Metallica's James Hetfield: His Heaviest Vocal Performances

James Hetfield in 2013
Photo Credit
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for BB Gun

It was on August 3, 1963 that one of the greatest heavy metal singers of all time first graced us with his presence: James Alan Hetfield, best known to the world at large as the frontman for Metallica. We’ve put together a list of 10 tracks from the early years of Metallica - a period which we’re defining as ending with 1991’s Metallica, a.k.a. “The Black Album” - which feature some of Hetfield’s heaviest moments as a vocalist while trying to avoid including too many of the usual suspects. (We’ll let you decide how well we did.)

“Phantom Lord” (from Kill 'Em All, 1983): Written by the early Metallica trifecta of Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Dave Mustaine, this song takes its name from one of Hetfield’s pre-Metallica bands. If you’re going to include a song from Kill ‘Em All, you can’t go wrong with one that opens with the words, “Sound is ripping through your ears / The deafening sound of metal nears.” In other words, don’t say we didn’t warn you...

READ MORE: Metallica Planning 40th Anniversary Celebrations in San Francisco

“Ride the Lightning” (from Ride the Lightning, 1984): Hetfield’s guitar parts on this track were recorded pretty quickly, after which he overlaid them with two additional takes which were performed live. Sure, why bother with proper overdubbing when you can just do that? As for the lyrics, Hetfield has said that it’s a tale of a man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, as underlined in the opening lines: “Guilty as charged / But damn it / It ain’t right.”

READ MORE: July 1984: Metallica Releases "Ride the Lightning"

“Trapped Under Ice” (from Ride the Lightning, 1984): Interestingly, this track was inspired by “Impaler,” a song demoed by Kirk Hammett’s previous band, Exodus, who later went ahead and released the track on their 2004 album, Tempo of the Damned. It’s a song that’s kind of like if Futurama took a dark turn, in that it revolves around someone waking up from a cryogenic state, only to find that there’s no one around and nowhere to go, leaving them pretty much just waiting for death to take them. Good times!

“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” (from Master of Puppets, 1986): Inspired by Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this song focuses on a patient undeservedly placed in a mental institution. It’s arguable that it has a happy ending for the patient, if not necessarily for the employees of the institution, given Hetfield’s snarling line about how he’s “got some death to do.”

READ MORE: March 1986: Metallica Releases "Master of Puppets"

“Disposable Heroes” (from Master of Puppets, 1986): Arguably one of the most intense songs on this album, which is really saying something when you consider the competition, this tune talks about a young soldier whose fate is at the whim of his superior officers. Metallica has many opinions about authority figures and organizations, and they aren’t afraid to share them with you.

“Damage, Inc.” (from Master of Puppets, 1986): The closing track of the album and, in turn, the last Metallica track to feature bassist Cliff Burton, it’s a straight-up song about senseless destruction and violence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that...unless you’re on the receiving end of it, of course.

“Blackened” (from ...And Justice for All, 1988): Talk about setting the tone for an album! This kicks off the band’s mainstream breakthrough album - thank you, “One” - and it’s very much a Cold War song, in that it revolves around nuclear war and the results such an event would have on the planet. That’s right, fans, it’s another happy-go-lucky Metallica number!

“...And Justice for All” (from ...And Justice for All, 1988): The album’s second track is an ode to money...or, more specifically, it’s a sad saga about how money is more important than justice, a theme which - no surprise here - runs throughout the album. Indeed, it’s particularly powerful here, thanks in no small part to Hetfield’s frequent howl, “Justice is raped!”

“Dyers Eve” (from ...And Justice for All, 1988): The album’s closer focuses on a mom and dad who go out of their way to protect and shelter their kid from everything going on outside, only for the kid to enter the real world and struggle to adapt to the cruelty he discovers. Oddly enough, the song wasn’t played live by the band until 2004, a full 16 years after its initial release.

READ MORE: How "Enter Sandman" Set the Tone for a New Era of Metallica

“Holier Than Thou” (from Metallica, 1991): So many of the songs on the band’s self-titled LP received airplay during its initial release that we decided to pick one that wasn’t issued as a single to put in the spotlight. Hetfield once described it to Playboy as “one of the sillier songs,” but producer Bob Rock actually thought it should’ve been a single. In fact, it was his first pick for a single from the album.

“The band still teases me about [that],” he told MusicRadar. “I should point out that at this stage in cutting the record there were no lyrics, so initially, something about the song spoke to me. It rocked in a very aggressive way that said 'Metallica' to me. As we got deeper into the record, the tide turned and other songs blossomed and became bigger and turned into things like 'Enter Sandman,' whereas ‘Holier Than Thou’…Great song, not a single. I still like its energy and tempo. It's got such a lethal bite to it. Every time I see the band, they always say the same thing: 'Holier Than Thou,' huh? They'll never let me live it down. What can I say?"

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