the Britpop movement – both fueled by non-stop airplay on MTV. Everybody was struggling, even the relatively successful Metallica. Instead of staying true to their roots and humble beginnings, San Francisco’s brightest thrash practitioners decided to slow down, let the groove take over and aim for the radio play they so long desired. “Metallica” was a resounding commercial and critical success, and paved the way for Metallica’s extended foray into heavy rock and remains their most popular, and populist, release to date. It is here that the road ends, and that one of San Francisco’s most promising thrash metal acts became bloated, complacent and, well, lazy.

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The 1991 self-titled is everything that “…And Justice For All” wasn’t, and not for the better. Having tired of playing long-winding songs with dozen of riffs each the Hetfield-Ulrich axis decided to do something radically different for this session. Hiring noted arena rock producer Bob Rock is both a blessing and a curse. For the first time somebody was able to give the band a meatier, beefier and crunchy sound that sounded smooth but retained the band’s signature heaviness. Compromises were made in the songwriting department by adopting a much slower overall tempo, a fewer amount of riffs per song, and more introspective lyrics and vocals. In comparison to the albums that came before much more time was spent on vocal production, and the recording is worth every penny they end up investing in the process because “Metallica” sounds absolutely phenomenal in its depth, texture and range – but what it wins in sheen and pristine production values can never complement the severe lack of balls on all fronts.

Granted the pacing of this record is flawless. The album starts off with the big single ‘Enter Sandman’ to get the adrenaline flowing. The song is a heavy rock imitation of the violent album openers of yesteryear, and to have it be followed up by the groovy and crunchy ‘Sad But True’ is a masterstroke. After the first two songs the pattern is repeated a few more times, but instead of a groovy song it was decided to put in a power ballad (‘The Unforgiven’) or an actual full-blown acoustic cut (‘Nothing Else Matters’). The five singles that were released for the album speak volumes of where the band’s heart was at at the time. It retains the spirit of the band’s classic thrash era, yet oversimplifies it and rebrands it into an AOR format that appeals to both impressionable youngsters and out-of-touch adults who’d cling at anything to appear cool. It goes without saying that “Metallica” is a confused record that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Existing in two separate plains and serving two different masters simultaneously is bound to bring trouble for those involved, and “Metallica” is sterling example of that.

Despite its bravado and expensive production it fails in one major but very important point: audience satisfaction. At this point Metallica was an established brand in the global metal scene, but not in the mainstream. After years of struggling, toiling away in the margin and playing hundreds of shows the band took a gamble for the mainstream.  The opening seconds of ‘Enter Sandman’ set the tone for the rest of the album (and Metallica’s career from that point onward), the song sounds heavy upon initial exposure, but upon closer inspection it shows a number of important changes. For starters, the clean opening section isn’t so much to set the mood, but to get the listener humming along, and the riffing that follows is much more of a heavy rock strain than it is of any sort of metal, let alone the thrash metal that these men perfected in the past. Hetfield’s vocals are more emotive, and are leaps and bounds better compared to any of his past work, especially the vocally weak “…And Justice For All”. His vocals aren’t so much pissed off and aggressive sounding like they were in the past, but thoughtful and easy on the ears. Newsted’s bass guitar is absolutely and positively massive sounding with a deep, earthy tone that is both incredibly heavy yet surprisingly clear. It is unfortunate that the material present does it no justice. Ulrich, much on par with Hetfield and Hammett, has simplified his playing to fit the more rock-oriented writing of the album. Just like Hammett he will occasionally muster an interesting fill or progression, but on the whole the drums fulfill no other purpose than to keep the time and provide a beat.

“Metallica” for the most part is an album of firsts and lasts. This is the last album to retain a minimum of the band’s thrash metal past, and some of the faster songs actually display this in part. The original spirit of the band was still intact, even though this would be the last album to have the guys with long hair. It is the first to fully capitalize on the influence of noted arena rock producer Bob Rock, and his creative mingling led the Hetfield-Ulrich axis to abandon integrity and true artistry for a shot at mainstream popularity, and the lure of money at the meager price of their very soul. Granted Metallica was fairly popular within its niche before the conception of this album, but they were never mainstream – and the radio wasn’t playing any of their songs. With this “black album” all of that changed. Simplicity was the name of the game, and apparently Rock must have convinced Metallica to lighten up. Traces of the band’s thrash metal past appear sporadically through each of the cuts, and each song has one or two moments where that can be heard. For the majority of the album however it sounds like a poorly conceived transformation into something its creators weren’t familiar enough with to begin with. Hetfield was known for his interest in heavy rock genres, and the cooperation with Bob Rock probably amplified that desire to join his inspirations.

‘Enter Sandman’ has all the traces of the violent album opener, but all rough edges have been sanded off for maximum impact. It’s a sing along heavy rock song with a lullaby midsection before the big finale. ‘Sad But True’ is a typical Metallica slow burning thrash song that was transformed into a stomping arena rock song. It is driven forward by a truly monstrous sounding main riff, along with its bare-bones structure, the shout-along verses and a surprising lyrical conclusion. ‘The Unforgiven’ was a power ballad in the old Metallica tradition, but it was lobotomized to appeal to a mainstream audience. ‘Wherever I May Roam’ combines both elements of ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Sad But True’ in another midtempo heavy rocker with introspective lyrics about being on the road. ‘Nothing Else Matters’ is more or less a continuation of the old instrumentals the band used to do, but now set to acoustics in an easily digestable pop format making it readily available for mass airplay. The gamble paid off, and the album became a critical and financial success to say the least. To this day it is still the most readily available in brick-and-mortar record stores, and the one album mainstream pop fans even recognize.

Along with the simplification of the band’s style the artwork went for an entire black canvas. The band’s logo is angled in the left upper corner, while a coiled snake (derived from the Gadsden flag) sits in the right bottom corner, both appearing in a shade of grey. This was part of the band’s vision of “keeping it simple”, and led to the album being called “the black album” for obvious reasons. For these reasons band and fans alike made connections to the Spinal Tap album “Smell the Glove”. It was later stated that the band went through a period of insecurity as musicians and songwriters, which led to pushing themselves “too far” (according to their own statements) with albums as “Master Of Puppets” and “…And Justice For All”. The supposed antidote to that was this album, which did the same thing but with less. Often times less is more, but sometimes less is less. In the case of this album, it is the latter. “Metallica” is a decent record in the one goal it sets for itself, but other than that it is forgettable drab from a once mighty band that didn’t struggle to appease anybody but itself. “Metallica” is clean-cut heavy rock with only the slightest glimmer of the band’s breakneck thrash metal past. Despite the well-documented and ongoing conflict the Hetfield-Ulrich axis had with their new producer Bob Rock, his influence has nevertheless thoroughly invaded this record. It is more puzzling that the band continued to work with him for next decade and a half.

From the troublesome production of the infamous self-titled “Black Album” onward the band would lose itself in gargantuan writing, recording - and touring campaigns. The result of all this procrastination was the release of albums within a 5-year timespan, often to mediocre or terrible results. The most energetic and hungry band in the world would become the most popular thing on earth, and with mainstream acceptance in popular culture now finally a real thing – the band became complacent and satisfied with itself. The 1991 self-titled, the record that broke Metallica to the world at large, at least had a pale shadow of what the band once was. If you look beyond the million-dollar production job, the mind-numbing crowd pandering with the ballads and the band pushing to be a rock band rather than a metal one, you actually can see the outlines of how all these songs were virtually potent thrash metal anthems at one, now long distant point. Sadly, these songs had their teeth pulled and are drowning in repetitious pop/rock structures as to finally hit the charts, which they did. Metallica’s self-titled record is their most known, and deeply embedded culturally – it is the final breath of a once promising and highly revered thrash metal act that was now losing its identity. Despite all that “Metallica” remains a highly enjoyable, thoroughly divisive and often questionable entry into the band’s catalogue, yet one that in retrospect isn’t all that bad.

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…And then Cliff Burton died. With the untimely passing of its bass guitarist San Francisco thrashers Metallica lost its most valuable member. Burton was the band’s most technically accomplished member, and its most musically gifted – with his passing the band went through a difficult transition period, and “…And Justice For All” sees the band with one foot in the future, and one foot in the past. The record has the band dazed and confused by the sudden passing of its beloved bassist, and unsure of what direction to move forward in. It is Metallica’s most technical and forward-thinking release, but also its most uncertain one. Probably inspired a good deal by underappreciated Austin, Texas technical metal pioneers Watchtower – it moves in two directions at once, and never commits to either. To date, it’s the only record of its kind in the Metallica catalog.

The first record to feature former Flotsam and Jetsam bass guitarist Jason Newsted is a mixed bag of truly powerful musicianship crippled by an overly dry production and confused, plodding songwriting. The old spirit of Metallica can still resoundedly be heard through out these tracks, but all of them seem longer than necessary. In an attempt to modernize its sound the band opted to imitate Austin, Texas technical metal pioneers Watchtower, which largely fails cos Metallica just hasn’t the chops needed to successfully pull off such a lofty transformation. “…And Justice For All” is the band’s most ambitious offering to date, and the only loosely conceptual album they’d tackle in their classic metal era. It is the last mandatory release in the band’s extensive backcatalogue. The album is complex by Metallica standards, but the metal scene at large had by this point outplayed the band in about every way imagineable. It is the dying breath of the world’s most revered San Franciscan thrash metal act.

‘Blackened’, the devastating opener, was co-written with Newsted and it forms the ideal introduction to this quite different sounding album. It is still fastpaced but the start-stop structure and overall slowness in between the fast segments betrays that these songs were written without the band’s primary guiding light, the late Cliff Burton.  Speed, once the most famous weapon in the band’s arsenal, is used sparingly. From the title track onward it is noted how much slower the band has become in the interim. The album is still very much thrashy and metallic, but the focus has shifted from breakneck speed and adrenaline-fueled excitement to technical exercises in musical form without a clear purpose or direction. The title track is a glaring example of this very thing. The thing just drags on and on, and it takes forever to get its fairly uneventful point across. As always Kirk Hammett’s leads and solos are what redeem the material, but on an album stifled by contrived songwriting and a toothless production – it is of little consolation.

704What  “…And Justice For All” does do right is its concept, as it is Metallica’s single concept record. It concerns political and legal injustice as seen through the prism of war, censored speech, and nuclear brinkmanship. A good deal of the material present were supposedly unfinished compositions, riffs and song ideas left behind by late bass guitarist Cliff Burton. The band repurposed these ideas and added their own material to the groundwork Burton had left behind. This is why it often sounds as if the band is trying to move in two directions at once. The compositions are long-winding and technical in comparison to the band’s usual standards, but the unquenchable energy and speed that once was this band’s trademark is sorely absent here. While the compositions themselves are fairly complex for the band, the individual elements are anything but. In the absence of Burton the majority of the material was put together by the Hetfield-Ulrich axis, and they don’t possess nearly the musical theory and knowledge that their late bass guitarist did. This results in overly long, awkwardly paced and anticlimactic songs that should have been this band’s most violent material in any other scenario.

That however doesn’t change the fact that there’s only a few really impressive segments scattered across the album that is in itself somehat underwhelming. There’s some interesting and intense drum work by Ulrich to be heard, particularly in ‘One’, ‘The Frayed Ends Of Sanity’ and ‘Dyers Eve’. On the whole the vocals of James Hetfield are weak, and powerless, except on ‘Blackened’, ‘One’, ‘The Frayed Ends Of Sanity’ and ‘Dyers Eve’ where he delivers a spirited performance. This was also the last album to include a mostly instrumental with ‘To Live Is to Die’, which is set to a poem by the late Cliff Burton. All the songs were written by Hetfield-Ulrich, but the most technical or ambitious cuts have contributions from Hammett. The biggest strike against this record is that it is far too long most of the time, and that the songs tend to go nowhere of note despite all the build-up and the respectable amount of aggression, solos and riffs. The record feels pieced together from uncompleted song ideas, and this is never a good thing coming from the band that used to write songs so naturally and effortlessly. It is also sad that the band’s most conceptually and musically ambitious record is also its dullest. Imagine what these could have been had Cliff Burton not been killed on that icy road in Sweden. To what exciting and creative heights could he have pushed these men? The world will never know. It is merely one of the more glaring problems on an album that is riddled with many. Given the circumstances the band pulled off an admirable job.

“…And Justice For All” was recorded at One on One Recording Studios in North Hollywood, California. Initial sessions were completed with producer Mike Clink (famous for the Guns N’ Roses “Appetite For Destruction” album) at the helm – but this constellation lasted briefly. Principal sessions were cut with the band’s long-time Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen. While the bulk of the recording were handled by Rasmussen, Clink was able to retain production credits for engineering drum tracks on ‘The Shortest Straw’ and ‘Harvester Of Sorrow’. For a band that once sounded so vibrant, lively and crunchy, this album is a farcry from the band’s heyday. The dry production was due to Rasmussen’s absence during mixing stages. Newsted’s bass guitar was mixed so low as a hazing ritual on account of the rest of the band. Another reason of the absence of bass presence is due to Newsted’s insistence to double Hetfield’s rhythm. Jason Newsted made a commendable debut with his new employer, but the material present doesn’t allow him to flex his muscles and truly thrash out like he used to.

In more recent years a bootleg mix with Newsted’s bass tracks restored has surfaced under the name of “…And Justice For Jason”. The mix is far beefier and more metallic but is plagued by the same dryness and thin guitars that mar the original mix. It does conclusively prove that Newsted did indeed follow the rhythm guitars to a fault with occasional moments of creativity whenever the music permitted.  Newsted’s restored bass tracks however do not change the fundamental production problem of the record. Even with the throbbing bass tracks the guitar tone is still too dry, and the drum sound still borders on the synthetic. This type of drum sound has become very popular in more modern forms of death metal, but the blueprint can definitely be heard here. The great emphasis on technicality robs much of the material of its inborn power. Hetfield, vocally weak, handles the ambitious lyrical concept with finesse, and penned a number of socio-political lyrics about topical events of the day that remain relevant to this very day. The fantastic artwork by Stephen Gorman is complemented by illustrations by Pushead. The photography is ugly and uninspired. All members appear inebriated, absent and confused as to why they are there. Particularly Hetfield and Ulrich seem to be staring blankly into space in these pictures. All members were heavy drinkers at the time, so this can partly be blamed due to intoxication and the heavy intake of alcohol.

The album is most famous for featuring the band’s first music video and hit single ‘One’. The song outlines the plot of Dalton Trumbo's 1939 novel “Johnny Got His Gun”. The novel is a character study of a soldier, injured at war, that loses all of his limbs, and who suffers locked-in syndrome. In 1971 Dalton directed the movie adaptation to his novel, starring Donald Sutherland amongst others, of which the video takes its footage. Instead of signing a long-term licensing deal of the footage, the band just bought the right to the movie in its entirety. This explains why “Johnny Got His Gun” never saw an authentic DVD release to this day. The movie can be found on YouTube, and perhaps on the black market and bootleg circuit. It is a curiosity more than anything else, although it is a powerful piece of cinema in its own right. Capturing Metallica at a crossroads in its career it would be the last truly metallic album that is worthy of their name. After this record and its world tour the band would hire a new producer in Bob Rock, who encouraged them to adopt a much more simpler, and radio-friendly sound. After a long pre-production period, and a year of recording Metallica would return with the often maligned but persistently popular “Metallica” in 1991. “…And Justice For All” is the last real Metallica record, and the last worth seeking out for anybody interested in the early history of the world's most popular heavy rock band.  In 2003 the “…And Justice For All” album was certified 8 times platinum as it had sold in excess of eight million copies.