Metallica's Gloomy Masterpiece Only Works Because They Ditched the Bass

For a band that loves fire, ...And Justice For All is a masterpiece of cold.
For a band that loves fire, ...And Justice For All is a masterpiece of cold. Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Early in the assortment of riffs, demos and works-in-progress versions of the songs that would become Metallica’s ...And Justice for All, part of the new box set celebrating the record’s 30th anniversary, is a clip of what, in time, would become “One.” Played on acoustic guitar by James Hetfield, it’s a bit of a revelation; in it, you can hear the foundation of what would become their first mainstream success, but it’s also an interesting glimpse into a different path the group could have traveled. On acoustic, the song is warming and welcoming, beautiful in a different way from the familiar track that might very well be the band’s best.

It also sounds completely wrong, an auditory heresy.

It sounds that way, of course, because we’re projecting the track’s future onto its past. At the time it was simply a lovely piece of songcraft that could have eventually become a song similar to “Fade to Black.” Instead, the song would become a nightmare about the going off to war and stepping on the wrong spot. It’s the story of cruel fate that builds to one of the most devastating endings in the band’s discography. The song is many things, but warm it is not.

...And Justice for All is a cold, bleak record, one that resonates just as much now as it did 30 years ago. Listen to it with your 2018 ears and you’ll be saddened by how relevant songs like “Blackened” and “...And Justice for All” feel to this day. Yet, in spite of that, the only thing that the majority of people want to talk about when the album comes up in conversation is the fact that they can’t hear the bass in the mix. This is unfortunate, because whether it was their intention or not, the reason the record really shines is because of that lack of bass.

The sound of cold can take many forms. We’ve all heard piano chords, synth patches and vocal melodies that remind us of snow falling, of dead leaves and of blue horizons. But ...And Justice For All gives us a different type of cold, one that features riffs both massive and ripping, the type that cut at you like the wind on the coldest day you can imagine. That type of cold is unpleasant, which is fitting for a collection of songs where hope is in extremely short supply.

Consider how “Blackened,” which opens the record, starts off. The guitars fade in, and that initial solo before the first riff kicks in feels hot, as if the sun is beating down on you, ready to explode. But as soon as the song kicks in proper, that heat is ripped away with you, leaving you with this clinical, unflinching riff that begins the record proper. The song itself is about our path to a cold, dead Earth where no life grows, the music and production work echoing that feeling. A lot of the magic of that moment would be lost if there was a bass presence behind the guitar work.
Listening to the “Blackened (Work in Progress Rough Mix” found in the box set further proves the point. Yes, after 30 years of no bass there is a visceral thrill at hearing what the song sounds like with the bass turned up, but it also makes the song feel less special. It’s still a good song, yes, but it doesn’t stand out because the starkness of the released record isn’t there.

It’s an aesthetic decision that makes complete sense when you consider that this was a band that was trying to push through grief to get a record out. Their bassist, Cliff Burton, had died in 1986 in a bus crash while the band was on tour in Europe. The common belief is that the lack of bass on AJFA was a way to haze Cliff’s replacement Jason Newsted, but one can’t help but notice the oppressive gloom of the record is not all that different than the oppressive gloom one feels with the unexpected loss of a loved one.

...And Justice for All is, at the very least, the most interesting Metallica record to dig into, and with the recent changes in weather now certainly seems like a great time for you to sit down and revisit it. If you feel like the world is spinning out of control and there’s nothing to be done, there’s “Blackened.” If you find the justice system infuriating, “...And Justice for All” agrees. Mad at your parents? “Dyer’s Eve” understands. But this time, instead of focusing on what’s missing, focus on why it’s missing. When we lost the bass, we gained a metal masterpiece. A gloomy, at times overwhelming masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same.
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Cory Garcia is a Contributing Editor for the Houston Press. He once won an award for his writing, but he doesn't like to brag about it. If you're reading this sentence, odds are good it's because he wrote a concert review you don't like or he wanted to talk pro wrestling.
Contact: Cory Garcia