justiceMetallica’s final “real” work is complex and confusing, not an album full of headbanging but of musical ideas. It’s hard to get into at first but it is absolutely one of their best efforts.

The album’s production is its biggest barrier. I’m not talking about the absent bass. You could delete the bass off 90% of metal albums ever made and nobody would know. I’m talking about the thin and trebly guitar tone, the clicky drums, and the dry nature of the overall sound. Where contemporaries are all “BEER! THRASH!!!” this is the equivalent of a heavy metal dissertation, presenting ideas to you via footnoted and cited Word documents.

The song everyone knows, “One” is maybe the worst track on here. The musical ideas are all there, but the production guts it. This sort of thing needs to sound massive and heart-wrenching, not as sterile as my pet cat. The album’s best moments are “Blackened,” title track, “Harvester of Sorrow”, “Dyers Eve” and the hugely underrated “Frayed Ends of Sanity”

The main creative wellspring the band was drawing from here seems to be progressive thrash legends Watchtower (Lars, it seems, was a fan of the band), and most of the songs are lengthy and benefit from repeated listens. The title track is very complex, the riffs keep on coming and coming, as if they’re being written by a man with six imaginations instead of the usual one. Justice sees Metallica ditching the last remnants of their motorbikes and leather aesthetic in favor of lots of social commentary. This is an album overflowing with things to say. “Eye of the Beholder” and “Shortest Straw” match socially conscious lyrics with riffwork more calculated and focused than ever before. Early Metallica was the brutal bludgeoning and thrashings of a crime of passion. These songs are completely pre-meditated.

“Frayed Ends” is an amazing achievement, throwing idea after idea at you, and look, the song doesn’t get lost! The final riffset is awesome, and it seems they only ended the track there to make room for the other songs. “Dyers Eve” abandons the longwindness that dominates most of the album and just spends five minutes ripping your arms off, beating you around the head with them, reattaching them to your lower esophagus, and sticking you with the surgeon’s bill (it has some very frank and personal lyrics from Hetfield about his childhood, too).

The album is not as good as Master of Puppets. I can’t say I am completely enthralled by “To Live is to Die”, but neither was I bored. Judging an epitaph by its entertainment value seems unpleasant, anyway. I mostly just appreciate how Metallica didn’t let Cliff Burton’s death become a footnote in the liner notes: they actually wrote him a song.

Justice is a paradox: a genre album that somehow doesn’t seem to belong to the genre. This is a metal album for nerds. Instead of raw aggression, Justice presents aggression filtered through a few levels of peer review.

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