In my limited experience with Metallica, I see them as having three distinct phases. The current phase in which they’ve been since their 2003 therapy aided return from extended hiatus, St. Anger. These last 15 or so years have been the legacy years. Like AC/DC or the Rolling Stones, no one really cares too much about a new Metallica record, they just care that it means the band will probably tour and play the hits. Before that were the mega star years, from the self titled record (AKA Black), up to Reload. A time when they could fill stadiums and mainstream radio airwaves. But before that, were the early, hardcore, subculture years. A period that ended with …And Justice for All.
Harkening back to earlier hits, Blackened even has a riff that sounds like it was stolen note for note from their own classic For Whom the Bell Tolls. But the finger tapping shredding of Kirk Hammett makes that self-plagiarism easy to look past. While it’s 10 minute running time means the title track would never be a radio or MTV hit, it does show the evolution towards more digestible riffage. It’s still loud, threatening and heavier than anything dominating the charts in 1988, but you can hear the band focusing a little more on melody and hooks, and less on speed, volume and aggression.
Here it is, the moment when phase one was definitely coming to a close, and the mega selling, mega venue filling, mega airplay years became a sure thing. One is such a quintessential phase two Metallica song, it always surprises me to realise that it was on …And Justice for All, and not on the next record with songs like Enter Sandman and The Unforgiven. It’s epic yet restrained. One is all about peaks and valleys.
But like they predicted me writing the above almost 20 years after making this album, The Shortest Straw is firmly in the older Metallica tradition, reminding me that four albums in, they had lost none of their attitude or energy. When the pre requisite instrumental, To Live is to Die arrives, it’s OK, it’s just a little unnecessary after all of the awesomeness that’s come before. Even without this song, …And Justice for All would still be around 55 minutes long, so it’s not as if the band was lacking material and needed filler. Which is exactly what this song is. It’s not bad, it’s just nothing we haven’t heard the band do before, in better and more interesting ways.
If my “Phases of Metallica” (patent pending) theory holds any water, then I declare …And Justice for All a great ending to phase one. It’s not as raw or as immediately exciting as Kill ‘Em All or Ride the Lightning. But what it lacks in pure, visceral, kinetic punch, it makes up for in its slightly more mature restraint, that hints at a band who knew they were on the verge of taking over the world.