First, the bad news: If you’re considering buying the 30th-anniversary reissue of Metallica’s 1988 breakthrough …And Justice for All, you should know going in that the band unwisely opted not to restore the tracks by former bassist Jason Newsted that never found their way into the final mix. After decades of speculation, mixing engineer Steve Thompson revealed in 2015 that the unthinkable was true: Yes, drummer Lars Ulrich actually did mix Newsted off the album on purpose. Beyond ranking as one of the most inexplicably malicious acts in the history of recording, it was also a disservice to fans, as well as to the record itself.
A monumental achievement that rocketed the once-fringe subgenre of thrash metal into the zeitgeist, …And Justice for All inarguably captures Metallica at the peak of its musical ambitions. It remains a seamless example of the convergence of metal with prog-rock sensibilities. Unfortunately, the album also remains blemished. And for a band of Metallica’s stature to cut off its proverbial nose to spite its face is as unforgivable as it is unfathomable.
Given the band’s resources, the right thing to do would have been to release the original version of the mix along with a repaired mix along the same lines as the 20th-anniversary edition of Nirvana’s In Utero. Having said that, however, justice is at least partially served with this Justice reboot. For starters, mastering engineers the world over (not to mention bands and labels interested in re-releasing catalog titles) stand to learn something from Reuben Cohen’s remastering job, which is the absolute epitome of good taste. Remastering, which is something of an arcane science, can alter the sonic character of a record to such a degree that it loses its original appeal. Not the case here, and Cohen has pulled off a small miracle by enlivening the album’s airtight guitars and artificial drum tones.
As with previous Metallica reissue campaigns, the new Justice is available in multiple tiers, though this time the selection is more straightforward: There’s the album itself (in vinyl, cassette, CD and digital formats), a three-cd version (the album, a CD of rough mixes and a CD of assorted live tracks) and a deluxe box set. Whichever you choose, the main ingredient here — the remastered album — is worth the price of admission. As for the deluxe edition, the band has outdone itself, including so many features that even lead guitarist Kirk Hammett was incredulous upon opening one of the limited-edition boxes for the first time.
At 11 CDs, a double-LP of the remastered album, a triple-LP live album a picture disc of the single “One” and four DVDs, the Justice box weighs in at about 20 pounds and also comes with a hardbound 120-page coffee-table book of photos by esteemed photographer Ross Halfin, a folder containing lyric sheets, a tour laminate and a pack of small patches if you happen to have a denim jacket handy. That’s six complete concerts from ’88/’89 spread out over the records, CDs and DVDs, along with two CDs’ worth of random material like jams and demos, an interview CD that features individual interviews with all four members, an interview DVD, a DVD of assorted raw live footage and camcorder footage, and — perhaps most notably — a CD of rough mixes, some of which include Newsted’s bass parts. (The medium-tier 3-CD version contains the remastered album, the rough-mix CD and a sampler disc of various live tracks.)
One caveat: The live recordings vary in quality (to put it nicely), though they’re somewhat of an improvement over the live bonus material included with the 2016 deluxe versions of Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lightning. A title card at the beginning of the DVDs reads, in that now famous handwritten Metallica font: “Both picture and sound have various imperfections due to the available sources.”
Worse, the two Seattle shows from Aug. 29-30, 1989, that were originally edited together and released on video in the 1993 set Live Shit: Binge & Purge reappear, this time with a new mix, but only on vinyl, which is odd, considering this is by far the best-sounding pick of the bunch. And if you’re splitting hairs, the layout of the book and all the discs falls slightly short in terms of the professional-level design we’ve come to take for granted from major-label packaging. On the other hand, the video of the Aug. 7, 1989, show at the Stone Balloon in Newark, Del., has all the intimacy and charm of the band’s 1987 VHS tape Cliff ’Em All, while the crisp video quality of the Sept. 15, 1989, footage from the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., conveys a sense of the scale Metallica’s fame had reached by that point.
Needless to say, although buyers should certainly look before they leap before dropping upwards of 200 bucks on this box, there’s plenty here to sink one’s teeth into, and the band should be commended for pulling out nearly all the stops. Metallica fans who plan on spending the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas kicking back with some leftovers will have the perfect opportunity to work their way through all these contents. Binge and purge, indeed…