It’s pretty much agreed-upon among Metallica fans that their fourth album …And Justice for All sounds like garbage. It’s not that it’s a bad record. Far from it: the thrash metal legends were at the height of their powers in the late ’80s when they made it, and the music inside is just as accomplished as their work on Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning, their two widely acknowledged masterpieces. But the recording itself is horrible. The low end is so quiet that if you didn’t know any better you’d think the band made it without a bassist. The drums sound like they’re made of paper. The entire album sounds thin and weirdly restrained–pretty much the opposite of what you’d want for an ambitious and stupendously heavy metal band like early Metallica.
The recording and mixing decisions on …And Justice for All are especially strange considering that it was produced by Flemming Rasmussen, who’s also responsible for the rich and punchy sound of Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. In a recent interview with the podcast Alphabetallica, nodded at his status as the shepherd of these classics and took a quick potshot at the band’s later catalog by claiming that “most people refer to me as the producer of the three good Metallica albums.” (A little unfair to Kill ‘Em All, but we’ll allow it.)
Metal Injection points out that Rasmussen also addressed the sound of ...And Justice for All, going into particular depth about the vanishingly low volume of Jason Newsted’s bass. This was the first album that Newsted played on as a Metallica member, after the death of bassist Cliff Burton in 1986. Rasmussen said that the band continually asked for the bass tracks to be lowered, and believes that they might have done so as an oddly touching gesture of respect for Burton. The transcript, via Metal Injection:
What happened was [mixing engineers Steve Thompson and Mike Barbiero] did a mix that they thought sounded really, really good, which had lots of bass in it. And the bass – let me just point out – the bass tracks on …And Justice for All are actually fantastic. Jason plays really well. He probably tried to prove that he was worth, that he was up there with Cliff, which in my opinion he is. It’s a different style, but he is as good of bass player as Cliff, just in a different way. And I’ve heard the bass tracks and they’re absolutely amazing. They sound good, he plays well.
But, they heard the mix and they went, ‘Alright, take the bass down, change this this this and this, and then take the bass down.’ So you can barely hear it. And then once they’ve done that they said, ‘Take it another 3dB down.’Why they did that – I have no idea! It could be that they were still grieving about Cliff. I have no idea. But imagine my surprise when I heard the album. I was like, ‘What the… What?!’ It got really criticized when it came out, and people got more or less blown away because of the dryness of the sound. It just goes BANG, right in your face.
“‘…And Justice for All’ was probably the single album in the last 30 years which has been the most influential in terms of sound for the whole generation of the hardcore metal bands. They all wanted to sound like …And Justice for All. That really clicky, high-endy bass drum, all that stuff…”Every time I hear the bass drum like that, I go ‘I’m really sorry about that. That’s my mistake.’ Well, I didn’t mix it!”
If Rasmussen is telling the truth, next time you have to turn off “Blackened” halfway through because it sounds like it’s coming out of a soup can, you can blame the band, not him. Hear the full hour-long interview with the producer below.