When Metallica made their fourth album, …And Justice for All, they were worn out after years of relentless touring and had nothing else to give. They desperately needed a reset to break away from their conventional sound, and it was this desire which resulted in a lack of bass.
In 1986, their world was rocked when the band lost bassist Cliff Burton in tragic circumstances while on tour. They were on the road in Sweden when their bus lost control because of black ice, and Burton lost his life. James Hetfield later recalled: “I saw the bus lying right on him. I saw his legs sticking out. I freaked. The bus driver, I recall, was trying to yank the blanket out from under him to use for other people.”
He added: “I just went, ‘Don’t fucking do that!’ I already wanted to kill the [bus driver]. I don’t know if he was drunk or if he hit some ice. All I knew was, he was driving and Cliff wasn’t alive anymore.”
Understandably, his death left Metallica’s future uncertain, and for a while, they were unsure whether they wanted to carry on without Burton. However, they eventually decided that he’d have liked them to continue, and the bassist’s family agreed.
After a thorough auditioning process, Jason Newsted was selected as his replacement, and they began working on their first album with him in 1988, eventually becoming …And Justice for All.
The album moved away from their traditional sound, thanks primarily to the inaudible bass. At first, people assumed this was a tribute to the late Burton, but that isn’t the truth. Hetfield once explained: “I will say, it was not all about, ‘Fuck [Jason]. Let’s turn him down.’ That’s for sure. We wanted the best-sounding record we could make. That was our goal. We were burnt. We were frigging fried. Going back and forth [between touring and mixing the album]. Playing a gig. No earplugs, no nothing”.
He added: “You go back into the studio, your hearing is shot. If your ears can’t hear any high end anymore, you’re gonna turn it up. So we’re turning the high end up more and more and more and all of a sudden, low end’s gone. So I know that played a bigger part than any hazing or any ill feelings towards Jason, for sure. We were fried. We were burnt.”
Drummer Lars Ulrich also once told Kerrang that the lack of bass on the album wasn’t a personal attack on Newsted and was purely circumstantial. He explained: “It wasn’t [a case of], ‘Fuck this guy – let’s turn his bass down. It was more like, ‘We’re mixing, so let’s pat ourselves on the back and turn the rhythms and the drums up.’ But we basically kept turning everything else up until the bass disappeared.”
It was unfortunate Newsted was drowned out by his bandmates on …And Justice For All, but it wasn’t deliberate. Metallica didn’t mean to offend him with their actions, and the lack of bass also helped provide the record with a heaviness which said more about their collective mental state than words possibly could.