METALLICA drummer Lars Ulrich has defended the sound of the band's "...And Justice For All" album, saying that it was "the result of instinctive choices that were made along the way to make it work."
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 Ulrich, who had very specific ideas for how he wanted his drums to sound, is to blame.
To promote the 30th-anniversary box-set reissue of "...And Justice For All", the four members of METALLICA took part in a nearly 90-minute interview in Pittsburgh with longtime rock journalist and Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke, who was responsible for writing METALLICA's first feature in the magazine in 1989.
Speaking about the slightly one-dimensional and tinny production of "...And Justice For All", Ulrich said (see video below): "It all about balances. So we found a way to get — I guess primarily James [Hetfield, guitar/vocals] and I — to have our voices in the writing, in the parts, in the sonics. And it was not necessarily about the big picture, but it was about the way that it could all coexist without anybody having to take a backstep, or it was like we were all chained together. And so we would move forward. This was the way it worked.
"It was, like, 'Why do the kick drums sound like that?' Well, part of the reason the kick drums sound like that is because there was no other place for the kick drums to sort of come through," he explained. "Because James's guitar was sort of here, so the kick drum would live up there or a little bit down here. So there was a reason for a lot of this stuff. Nobody sat there and said, 'We're gonna have a record that's gonna be mixed this way.' We weren't capable of thinking at that level. So a lot of it was a result of what I think were sort of balancing points along the way to just make it all work for the big picture.
"I think it's important to say that it wasn't planned that way," Lars reiterated. "We didn't sit there and go, 'A year from now, we're gonna have a record that sounds this particular way.' I don't know if the word 'accidental' [applies], but it's just the result of instinctive choices that were made along the way to make it work, to keep people at bay — all that kind of shit. 'This is our thing. Nobody's gonna fuck with it. Nobody's gonna touch it. Nobody's gonna get involved. We're the gatekeepers. Fuck you!' That was kind of my recollection of that whole year."
"...And Justice For All" was Newsted's first full-length album with METALLICA after he replaced late bassist Cliff Burton in 1986.
Asked by Fricke about Jason's apparent struggle to find his place within the METALLICA camp and the band's overall sound, James said: "I think it had to be extremely bittersweet for him. Like a dream come true, but 'I'm stepping into someone's shoes who can never be filled.' It must have been very difficult — for him and for us, it was difficult; it just truly was. And Psych 101 will tell you that all our anger, our grief and sadness got directed at him — not all of it, but quite a bit of it. He was an easy target. And I think there were a couple of things about Jason, his personality… He was goofy enough to take it, which was a positive for him. I think he was such a fan, and we hated that — we hated that part. We wanted to 'unfan' him and become as hard as we were. So trying to beat the fan out of him. Trying to also get him to play something different, like Cliff would. He played with a pick and he would follow whatever I would do [on guitar]. And I remember there were times where I'd be playing, and I'd just turn around so he couldn't see what I was playing so he couldn't follow me. It's, like, 'Do whatever you wanna do.' But, obviously, live, he fit right in — he was a great force. And you heard the bass live. And he wasn't afraid to step up to the mic and bark whenever he felt like it. And he would sweat — he would really sweat — and he put a lot into the live show. So that gained a lot of respect, at least I think for us, once we started touring with him."
Added guitarist Kirk Hammett: "Jason tried to balance things out by kind of, like, really being prominent on those songs when they were played live. I mean, he played the shit out of those songs. And you can tell that he was giving it his all. And I think some of that was because he was trying to compensate for not being heard on the album. And that was his way for his parts to be heard — in a live situation. And so I think there was a bit of that."
"...And Justice For All" was the first METALLICA album to sell more than a million copies and featured the band's first radio hit, "One", which was also the basis of the group's first music video.
The record was nominated for the first-ever Grammy for "Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance", but infamously lost to JETHRO TULL's "Crest Of A Knave".
In a 2015 interview with Ultimate-Guitar.com, one of the "...And Justice For All" album mixers, Steve Thompson, revealed that Ulrich was the culprit for the lack of any bass guitar on the record. Ulrich apparently wanted his drums to sound a certain way — even if it meant cutting out the bass.
Thompson explained: "We had to get the drum sound up the way he had it. I wasn't a fan of it. So now he goes, 'See the bass guitar?' and I said, 'Yeah, great part, man. [Newsted] killed it.' He said, 'I want you to bring down the bass where you can barely, audibly hear it in the mix.' I said, 'You're kidding. Right?' He said, 'No. Bring it down.' I bring it down to that level and he says, 'Now drop it down another 5 dB.' I turned around and looked at Hetfield and said, 'He's serious?' It just blew me away."
Thompson added that a terrific performance by Newsted was wasted due to Ulrich's meddling, saying: "My only regret is that we didn't have enough time to at least mix it the way we heard it… It was all there but I think they were looking for more garagey-type sound without bass. And the bass was great; it was perfect."
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."