Metallica's Justice Days Revisited

Back in 1988, what Metallica lacked in falsettos and hairspray they made up for with a conceptual assault entitled ...And Justice For All. Ringing in its 20th anniversary, Kirk Hammett and producer Flemming Rasmussen look back at the sessions

Feature by Dave Kerr | 16 Mar 2009

What were your first impressions of Metallica?

Flemming Rasmussen: “I met the band just before Ride the Lighting, they contacted me because they were looking to find a studio where they could work. They’d done Kill ‘Em All pretty fast over two weeks in New York and wanted to try and develop their sound. I liked what they were doing and I was running around thinking this was the best shit I’d heard in a long time...I couldn’t keep my arms down. Most of the other guys I worked with in the studios were into Jazz and regular rock, they’d say ‘but they can’t play’, and I’d go ‘yeah, isn’t it great?’ It was because of the energy that was in there, it was understated at the time, but it got to me.”

How did you set about harnessing that energy differently to what had been done before in the studio?

FR: “We listened to Kill ‘Em All a lot but that was mainly due to the fact that James had his Marshall amp stolen just before going into the studio to record Ride the Lighting, so we scrutinized guitar sounds because he wanted the amp to feel the way it did on Kill 'Em All. Obviously we ended up with something totally different, but it was a good exercise in finding our way.”

With that trilogy of records that Metallica recorded between the early to late 80s – Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and ...And Justice For All - was there any particular point where you appreciated that this could be heavy metal history in the making?

FR: "Yes – especially on Puppets."

Kirk Hammett: “We were just trying to make the best album we possibly could, you know? Looking back, it wasn’t like we were looking at each other, nodding our heads and saying ‘Yeah, this is history in the making’, it wasn’t like that. The motivation was ‘right, let’s just do the best we can to the extent of our abilities'. We just went with it. Whenever you go in with the prospect of writing 10, 12, 14 songs, and making an album, all you can really hope for is just the best. After that whole process, which is so physically, emotionally and mentally draining, after that’s done you kind of sit down and go ‘OK, ooft’, then take a step back and listen to it and say ‘alright, I’m proud of our accomplishments.’ But you let everyone else make up their minds about it, because at that point we’ve already made up ours. It’s up to everyone else to contribute their take on it and how relevant it is to our culture and to society and all of that other bullshit.’”

What did you set out to achieve on ...And Justice For All, artistically speaking?

KH: "Justice was our first decision to see how progressive we could get and prove to the world that we could play intricate song structures. Yes, we can play riffs that are totally out there and based on polyrhythm and counter-rhythm and yes we can make that heavy and catchy all at the same time. It was a difficult album to record in that we ran out of time; we were recording up to the last hour of studio time and we all had to leave to go and do the Monsters of Rock tour of the States in the summer of 1988. The album was mixed while we were out on the road. You can either say that worked for it or against it. I think it’s a great album, the sound is unique – I know that if we were recording the album today it wouldn’t sound like that, because our sonic tastes and aesthetics have changed quite a bit, but I’ve come to accept the sound of that album. It was an attempt to do something new.”

FR: ”We were looking for a more in your face sound. Ride and Puppets were recorded at my studio in Copenhagen and we put the drums in a huge wooden hangar-like room with a lot of ambience. Just to make it loud. Me and Lars went away for two weeks to find a studio that would be similar to the setup we had for Puppets. We struggled a bit but I think we got it in the end.”

Do you think the band became perfectionists as time went on?

FR: “I think they’ve been perfectionists all the time. We took four and a half months to record Justice, but that was because we knew what we wanted and we just weren’t getting it.”

What do you believe was the finest moment on Justice?

FR: “The machine gun drumming that leads into the solo at the end of One is a total highlight, and I think that guitar solo is probably some of the best work Kirk’s ever done. It’s fabulous.”

KH: “I really like the guitar solo on The Shortest Straw, but the stuff we did on One was great. I can remember going to the studio and knowing what I was going to do for the middle guitar solo that day, but I didn’t really have a lot of ideas for the other parts. But when I got there it all came together, just like that.”

With the benefit of hindsight, are there elements of the record you'd like to revisit and polish in some way?

FR: “I’d like to mix it, because it was mixed by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, but there’s a lot of talk about that, because it’s the notorious ‘no bass’ album. If I’d mixed it, I’m pretty sure I could have slunk the bass in there somewhere. I probably would have had to argue a lot with Lars and James, but you know, that’s the way it is. They might have been stubborn about that. It was always a battle between Lars and James.”

Did that in itself cause problems during the sessions?

FR: “I think there was less friction on Justice because this was the first time we were recording in the states and they were closer to home so once we’d done the guide tracks, settled for a tempo and decided what to do with the song, Lars would sit and play drums for two or three days and James would hop off to San Francisco. There was a lot less tension because they didn’t have to hang around in a foreign country with each other for three months.”

Were you aware of any criticism of the bass – or lack thereof - at the time Justice was released?

FR: “I read a lot of reviews where people were raving about how fantastic the sound was, it took a couple of months before they realised ‘hey, there’s no bass on there’. The kick drum was so loud that the low end value blurred the fact.”

It’s well documented that they enjoyed a good party in those days, I understand you age roughly with the band…

FR: “I’m just a few years older…”

Did you find yourself playing father figure, trying to keep them off the booze and have them focus on the record?

FR: “Lars did call me daddy at one point. That was probably because I was the only one he could speak Danish to when we were in the States, maybe on account of me reminding him of home. Sometimes me and Lars would sit and talk in Danish just to piss James off, we’d just throw the odd ‘James’ into a conversation about something else completely until he yelled ‘WHAT?’ We took a lot of opportunities to wind him up.”

20 years have passed since the recording of that album, some might say sufficient time to let a few secrets out the bag. Would you care to share any?

FR: "It took forever. I edited a lot of the drum takes to make them as tight as they were. I’d cut small pieces of tape out if Lars was late. If we had one really good bit and there was just one snare hit that was late, I’d cut a bit of the tape out. And if he was early I’d take that bit I’d cut out earlier in the process, stick it in there and nobody could hear that."

Do you think the stylistic changes Metallica went through between Justice and the "Black" Album were necessary to sustain the band's longevity?

KH: “We all felt the time was right to create a bunch of shorter songs that had a more traditional format and arrangement – to make shorter versions of what we’d been doing on previous albums. We cut out all the stuff we thought might be unnecessary for the material that we were sitting on back then, with those songs being Sad But True, Sandman, Unforgiven, whatever. It was just us going into a different direction, yet again, it wasn’t because ‘alright, we’re going to write shorter songs because that’s more accessible for radio.’ We were economising because we needed to, on an artistic basis.”

FR: “By the end of Justice, we’d taken that whole idea of ‘let’s write 10,000 riffs and make one symphony in each track’ to the extreme. I thought it was a really good idea when they decided to do one song, one riff. The fact that James wanted to start singing was also really good, because he’s a good singer. He never really bothered in the old days. It wasn’t on the schedule at all when we were recording ...And Justice for All.

Now it's all said and done, what's your favourite Metallica album to slap on in the car?

FR: “My favourite track is probably One, so that would be from Justice, but it depends on my mood. Otherwise it would be a toss up between Master and Justice.”

...And Justice For All [Deluxe Edition] is available now on vinyl via Warner.

Metallica play SECC, Glasgow on 26 March.