When I was 11 years old, my parents let me finally have my own CD player after I begged and pleaded with them. The reason I begged so much was because I had discovered MTV. The first video I remember seeing was “The Memory Remains” by Metallica. I distinctly remember seeing the entire band standing on that pendulum platform, swinging around the room while the slow metal was playing in the background. At the time, I was also really into wrestling and remember hearing music like it during Monday Night Raw. I needed to hear more, and I needed to hear Metallica.
As I started listening more and reading up on the band, I gravitated toward the 80s. I was more connected to the music of the 90s, but something about the 80s sound was just so much more raw. There was a power to it that a middle schooler wanted. Besides that, 80s Metallica talked about real heavy stuff. The power of addiction and man’s weakness to it. The grunt’s experience of war in the trenches. Mental illness and society’s inability to deal with it. All this led up to 1988’s …And Justice for All.
As the band entered the new album, they kept roughly the same overall feeling of the lyrics but refocused their energies on politics. I was a kid who paid attention to the news and politics. When I discovered …And Justice for All, I felt like someone was really speaking to me personally. At the time, I was reading a lot about World War II, modern politics, political scandals, things like that. You could imagine why I might really gravitate toward Justice.
Look at “Blackened”. The imagery of a world on fire from nuclear war is absolutely chilling. “Blackened is the end/Winter it will send/Throwing all you see/Into obscurity”. It’s haunting and terrifying, but it connected with me at 14. And the music is even more pummeling.
On the other hand, there are also songs about politics specifically. Any teenager who fancies himself an intellectual (ahem) can get sucked in when they hear the jaded talk about corrupt politicians and putting judges in your pocket. Combine that with a growing love of progressive and prog rock bands like King Crimson and Rush and you’ve got a perfect storm for me to love the title track.
No discussion of ..And Justice for All would be complete without mentioning “One.” It was Metallica’s first video on MTV at a time when MTV essentially decided what was good music and what wasn’t. The tastemaker decided One was worthy of introduction to the masses, despite the extremely mature content of both the song and the video. The song is incredibly heavy. A man goes to war, loses all his limbs in an explosion, and is kept alive despite being unable to communicate. This is pretty harrowing stuff to see between Madonna and Bon Jovi videos.
But consider why this song and record are particularly important for metal. Underground metal was a growing scene in 1988 with the establishment of thrash metal and the Big 4 and the growing death metal scene in the US. Black metal had not quite gotten a foothold yet and was still struggling for an audience. But with “One,” pop culture was finally introduced to the sound. It was dark. It was heavy. The song material was taboo. It was essentially unlike anything most teenagers had ever heard in a mass audience medium. Without “One,” it’s possible underground and genre metal sounds might have never really gained a mass audience. Metallica’s next album, the self-titled Black Album, may not have gotten the support it needed. Whether you like the following album or not, no one can deny how important it was to the growth of metal in popular culture.
I think what hit me the most about Justice is the backstory. No true discussion of art is complete without talking about the artist, and that’s what I discovered as I started really reading about the band. At the time of recording, Metallica was a broken band. James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, and Lars Ulrich watched their bassist and best friend, Cliff Burton, die in a horrible bus accident. They weren’t even in their 30s. They tried out 40 different bassists and finally settled on Jason Newsted while working him into a new record and new lifestyle. Master of Puppets was their biggest and most successful album to date, and the band entered the studio with a new member and altered their sound and songwriting. This was a confluence of events that would have made any other band completely fold. However, what they ended up producing was huge for modern metal in the mainstream.
I love everything about this album so much. It hits all of my buttons. Awesome thrash metal sounds, progressive songwriting and political lyrical content that points out the injustices of society. It makes me angry but in a really motivating way that makes me want to take on authority figures. This album basically gave me the daydream of being a political revolutionary. I legitimately had this daydream as a teenager and college student. I imagined I was the leader of some rebel band while overthrowing a tyrannical government. Imagine Bane from The Dark Knight Rises but with the ambition and motivation of the Rebel Alliance. My recurring dream was almost a scene from a political thriller: a wood-paneled room with a large table surrounded by old men in suits drinking whiskey and laughing. The double doors burst open, I run in, jump on the table and begin accusing the men of crimes against the republic and the people. I slowly make my way up through the government until I’m behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, listing off the crimes of politicians. All the while, “…And Justice for All” is playing in the background. It really is a glorious image to me.
Here’s the bigger point: listen to …And Justice for All. If you’ve never listened to it, I hope I’ve inspired you to try something new. If you have listened to it, take another listen. Break out the lyrics sheet and follow along. Maybe read the news while you’re doing it, and join me in the revolution!