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Metallica: The First Four Albums – “The Shortest Straw”

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If you think about it, it’s amazing what heavy metal has become: a beast with thousands of tentacles, some decades long. That Black Sabbath can lead to both Burzum and deathcore is a testament to virality. Ideas spread and mutate, taking on unimagined forms – often to the chagrin of champions of earlier forms.

…And Justice for All is one such unimagined form. It’s a long, long way from “The Wizard” to “The Shortest Straw”, which is about as extreme as “AJFA-ness” gets. As with much of metal, a weaponry metaphor is illustrative. If “The Wizard” is a confident old-timer with a shotgun, “The Shortest Straw” is a neurotic assassin who’s deadly at long range with a snubnose. He practices incessantly, can’t shake a few bad habits (including poor rhythm), and has no friends. He’s the bad guy revealed 3/4 into a Friday night “thriller” rental.

So he has “nerd rage”, or, more accurately for our purposes, “mute rage”. For metal in 1988, this is novel. Metal has always been about power, including showing it sonically. Sure, “Black Sabbath” started with Ozzy scared out of his mind; but with a little help from his friends, he more than prevailed. A few mutations later, studs and leather entered the picture. Stage sets grew moving parts; arenas filled with hair. Metallica touched on mute rage with “Ride the Lightning” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, but those songs roared.

In contrast, “The Shortest Straw” gasps for air, with James Hetfield chopping out hard, angry syllables. Kirk Hammett dribbles out a mini-divebomb at 3:59 that’s basically premature ejaculation. Lars Ulrich putters in the background with small, busy d-beats. Jason Newsted, of course, is out of the picture. So we get what sounds like a rehearsal by three worried scientists.

But scientists have always had reason to worry (see Galileo). Perhaps the illogic bothering Metallica was Dalton Trumbo’s blacklisting in the McCarthy era. Trumbo wrote Johnny Got His Gun, the inspiration for “One”, so following that song with one about a witch hunt made complete sense, intentional or not.

I don’t think Metallica intended to sound like mute rage. I think they, like 99% of metal bands not playing black metal, tried to rock. But they ended up making an airless choke – the throat kind, not the sports kind – that lasted six and a half minutes. Metal’s old guard probably thought this was a choke of the sports kind. But in a perverse way, it was perfect. It sounded exactly like it read – “unending paper chase”, “behind you, hands are tied” – which made it even scarier. No triumph, no overcoming, just pure, weapons-grade neurosis. It’s a potent, if strange, achievement by the world’s biggest metal band.

— Cosmo Lee

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“The Shortest Straw”

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“Eye of the Beholder”
“…And Justice for All”
“Damage Inc.”
“Leper Messiah”
“Disposable Heroes”
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
“The Thing That Should Not Be”
“Master of Puppets”
“The Call of Ktulu”
“Creeping Death”
“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”
“(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”
“Jump in the Fire”
“The Four Horsemen”
“Hit the Lights”

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