During an appearance on a recent episode of “Another FN Podcast”, MEGADETH‘s David Ellefson discussed the sound of METALLICA‘s “…And Justice For All” album. While “…And Justice For All” is considered one of METALLICA‘s classics, it has been criticized almost since the day it was released in 1988 for the lack of any bass guitar on the record. Jason Newsted‘s playing is virtually buried in the mix — and many fans feel that drummer Lars Ulrich, who had very specific ideas for how he wanted his drums to sound, is to blame.
Ellefson said (see video below): “There is something on YouTube that [Jason] did — an interview that’s very candid — and he talked very openly about… ‘Garage Days’ was his first [recording with METALLICA], and he said, he goes, ‘Look, [on ‘Justice’] I played everything… I matched a lot of the guitar parts, but it was very aggressive. The tone was exactly dialed the same as it was on ‘Garage Days’,’ and then, for whatever reason, it wasn’t prominent on [the ‘Justice’ album]. And that could probably be discussed for another 10 podcasts.
“Look, we all know Jason‘s a great player,” Ellefson continued. “I knew him from FLOTSAM AND JETSAM. He was a great player. He was a band leader, so when he joined METALLICA, he then had to come back to being an Indian and not a chief, which, I’m sure, knowing him, was probably difficult. I mean, look, you’re in the biggest heavy metal band in the world, but you still have a different role being in that group, as big as it is. So there’s definitely a mental adjustment I’m sure that he had to go through with that.”
Ellefson also talked about the more progressive nature of much of the “…And Justice For All” material, with the album’s nine songs clocking in at about 65 minutes. He said: “Lars was openly giving nods to DEEP PURPLE and RUSH at that point, and you could tell they were going off on these sort of heavy metal ‘Cygnus X-1’ explorations on a lot of these tracks, which was clever, because with metal, to do that and still keep it interesting and not run out of ideas was… That, to me, was probably the thing I like about the record the most, is it was a very progressive record. And then it’s kind of like they got that out of their system, and then they made the ‘Black’ album. The same maybe could be said for MEGADETH, that we did that with ‘Rust In Peace’, and then we went and made ‘Countdown To Extinction’, which we explored slower tempos, bigger grooves — just kind of writing verse-chorus-verse-chorus rather than [going through] five tempos and going down all those other roads. So, on some level, we probably were kind of walking side by side, METALLICA and MEGADETH, on that sort of level — maybe that same kind of compositional mindset from these two records.”
Two years ago, METALLICA frontman James Hetfield defended the sound of “…And Justice For All”, saying that he and his bandmates simply “wanted the best-sounding record” they could make. “It was not all about, ‘Fuck [Jason]. Let’s turn him down.’ That’s for sure,” he said. “We wanted the best-sounding record we could make. That was our goal. We were burnt. We were frigging fried. Going back and forth [between touring and mixing the album]. Playing a gig. No earplugs, no nothing. You go back into the studio, your hearing is shot. If your ears can’t hear any high end anymore, you’re gonna turn it up. So we’re turning the high end up more and more and more and all of a sudden, low end’s gone. So I know that played a bigger part than any hazing or any ill feelings towards Jason, for sure. We were fried. We were burnt.”
Hetfield also addressed some of the criticism leveled at METALLICA by one of the “…And Justice For All” album mixers, Steve Thompson. In a 2015 interview with Ultimate Guitar, Thompson suggested that Ulrich was the culprit for the lack of any bass guitar on the record, claiming that Lars wanted his drums to sound a certain way — even if it meant cutting out the bass.
“We wanted it tight,” James explained. “We wanted it fucking tight. That’s what we wanted. We wanted the snare, we wanted the guitar, we wanted everything up front and in your face and really tight. And we thought we got it. And, you know, we kinda know what we want to sound like. Can we sit behind a desk and make it happen? No. We ask people to do it, and they do it. So [Thompson] did his job. He’s got nothing to apologize for or point fingers at. No one’s to blame for ‘something.’ It is a piece of art. It happened and it ended up the way it is for a reason. And for reasons we were just talking about. We were burnt. We’re traveling, we’re playing a gig, our ears were fried. We were not sleeping. He doesn’t need to defend himself. He was a part of an awesome album in history, so I think he should be maybe be a little easier on himself.”
James also once again dismissed calls for METALLICA to remix “…And Justice For All” so that Newsted‘s contributions are more audible.
“All this [bass discussion] is after the fact, and it’s, like, who gives a shit, man, really?” Hetfield said. “And why would you change that? Why would you change history? Why would you all of a sudden put bass on it? There is bass on it, but why would you remix an album? You can remaster it, yes, but why would you remix something and make it different? It’d be like… I don’t know. Not that I’m comparing us to the Mona Lisa, but it’s, like, ‘Uh, can we make her smile a little better?!’ You know?! Why?”
In a 2008 interview with Decibel magazine, METALLICA guitarist Kirk Hammett attempted to explain the lack of bass on “…And Justice For All”, saying that “the reason you can’t hear the bass so well is because the bass frequencies in Jason‘s tone kinda interfered with the tone that James was trying to shoot for with his rhythm guitar sound, and every time the two blended together, it just wasn’t happening. So the only thing left to do was turn the bass down in the mix. It was unfortunate, but for some reason or another, that album is known for the low end being there without the bass being very high up in the mix. It was an experiment, too — we were totally going for a dry, in-your-face sound, and some people really like that sound. A lot of the newer-generation bands, especially, think that album sounds great. But at the end of the day, it was an experiment. I’m not really sure it was 100 percent successful, but it is a unique sound that that album has.”
In the Ultimate Guitar interview, Thompson said that he spoke out because he was tired of being blamed for the lack of bass. He remarked: “They flew us out [to METALLICA‘s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2009] and I’m sitting with Lars. He goes, ‘Hey, what happened to the bass in ‘Justice’?’ He actually asked me that. I wanted to cold cock him right there. It was a shame because I’m the one getting the shit for the lack of bass.”
Ulrich told The Pulse Of Radio a while back that fans were extremely vocal about the sound of the album at the time of its release. “I mean, it was unbelievable, you know, ‘…And Justice For All’, ” he said. “People were saying, ‘That’s the worst-sounding record, where’s the bass, and it sounds like it was recorded in a garage, and…’ But, you know, listen, you do the best you can in the moment and then you move on.”