By Brian Ives
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Metallica‘s ‘…And Justice For All,’ the album that introduced them to radio, MTV and arena headlining status. The record turns 25 this week.
You could hear the complaining about 35 seconds in. Metallica’s feverishly-anticipated follow-up to their breakthrough 1985 album Master Of Puppets started out pretty well, with James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett’s guitars swirling over each other, recorded normally, then reversed and played backwards on the album. And then: enter the drums. Of all the things that angered fans about this album (They did a nine-minute ballad! They made a video! They’re touring arenas! They’re using a non-metal band — The Cult — as their opener! And didn’t they get a new bass player? Why can’t we hear him?), one thing that seemed to rankle them most was the sound of Lars Ulrich’s drums.
On the band’s first three albums, Ulrich pounded the drums like Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward or Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham had done years before. But on Justice, the drums sounded thin and clicky even though it was high up in the mix — like he was borrowing an electronic kit from a defunct new wave band. Producer Flemming Rasmussen, who had produced Master of Puppets and Metallica’s 1984 album Ride The Lightning, also helmed …Justice, but he wasn’t the original producer. Due to schedule conflicts, he wasn’t available when the band wanted to start, so they used Mike Clink, who had impressed the band with his work on a little album called Appetite For Destruction. But after a few weeks, it became apparent that Clink wasn’t the right guy for Metallica and Rasmussen returned to the fold.
As Mr. Rasmussen told Radio.com, “I was booked all through January and February of 1988, and the band wanted to start January 3. On January 21, Lars called me and simply asked: ‘When can You come?’ So I pushed all my [previously booked] sessions together and left for Los Angeles on February 14. “When I got there, they had only recorded one song, which was one of the B-sides, and I was not too pleased with that. So, we started from scratch.”And while he produced the album, he didn’t mix it; the band had already hired Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero (who mixed Appetite For Destruction) for those duties. Rasmussen maintains that Ulrich’s drums were well-recorded. “I was very surprised when I heard the mix, but assumed it was what the band (i.e. Lars and James) wanted,” he said. “It didn’t sound like that when I left the session.” And then there was “One.” They had done slower songs before like Ride the Lightning‘s “Fade To Black” and Master of Puppets‘ “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” but “One” marked the first time that they shot a video. It was something they’d been notably against previously, even as other thrash metal bands had shot promotional clips. Worse, they actually did a five-minute edit of the song for radio and MTV. However, the bass sound — or lack thereof — was a problem not just for fans, but for their new bass player.
Jason Newsted joined the band shortly following the September 1986 death of Cliff Burton. A former member of Arizona thrashers Flotsam & Jetsam, Newsted made his Metallica debut on their 1987 release The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, which featured covers of thrash and punk bands, including the Misfits, Killing Joke and Diamond Head. But …And Justice For All was a much different studio experience than anything he’d done in the past. “Up until that point all the recording stuff that I’d ever known was [done quickly],” Newsted told Radio.com. “With Flotsam & Jetsam, [1986 album] Doomsday For The Deceiver was made in six days, top to bottom. For $5000. You’d play things in one take. Eight minutes of music in one take. That’s what I knew.
Going to Metallica on Garage Days, we recorded it in five days. That’s what I knew! On And Justice… I was with the assistant recording engineer [Toby Wright, who would go on to produce Alice In Chains and Slayer]. There were no other band members there, there were no managers, there was no producer, just me and that guy. I took my bass and my amp, just like I did with Flotsam & Jetsam, just like I did on Garage Days, and I set it up and put the mic in front of it. Same instrument and same amp I used last time. I played all the songs.”
He notes that he did most of the songs in one take, and was finished in about two days. The rest of the band took months to record their parts. Being the new guy in the band, and reasoning that his bass sound was represented on Garage Days, Jason sat out the mixing sessions. In retrospect, he admits that may have been a mistake.
When he heard the mixes, his first reaction was: “Where the f*** is the bass? I guess I should have been there for the mix. Any album you listen to, put it on for me I’ll tell you who mixed it. Iron Maiden albums, who mixes it? The bass player: Steve Harris! The bass sounds huge! ...And Justice: Who mixed it? Simple mathematics.”
Rasmussen’s take: “The session was so time-consuming, that we got Toby to work nights with Jason, to do the bass tracks. I set up everything the way I liked it, and then Jason got pointers from me and James. We then came in the next day and listened to the bass, and approved it or told him what to fix.”
The album, which had long, precise songs with shifting time signatures and political lyrics, was unlikely to catapult Metallica to the top of the metal heap. When they next hit the studio for 1991’s Metallica, they did a 180. They stuck with shorter songs, chunkier production, different lyrical content (while Justice criticized the government, Metallica‘s “Don’t Tread On Me” with the lyrics “To secure peace is to prepare for war!”).
And, yes, you could hear the bass. Newsted has been out of Metallica for 13 years, and now fronts his own band Newsted, who have just released their debut full-length, Heavy Metal Music. In hindsight, he compares …And Justice For All to an earlier Metallica classic: “Kill ‘Em All does not sound perfect. But it’s perfect! …And Justice For All does not sound perfect. But it’s perfect! Because that’s what happened, in that time. You cannot deny that it captured that moment. And three seconds ago, it sold another copy.” (Jason Newsted interview by Zeena Koda for Radio.com)