‘Justice’ was Metallica’s first studio album since the tragic demise of Cliff Burton in 1986. It was the band’s first top 10 album in America, and has gone on to sell millions of copies. It is not without its flaws, hence the rating I gave it, part of the reason for that is the so-called ‘hazing’ (an American term that translates as ‘bullying’ in plain English) of Burton’s replacement, ex-Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted), led to the album having no bass guitar, amongst its other production glitches.
Newsted’s ideas, with the exception of the track that became ‘Blackened’ where ignored. On his recruitment, the other members of Metallica went out of their way to make Newsted unwelcome, despite the fact that his joini9ng enabled the band to continue their upward trajectory. This included, trashing his hotel room, sticking him with huge drink tabs, despite his being on only a wage, tricking him into eating a ball of wasabi, spreading rumours about him, and worst of all, isolating and excluding him, which is the worst bullying tactic, because it’s that of a coward. All I have to say is imagine if someone did this to you at school or work…Says it all.
The production is sterile, the drums sound like biscuit tins, dryer than the Sahara Desert, which producer Flemming Rasmussen puts down to his absence during the mixing process. As to the ludicrous absence of bass (from a band whose albums had previously always been bass-heavy!), Rasmussen claims this was instigated by Ulrich and Hetfield upon hearing the initial mix. Rasmussen says that ‘Jason Newsted, Toby Wright and I are probably the only people who know what the bass parts actually sounded like on that album.’ Newsted had been left to his own devices to record his bass parts with no producer present, he says understandably, “The ‘Justice’ album wasn’t something that really felt good for me, because you really can’t hear the bass.” I’ve personally had a lot of experience of working with little or no support, so I can really sympathise with Jason. Virginia Woolf put it best when she said ‘it is almost impossible to complete great work isolated from one’s peers, without income, without space, without training.’
I think the sad look on Jason’s face in his photograph on the ‘Justice’ album sleeve says it all.
The album was originally to have been produced by a certain Mike Clink but this did not work out and so they fell back on Flemming Rasmussen, but really listening to the finished album, they could have made better use of it.
So, why having listed the album’s fault have I still given it the relatively high rating I have. Simply because this album, production and ‘hazing’ aside, it is the peak of Metallica’s creative period. ‘Blackened’ is one of the best metal songs ever, simply like nothing heard before. ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ really is doom metal. The title track, and ‘Frayed Ends of Sanity are so progressive. ‘To Live Is To Die’ is a poignant tribute to Cliff Burton. ‘Dyers’ Eve’ and ‘The Frayed Ends Of Sanity’ are full of wild time changes and ideas. Moreover, it is on this album, that out of all the band members, Kirk Hammett gets a chance to shine. There is more than a grain of truth in Dave Mustaine’s accusation that Hammett had an easy ride, especially on the first two Metallica album, where he followed Mustaine’s template. Here he references Toni Iommi in a big way (Sabbath were not the gods they are revered now in 1988, rather they were at best Toni Iommi and friends), whether on the delicate acoustic work of the title track or ‘One’, or the heavy slow riffing of ‘Harvester of Sorrow’. Melody is a big part of the album too, and the clue as to where this came from is in the two covers that Metallica recorded at this time (they ended up being b-sides to the ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ 12”), one is cover of Diamond Head’s ‘The Prince’, the other a cover of Budgie’s ‘Breadfan’ (interestingly, while Metallica would turn themselves into a pension-fund for Diamond Head’s Sean Harris and Brian Tatler, Budgie would be covered by a greater variety of big name bands, for instance Iron Maiden and Soundgarden). So, on ‘Justice’, thrash metal met both New Wave of British Heavy Metal and 70s hard rock influences to interesting effect.
Hetfield’s rhythm guitar is outstanding (he used the Morley distortion pedals in those days, as did Trouble and Big Jim Martin), in the absence of bass guitar, it at least gave the album some kind of sonic pulse (and not some kind of monster!). His vocals while still melodic are harsher than on ‘Puppets’, few singers have sounded as raw and heartfelt as he has on the very personal ‘Dyer’s Eve’. Lyrically too, he was on fire, injustice, the environment, nuclear war, abuse, the futility of war, sanity, Hetfield bravely dug really deep on this album, and it still strikes a chord to this day because of this.
Ulrich tried too hard as a drummer on this album, and the sterile dry drum sound emphasises this, on the next album things would be greatly simplified.
But overall, it is, despite its flaws, a truly special album, one the band could never replicate again. It is of its time and yet timeless.
In 1989, Metallica were nominated for a Grammy Award in the rather cumbersome sounding ‘Best Hard Rock Vocal or Instrument’ category. It was widely expected that Metallica would win, but the award went to 70s folk/prog band Jethro Tull for their wittily titled ‘Crest of a Knave’ album. (Incidentally, Tull’s Ian Anderson, a man unusually intelligent and funny for a man working in the music industry, appeared later with his famous flute and the caption ‘the flute is a metal instrument!’). Even funnier, Metallica were standing off-stage expecting to get the award, while Jethro Tull had been told to stay away by their manager as he thought Metallica would win!
Following the release of ‘Justice’, Metallica released their first music promo video for the track ‘One’. ‘One’ is based on the anti-war book ‘Johnny’s Got His Gun’, written by the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. I have read this fine book and can heartily recommend it. A film was made written and directed by Trumbo of the book, and scenes from the film are incorporated into Metallica’s video, along with black and white footage of the band playing together. In a canny move, the band bought the rights to the film. This saved them having to pay royalties for using the clips from it. It would have been cannier by far, and worthier too, if at some point they had arranged for a limited cinema release for ‘Johnny’s Got His Gun’, instead of squandering many millions on the vanity project that is ‘Through The Never’.
This was Metallica’s first release on Vertigo in the UK. Music For Nations boss Martin Hooker had made a very generous offer for Metallica’s fourth album ,but manager Peter Mensch turned him down. A mistake from the point of view that MFN had done a lot for Metallica, but already Metallica were mutating into a brand rather than a band. Hooker did have the satisfaction of later pointing out to Mensch that one of his acts (Frank Zappa!) had broken records on his current tour (‘Broadway The Hard Way’).
A long and successful tour followed. So, at this point Metallica convened to record a new album, which became the ‘Black Album’. Greatly simplified, and far more commercial, with a name producer in Bob Rock, it made Metallica into megastars. It could never happen today, as no bands sell enough records to reach that level. From here on in, creativity was almost completely shunted aside in favour of commerce. We’ve had the ‘Load’ and ‘Reload’ albums, a double album collecting all their covers to date (thanks, fellows, we all needed that one). A ‘greatest hits’ album with an orchestra’, an ‘album’ with Lou Reed (And Jason Newsted wasn’t allowed to work outside the band but they can do ‘Lulu’, now that is hypocrisy!). Jason would eventually leave the band, his creativity constantly rejected, and isolated, he must have been tough to tolerate fourteen years of that.
Worst of all, we had ‘Some Kind of Monster’, some kind of spoilt indulgent nonsense, more like, to think I and many others once supported these deluded individuals. The sight of Ulrich at his million-dollar painting auction in a world where people starve is truly sickening.
As I write this it has been years since a new Metallica album, it seems the band will do anything rather than record new music. We’ve had the aforementioned ‘Lulu’ disaster, their million-loss making ‘Through The Never’ film, the loss making ‘Orion Plus One’ festivals, and a Glastonbury Headliner (Bless Bruce Dickinson who says Iron Maiden will ‘never play to Gwyneth Paltrow in an air-conditioned yurt!), and they’ve become their own tribute band, bashing out twenty-thirty year old songs for big bucks!
I have a theory that the majority of bands do their best work in the first ten-fifteen years of their existence, and ‘Justice’ a shining example of that theory in action. Listen to it in isolation from the band’s last twenty years of ‘work’ and rue what might have been.