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Metallica: The First Four Albums – “Blackened”

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For decades, Metallica albums have been “where were you when…” events. I’ve heard great stories about first impressions of Metallica records, ranging from befuddled-then-awestruck (Ride the Lightning) to befuddled-then-disgusted (the Black Album). These experiences often related to record stores. You rushed home, tore the shrinkwrap off, and feasted. The trappings of this rite have changed over time, from LPs to cassettes to CDs; discovering Metallica now via MP3 probably isn’t very exciting. The feeling of unlocking something potent isn’t there.

Strangely, I don’t remember my initial encounter well with …And Justice for All as a physical product. I think that’s because it was so long ago. Justice was the first heavy metal full-length I heard. I’d been listening to hair/pop metal; I was big into Guns n’ Roses and Def Leppard, and had heard the $5.98 EP through friends. Believe it or not, the cool kids in school (or at least whom I thought were the cool kids, which were the metalheads, which probably says more about me than my high school) listened to Metallica. I wanted to fit in, and every other mullet sported a Pushead-designed shirt or back patch.

So I bought Justice – and, strangely, I don’t remember where. I’ve owned thousands of CDs in my life, and until 10 years ago I could tell you where and when I bought each one. (But I’m terrible with people’s names, go figure.) Two candidates come to mind: either Musicland in the mall, or through mail-order from one of those many-CDs-for-a-cent clubs (BMG/Columbia House) that made CDs affordable for many. Musicland seems unlikely, since I remember Justice selling for the teeth-rattling price of $16.99 and somehow never being on sale. Yet my memory also recalls a longbox, so maybe I did pony up the cash.

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At any rate, a compact disc of Justice ended up in my black plastic boombox. In the same way that hip-hop iconography includes the vibrating speaker, my early visual memories of heavy metal are inextricably linked to that boombox. I didn’t know it at the time, but it applied a scooped EQ to everything. It took me years to discover, through Motörhead and noise rock, that heavy music could have honest-to-goodness midrange.

So Justice wasn’t the sonic abomination to me that it evidently was to others. Sound-wise, it didn’t seem different from Among the Living, which was probably the second metal full-length I heard, or Souls of Black, or any other CD with a sweet-smelling booklet and graphics that worried my mother. To this day, I still crank Justice in cars. Most car stereos aren’t much better than my old plastic boombox, and Justice‘s abundance of lower midrange sounds sweet in cars. (“Boxy-sounding” comes to mind.) Cars and car stereos were a big deal in the Midwestern town where I grew up (the magic combo was: Oakley shades, Vision Street Wear shirt, Zubaz trousers, Alpine stereo). I didn’t hear anyone else griping about Justice‘s sound, so maybe the whole bass-less brouhaha is just hindsight groupthink, or maybe I just didn’t know enough metalheads. Sometimes Justice seems sterile to me now, but it still sounds great loud.

I do remember my post-shrinkwrap impressions fairly well, specifically “Blackened”. My main impression was the long fade-in; drums don’t hit until 36 seconds in. I hadn’t heard an album do that before. The passing tone at 0:23 got me then and still gets me now. I thought the intro sounded “sad”. It does, both in an obvious way (minor harmonies) and in a deeper way that I wouldn’t realize until much later. I hadn’t heard any other Metallica full-length, so I didn’t know that I was hearing an anomaly. The songs did seem long, and I remember thinking, “Only nine songs, but a long running time” when I first saw the packaging. (Song running times were essential stats back then, in terms of dubbing tapes and making mixtapes.)

Really, I was listening with virgin ears. I got Justice simply to see what it was about. I had read no reviews. No one had discussed it with me. There was no Internet with which to read influencing opinions. It was just me, a black boombox, and a steely-gray package. Every second was new to me – a feeling impossible to recapture, but which I try to recall every time I listen to music. It’s a good idea to keep your mind open, even years after adolescence. Who knows what portal you’ll open next to some life-changing world.

— Cosmo Lee

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“Blackened”

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METALLICA: THE FIRST FOUR ALBUMS

“Damage Inc.”
“Orion”
“Leper Messiah”
“Disposable Heroes”
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
“The Thing That Should Not Be”
“Master of Puppets”
“Battery”
“The Call of Ktulu”
“Creeping Death”
“Escape”
“Trapped Under Ice”
“Fade to Black”
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“Ride the Lightning”
“Fight Fire With Fire”
“Metal Militia”
“Seek & Destroy”
“No Remorse”
“Phantom Lord”
“Whiplash”
“(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”
“Jump in the Fire”
“Motorbreath”
“The Four Horsemen”
“Hit the Lights”

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