Let me share a quick personal reflection about “One.” I was introduced to “One” through Guitar Hero 3, and unlike all the other try-hards – a bit harsh, maybe – who used their elbows to move the guitar’s “string” up and down so they could use both hands on the “frets” to navigate the intro of “Through the Fire and the Flames,” I spent most of my time playing and re-playing “One.” Partially because I could make it through more of “One” than I could “Through the Fire and the Flames,” but mostly, I’d like to think, because even my teenage idiot self could recognize a great song I heard one. This wasn’t just my first foray into metal, it was also the heaviest song I’d ever heard, and the machine-gun bursts of guitar in the climax knocked my Counting Crows, Simon & Garfunkel, Aerosmith and Eminem-loving ass off the ground. To say nothing of how the opening salvo of gunfire, explosions and helicopters passing overhead signify something important even if the lyrics didn’t already, or that it was novel for me to hear a song so ambitious. “One” starts with an elegiac – ominous yes, but elegiac too – riff before naturally unravelling into the heavy parts and solos at breakneck speeds. Writing songs that natural progress like this seems to be going extinct these days; the shift from the ballad section to Hetfield’s deep bellow “Hold my breath as I wish for death” (“deaaaahh”) exemplifies that, to say nothing of the slightly (ever so slightly) Latin-flavored guitar that caps off that bit.
I downloaded Metallica’s entire discography, and there’s an alternate dimension where had more of their songs sounded like “One,” I would’ve turned out very differently, taste-wise. (The other long ones also come with similar intros, but they’re less integral to their songs.) I read recently that this album’s popularity (charting high, moving units, music videos, Grammy wins and Grammy upsets) divided the band’s fanbase into two groups: people who were fans from the beginning, and people who joined because “One” made it easy for them. I make it no secret that which group I belong to.
Actually, I hadn’t listened to Metallica since high school graduation until recently – so angry at boredom – that I through on Justice for a good time. But the recent reissue of The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited, Metallica’s first release with James Newsted on bass in replacement of Cliff Burton, coupled with the fact that this album celebrates its twentieth year anniversary soon, made me revisit this one again. Plus: over the years I’ve gotten strange requests to review metal albums, though I never understood why.
It’s interesting that it seems no one’s brought up Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti as a point of comparison since it seems like the most logical thing. Both albums are double LPs that represent the bands at the peak of their ambitions before their decline, and both have production issues. With Physical Graffiti, that problem was mostly because the bass wasn’t so prominent when it should’ve been; that album housed some of Led Zeppelin’s grooviest songs. With …And Justice For All, everyone’s cited the issue of James Newsted being completely inaudible (shame, because the part where Lars Ulcer locks in on the title track and the rest of the band join in can almost be described as a groove; if only there was a bass component), but the issues here than simply the bass. Lars Ulcer’s drums have this damp sound to them; the word “tinny” often gets brought up but to me, they’ve always sounded “wet”, even when the hits are supposed to be crisp. Which is particularly regrettable because he’s working so hard through constant syncopation and always inserting quick drum-rolls that he’s often reduced to sounding like a machine. (Really dig the stuttering beat during the first section of “One.”) And the guitar solos always have the same arcane sear, and as a result of all of this, there’s no colour; it’s a monochrome (not bleak) album. On Graffiti, a lot of people say it’s a case of “a double album that should’ve been a single,” often bringing up the fourth side as evidence. But that’s no less true here, except you can’t really cut any of the songs (although the rather corny choruses of “The Shortest Straw”, especially when they start overdubbing, leaves much to be desired; the same is true of hearing “justice is raped,” but the rest of the title track is gold) but most of them could stand for some trimming: I often feel like I’m waiting for “Blackened” to get to the part where there’s a quick silence and stutter before the band charge head-first through the final section.
No strong feelings for this band or this album, but I sometimes think of what artist dominated which period; years are just one way of gauging music, so why not a span of years (not unlike a decade)? Between the years of 1983 through 1991, it’s hard to think of anyone to patch the quality of output and commercial success of Metallica. Other nominees: U2, though there’s that sorry Rattle & Hum album but I guess that had to happen for Achtung Baby. Who else?