After assuring their fans that they were alive and kicking with Jason Newsted on the bass, the remaining three horsemen plus newkid went into the studio with Flemming Rasmussen for the first five months of 1988 to record the successor to Master of Puppets. What came out was something that people either considered a great album, more conceptual and a bit speedier than the prior, or a bloated, badly produced example of a big band getting too big. Either way, it stands as an interesting historical note, because it’s after Cliff Burton, the major driving force of the band’s early career, had died, and it’s right before the band decided to trade in metal for hard rock and go to producer Bob Rock for their self-titled black album, which many new fans consider the real start to their career.
First off, AJFA is long. It’s 65 minutes and only 9 songs, with only two of them being under the six minute mark, and two of them landing just short of the ten minute mark. Everyone’s first comment about this album is that things are just too damn long, and I’d agree. Most of the songs have an extra repetition of the chorus or an extra verse that grates on my nerves, and I think if I had a good copy of the master tapes and Protools, I could probably turn out a 45-minute remix that would be just as strong as the original. But maybe that’s just me.
This album has a really eerie, sinister tone to it. Many think it’s thin, and I guess it is in parts. The biggest thing to me is that Kirk Hammett’s guitar solos and the general composition of most songs show that he’s become a much more modal player, probably based on his training with Joe Satriani. Solos go from sounding vaguely Egyptian to Mid-eastern to minor and eerie, instead of the standard blues-box licks he used on Kill ‘Em All. This trickles down into the songs a bit, changing structures and sound to be much more unique. The guitars in general are also layered and deeper than they were in the early days, and it makes the album more progressive than just straightforward thrash.
The songs on the album mostly have to do with injustice in some way or another. The title cut, which sprawls out to 9:44, talks about the loss of justice in society, in pretty simple terms. Compare that to the opening track, “Blackened,” which describes a biblical end to the world due to man’s woes. With two exceptions, most of the songs are fairly interchangeable in theme. Although they are musically different and offer varying solos, it would have been hard for me, even in 1988, to distinguish between “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” and, say, “Eye of the Beholder” without checking the liner notes first.
As far as those other two songs, one is “To Live Is to Die,” an almost-ten minute instrumental that’s built up upon a little fragment of poetry left behind by Cliff Burton. The song builds up layer after layer of creepy guitar sound by Hammett and Hetfield, with overlays of distortion and signal processing, quickly dropping into clean acoustic in places and then coming back to establish new themes. Halfway through, someone (who? Not sure…) reads the Burton poetry. The song continues on the tradition of “Orion,” an instrumental on their last album, while leaving tribute to Burton. It’s not as good of a number as “Orion,” but it’s still awesome. I remember many a night listening to this in my car alone as I drove through the darkness, and always loved it for the eerie mood it produced.
The big song on this album is “One.” It’s based on the Dalton Trumbo book Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war novel about a man in World War I who is hit by a shell blast and loses his arms, legs, and all senses. Many people think it’s about Vietnam, and I’m sure there are Metallica fans dumb enough to now think it was written about Iraq, but you should probably hunt down the book and read it at some point. The song starts out slow with clean guitars, then breaks into more of a power ballad, as the soldier pleads for help. Later in the song, as he realizes he’s trapped forever in his comatose body, he wants to die, and the song speeds up to a frenzy of double-bass and shredding guitar solos. It’s an excellent composition, although I’m still unsure as to how it exactly became a big hit. After years of shunning MTV, the band created a video using live performance in a loft-warehouse sort of space intercut with pieces of the movie based on the Trumbo book.
The most interesting thing to me about going back to this album is to reverse-engineer some of what happened. I listen to pieces of “Harvester of Sorrow” and hear that black album, and think that if this was produced just a little bit differently, it would have ended up one of the tracks there. What if Bob Rock had been hired at this point instead of an album later? What would have survived? What would have changed? I also look at something like “To Live Is to Die” and see how much it tries to hang on to the legacy of Cliff Burton. And I try to listen to any bass by pre-Metallica Jason Newsted, and imagine what this album would have been like if he were allowed to actually play. How did this happen? I imagine a weepy Lars Ulrich in the studio, crying “Cliff just died! Dammit, turn down the bass, Flemming!” and the producer just caving in to his demands. “I can’t cut out the 17th chorus-verse-repeat! Cliff died!” And of course, I try to imagine what this album would have been like with Cliff alive, how songs like “One” would have had even more intensity with his bass, and how lamer numbers like “Dyers Eve” would have been more aggressive with his musicwriting behind them.
Overall, this is a decent album. I’m biased because I listened to it so much in 1988 and 1989, so much that my tape of it is completely worn clean of any lettering on either side. But after about 1989, I pretty much completely forgot about this album for 15 years, which should also tell you it’s not a real contender. Maybe with shorter songs… maybe with better production… maybe with more bass… I don’t know. It’s still an interesting look back, and unfortunately, it’s also the last entry for the band before they became hard rock dandy boys.