Metallica is the greatest heavy metal band of all time.
Black Sabbath founded the genre as we know it, building upon the proto-metal squeal of groups such as Blue Cheer, King Crimson and Coven. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Rainbow laid down necessary prog roots and demands for furious, soul-melting musicianship. Judas Priest expanded on the works of those bands as well as Kiss and AC/DC to strip the lingering hard rock elements and leave the raw form of pure metal. Iron Maiden gave it the polish and reintegration of progressive songwriting, musicianship, and Thin Lizzy/Wishbone Ash-inspired guitar interplay (itself too an expansion on Judas Priest’s idiom).
But then Metallica came along and, over the course of four consecutive, perfect records—themselves follow-ups to the greatest demo metal has ever known—became the greatest and most necessary band in metal. It’s impossible to think of a band ever eclipsing their importance; the four closest that came after are Slayer, Pantera, Tool and Mastodon, each falling short for various reasons. That initial run is still so perfect, a crystal of thrash metal tension, hardcore punk stiffness and vitriol, and a dash of the heroics and epic melodramatic sky-shattering aim of traditional heavy metal that their spotty output over the following nearly three decades barely matters. What other band could put out the god awful sequence of Load, ReLoad, St. Anger and Lulu and not see their importance, ticket sales or esteem drop one whit?
It is impossible to properly frame …And Justice For All without a brief overview of their career up to the point of its release. They followed their demo, their sole recorded work featuring Dave Mustaine’s playing, with their debut Kill ‘Em All. Both the demo and the debut showed a more traditional metal focus for the band; the vocals were still hoarse, but were the closest the band would come to traditional singing until the ’90s, and the arrangements had yet to fully internalize the lessons of hardcore punk that would eventually form the backbone of their sound. In a lot of ways Mustaine’s debut with Megadeth, Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good nailed those fundamentals better, feeling like a more conscious step toward thrash metal as we know it than Metallica’s debut. But production issues on Mustaine’s record sapped it of the power of Kill ‘Em All, a record which nailed those fine niggling points of sonic space and sonic heft and married it to one of the most iconic images in all of heavy metal: the black hammer, the lingering shadow of the killing hand, the pool of blood, and in red block type, METALLICA. KILL EM ALL. Mustaine clearly took notes, given the parallels of Megadeth’s debut record’s design and title, but there is only one that is iconic.
Ride the Lightning expanded on every aspect of the band’s sound; the instrumentals more knotted and progressive, harmonies more tightly composed and layered, rhythm sections meatier and chugged with a deft and furious jackhammer downstroke. It was like a lightspeed jump for the band. Ride the Lightning is a perfect record, one that still capably stomps contemporary records decades after its creation and captures the fullness of Metallica’s vision for themselves, a vision that would soon come to encompass all of heavy metal.
Master of Puppets was, by comparison, a minor leap. It’s a greater record, undoubtedly, but by dedicated fine detail adjustments rather than explosive evolution. It contains their greatest opening salvo in “Battery,” their greatest song ever in the title track, and the most evolved prog instrumental they would ever lay to tape in “Orion,” Cliff Burton’s magnum opus. The rest of the songs don’t quite live up to that high a standard, which is saying something. When songs such as “Leper Messiah” and “Sanitarium (Welcome Home)” are the B-material on your record, you’re in a very good position. Add to that a run opening for Ozzy with the first of their landmark stage designs and an absolute barnburner of a setlist (for real; look it up) and the stage was set for Metallica’s ascent to the metal throne.
Following up such a position is a monumental weight, where a misstep can be the difference between a legendary group and a promising nobody. Metallica’s answer to this conundrum was conditioned by a few factors.
The most painful of factor was the tragic death of Burton during the tour for Master of Puppets in Europe. The few riffs of Burton’s that were written prior to his passing, assembled into Justice track “To Live is to Die,” imply a record of similar direction as the one we received, but one aided by Burton’s better honed sense of progressive pacing and songwriting. The band would be the first to admit that Cliff offered more than just bass playing; he was, as a musician and a friend, the figure who introduced them seriously to Beethoven, Rush, Simon and Garfunkel, and more, with drummer Lars Ulrich acting as the primary conduit for the European metal underground and others bringing in punk. While the band certainly developed a taste for the progressive due to Burton’s influence, he was still the one with the greatest internalization of its movements and intuitions, as evidenced on “Orion.” There isn’t a person in the world who doesn’t dream of a Metallica that retained his talents. Unfortunately, aside from the aforementioned “To Live is to Die,” itself arranged by the band based on scraps of riffs he had on tape, we will never know.
This leads to a second point in the narrative surrounding the record: the lack of bass in the EQ. While undoubtedly a matter of keen interest to Metallica fans, even if just for a moment, to have access to the mixing board, to nudge the bass tracks up just a bit, to just see what they’re like, the sense of what the proper bass tracks mixed into the album is a mystery that’s remained since it’s release. The album is dry, tough, closer to a grimy hardcore punk cassette in its harsh, brutal trebly mix, all overly-clicky drums and compressed guitars. And while the loss of bass is partly due to an unforgivable bit of hazing on the part of Ulrich and James Hetfield against newcomer Jason Newsted, himself poached from Arizona thrash band Flotsam and Jetsam, victim to hazing so continuous and at times so brutal that he left Metallica at the height of their commercial success. In the intervening years, they’ve patched things up between each other, and Newsted even prior was nothing but respectful of Metallica’s musical legacy. But there was a malice directed toward him that most clearly affected this record.
The root of that malice is the rotten malignant grief of losing Burton. This prompted Metallica to pursue both an exaltation of his addition to the band while simultaneously and contradictorily negating it; pursuing both the more rhythmically and structurally complex progressive arrangements Cliff was the biggest proponent of while undercutting them with a thinner, drier, punkier production style. It is plain in this light to see the production and arrangement choices as interlinked, portraying both the affirmation and negation of Cliff.
Aside from “Dyer’s Eve,” the closing track of …And Justice For All and the end of Metallica’s golden period as we know it, all of the tracks contain either complex odd-meter phrasing, lengthy multi-part composition, or both. The band didn’t just want to honor Cliff, as much as he was and always will be an honored brother of metal at large and the members (past and present) of Metallica in specific. They wanted to prove who they were and what they were capable of without him, to inspire confidence as much in the audience as with themselves. While Burton contributed to the writing and composition of tracks such as “Master of Puppets” and “Orion,” working closely with Ulrich on the overall arrangements and architecture of songs, it’s hard to imagine that he would push them to pen a full album of such compositions. They had previously been a component of Metallica albums, progressive epics balanced against thrashers and ballads. And given that he was the primary push that saw Metallica evolve from their straightforward material on Kill ‘Em All to the most genre-exploratory material that would come, his absence meant a chip on their collective shoulders on whether they would ever be able to match that level of compositional prowess again.
Those factors combine to grant eight consecutive progressive metal epics and the most divisive record of Metallica’s golden period. There is always a historical power to debuts, and in the echelons of metal there are few debuts as widely beloved as Kill ‘Em All; Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets are widely regarded as two of metal’s greatest documents, the latter frequently considered the absolute pinnacle. …And Justice For All, meanwhile, forms an oppositional pole to the simplicity of Kill ‘Em All, forming a clear continuum within those first four, and doubles down as ferociously on everything that Kill wasn’t. They even have a similar yin-yang structure, with “The Four Horsemen” being the sole complex epic of Kill and “Dyer’s Eve” being the sole unabashed straightforward thrasher of Justice. A substantial portion of Metallica’s audience up to that point had come in through the punk and metal worlds; doubling down on prog was risky.
An underreported aspect of Justice’s legacy is the effect this had on progressive metal moving forward. While the term was relatively young in the late ’80s, it primarily applied to groups like Rush, Queensryche, Fates Warning and Watchtower who focused on substantially more prog than metal at times. While the history of heavy metal shows that most bands in the first two decades of the genre were deeply influenced by various prog bands and, while punk and grunge both erased a lot of historical understanding, many major prog bands in the era were incorporated into the general rock scene. Few commercially successful large-scale metal bands since Iron Maiden were diving so deep into progressive music. Metallica was, for many, the first example of a metal band playing deeply progressive music while retaining a substantial heaviness, intensity, and punky aggression. It’s been cited by groups like The Dillinger Escape Plan, a band that started years after this record came out, as being inspirational for what you could do in the form. While the older guard of progressive metal tended to regard groups like Iron Maiden and Queensryche and Fates Warning, the newer guard of groups like Atheist, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Mastodon, and Baroness (all from different eras) had a new model in Metallica.
The reason Metallica was able to reach such distant shores is due in no small part to “One.” While the band had been catapulting themselves through the metal underground, first as being rabidly active in the fan tape-trading scene (through which their demo was distributed far and wide) and then through several high-profile tours in support of their first few records, they were still limited to largely the active metal fandom. The ’80s was a good decade for metal bands, with groups routinely selling out arenas and going on massive-scale global tours the level of which hadn’t been seen since Led Zeppelin. However, the metal bands that made it big in the decade were decidedly more pop as opposed to the heavier, more raw and punky/proggy approach of Metallica. Hell, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, a prog metal masterwork we’ve written about here, likewise saw the vast portion of its songs streamlined both in songwriting and production to have a brighter pop sheen.
By the late ’80s, Headbangers’ Ball ruled the late-night airwaves alongside its brethren in 120 Minutes. And while that latter show was highlighting exciting fields in experimental, alternative and college rock, the former tended to rely more heavily on pop metal. So an envoy was created: not only a single, but a music video, a form in metal at that point entirely dominated by pop metal groups or massive legends like Motorhead, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Dio and Iron Maiden. And while the outcry among metal purists at the time was fierce (metal has, sadly, always had a problem with shit-for-brains pop-hating CHUDs who cry and moan whenever a band actively seeks an audience that isn’t exclusive cishet white male basement dwellers), the video for “One” not only was the necessary next piece in Metallica’s ascent, but a landmark video in its own right.
The song was loosely based on a film the band had seen called Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war World War I film about a soldier who is emotionally abused and neglected by his father, driven by his father’s insane and scouring patriotism to join the military in a vain attempt to earn his love and respect, only to have all of his limbs blown off and his eyes, ears and tongue mutilated in a blast, leaving him a limbless, senseless body, with only thoughts and the feeling of a hospital bed below his back and a pillow below his head. It’s a brutal image, one unambiguous in its message (despite the right-wing tendencies that Hetfield would later indulge in as his career rocked on). For the video, the band secured the rights to the film, interspersing a song already scored with more programmatic music than was typical for the band, tight staccato guitars replicating blasts of machine gun fire, with sound sourced from the film, images of Johnny’s pained body tapping out Morse code KILL MEs on his hospital pillow, all in harrowing black and white. Everything about Metallica of the time was there: the hair, Hetfield’s moustache, the black tank tops, Lars’ shirtless body, Jason’s sideswept loose mohawk, and the white Gibson Explorer, the ultimate symbol of Metallica.
As divisive as making a video may have been at the time, Metallica didn’t compromise their internal image, especially compared to later videos of theirs like “I Disappear.” The level of brutality and seriousness they showed in the video, one dedicated to the wretched horrors of war that never go away no matter how justified the war seems to be, cemented not just the band’s endeavor with the video, but also the record’s intent. Because at the heart of ...And Justice For All wasn’t the arrangement shift or the loss of Cliff. It was anger: anger at the world, at injustice, at the way money ruled the world of the small and the power to eradicate masses and even all of the world ruled the world of the large. While other groups would fill in the specifics of privilege and oppression better later, Metallica followed the impulse of Ride and Master to gaze deep into the world (or at least as deep as they could) and name the forces that infuriated them. And “One” was the bullet that pierced the armor, the statement that reached the masses.
Discussing …And Justice For All can’t be done, at least by me, without discussing “Dyer’s Eve.” It’s a song that comes at the end of over an hour of prog-thrash riff workouts, songs that are long and knotted to a degree that the band swore off playing anything but “Blackened” and the title track from it following touring for the record. It is an album largely considering the powerlessness of humans in a human world, one where we contort ourselves impossibly with evil structures like capital and hierarchical state power, driving the poor and the powerless to madness and death in the war machine. And then, out of the black: a scalding rage-filled scream at the first oppressive force, the family unit.
I first discovered Metallica when I was very young. I was born in the late ’80s, so by the time I was coming to consciousness, Metallica was already enormous, all over MTV and the radio. But it was material from the self-titled and forward, not bad songs by any stretch but also not the iconic and perfect period. One day, a cousin who was joining the military decided to offload his metal CDs. He placed them all in a green grocery basket and handed them to my brother, who was just about 10 at the time. We brought them home and stashed them in the guest room closet.
One day, precocious young music obsessive that I was, I opened up the door to the guest room. I flitted through the basket, idle wonder at men in straight jackets and metal masks and smoke and blood and eerie light. There, in the basket, was a record, deep purple skies and blue lightning and an electric chair. I plucked it out, put it on my boombox. After a heart-stoppingly profound 40-ish minutes, I dug through the basket for the rest of the records labeled METALLICA.
I think most metalheads come to metal in a similar way. It’s a chance encounter with some ferocious darkness, even if in retrospect we see the bands that first drew us in weren’t so dark. The music video for “Man in the Box” playing past midnight on the television, all robes and sewn-up eyes. The crunch and start-stop hammer rhythms of System of a Down or the downtuned histrionics of Korn. The guitar harmonies of Def Leppard drawing you into the more developed harmonies of Iron Maiden, until you are listening to Mercyful Fate in secret in the seventh grade, doodling skulls and hellfire in your algebra notebook, dreaming of Satan.
I had a difficult childhood. I think everyone does. I was angry at my family for things they did to me and things they allowed to happen. I’m certain most people process these things in adulthood.
I would mow the lawn, shirt off in the scorching Virginia summer heat, 100-degree waves wafting up between the Appalachian mountains and the Atlantic ocean from the deep south. Skip-proof CD player in my pocket (this was before iPods), sport earbuds locked on my ears to keep the music firmly in place as I rattled and slammed the heavy steel lawnmower, thumping it on the earth to dislodge the wet grass that would build up inside the bell. So angry, the kind of angry only a teen can be, dripping with sweat beneath the sun and behind the mower. …And Justice For All became an anthem to me then, already an album I knew but in that space an album I loved, scoring my aimless confused anger as I grew older, learned more, and became more and more painfully aware that things that were happening and had been allowed to happen to me were not okay.
“Blackened” was my warcry, the title track my sneer, “One” my lament, “Frayed Ends of Sanity” my prognosis. But “Dyer’s Eve” was different. It wasn’t political, wasn’t a faux-deep diagnosis of the world. It was emotionalism, a tantrum, as idiotic as it was sincere. I would, silly as it sounds, push the mower, tears on my cheeks, lips trembling to keep back sobs, as Hetfield barked out a sense of parental wrath and accusation that I was only just beginning to understand. It was like a lance in my heart; not since Nirvana or the Smashing Pumpkins had a band reached into me and enunciated something so primal and raw so well. Metallica became in that moment not something that was just cool riffs and crosses and toppled statues. The art moment had occured, the cold alchemical lightning which transforms the experience into de profundis. I had loved Metallica as a child, but they opened up, poured into something deeper in that moment. And thought I would later find that, as a record, Ride the Lightning satisfied my emotionality best, it was …And Justice For All and “Dyer’s Eve” that seared me like that.
“Dyer’s Eve” presages the moves they would make on the black album and beyond. In this light, it becomes easier to understand. They had suddenly allowed themselves to be bare and emotional and made one of their most emotionally challenging songs, a heroic suckerpunch against everything that fucks you up as a kid, every blinder and abuse that makes you lash out in stupid misdirected masculine rage as an adult, not letting yourself off the hook as much letting yourself finally be angry at the people who made you who you are and gave you the sack of shit you have to sort through as an adult to become someone good and worthwhile. It’s no wonder they sought to explore those themes more explicitly on their self-titled 1991 album. That was the last domain left to explore.
…And Justice For All is as much the ultimate apex of the ideas they explored since their formation as it is the nailbomb that destroyed it. It would take decades for them to build back up to something close to emulating the structures they were playing with on Justice, and on their most recent record they wisely decided not to continue down that road. Hardwired to Self-Destruct is a much more natural sounding record than Death Magnetic, which seemed labored and deliberate in a way that Justice didn’t. For all of its flaws, from the brutality of the band toward Jason Newsted to their grief-fueled decisions in production and arrangement, Justice felt natural, the primal animal roar the band had to let out. It’s hard to imagine, given the circumstances of its birth, any other record being born from the band. And when that roar petered out, they found themselves almost empty for a long, long time.
But that’s because, as the final notes of “Dyer’s Eve” fade out, they ended the greatest four-record run any band in metal has ever had, a run mighty enough to rival Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles in terms of the greatest in rock ever.
Metallica is the greatest heavy metal band of all time. And …And Justice For All is the close of that chapter.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.