Few frontmen in rock music, and arguably none in metal, have as incredible a catalog as Metallica’s James Hetfield. Since helping found the band in the early ‘80s, Papa Het has shown off both a vocal and lyrical range that have brought millions of casual listeners fully into the heavy metal fold. Now, almost forty years into his musical career, James has a collection of songs under his belt the likes of which most musicians can only dream of.
But if there’s one downside to this, it’s that some of Hetfield’s most excellent performances get overlooked. Buried under the cultural weight of Metallica’s more massive singles, these lesser-known cuts don’t usually receive their rightful acclaim. But for the fan willing to take a deeper dive, the result is a new appreciation for James’ vocal ability and his dedication to his tooth-rattling craft.
In honor of the man’s 57th birthday, here are 10 of James Hetfield’s vocal performances that deserve more time in the spotlight…
“Of Wolf And Man” (Metallica, 1991)
Metallica aren’t normally the kind of metal band to write songs about horror and monsters; the closest they usually get is H.P. Lovecraft’s apocalyptic Cthulhu-verse. But “Of Wolf And Man” somehow gets at the soul of the werewolf myth, and much of that is Hetfield’s vocal delivery. His drawn-out gang-vocal cries of “Shape-shift” have an eerie power to them, while his final belt of “So seek the wolf in thyself!” makes the listener want to run through a field beneath the full moon. A wholly underrated gem on an album everyone’s heard a million times.
“The Unnamed Feeling” (St. Anger, 2003)
Now that the initial uh, less than positive reactions to Metallica’s infamous 2003 album St. Anger has worn off, it’s easier to see the solid moments within the record. One of those is most definitely James Hetfield’s vocal performance on “The Unnamed Feeling,” a song that feels as though it were written for Slipknot. The verse melody is winding and eerie, coupled perfectly with James’ smirking, diabolical atmosphere. Meanwhile, the chorus’ jump from soulful crooning to pained howling shows how quickly the frontman can go from one hole in his heart to another. An unorthodox, unexpected gem.
“The Shortest Straw” (…And Justice For All, 1988)
1988’s …And Justice For All might be the beginning of Metallica using more polished production, but you wouldn’t know that listening to James snarl on “The Shortest Straw.” The frontman sounds about as pissed off as ever on this one, spitting clipped, contemptuous lyrics with a tone that lets you see his teeth. The chorus’ howled “Downed by law!” has a roughness on the end that reminds the listener of thrash’s nastier vocalists in acts like Dark Angel and Destruction. This cut’s a solid reminder that right up until the Black Album, Hetfield still raised the underground speed metal torch high and bright.
“Low Man’s Lyric” (Reload, 1997)
It’s understandable why so many people hate on ‘96’s Load and ‘97’s Reload, given what a departure they were from the band’s old-school sound, but this ignores the risks and experimentation that Metallica used throughout those albums. For James, “Low Man’s Lyric” off of Reload is perhaps the greatest exercise in this. Grunge-y and dreamy, the track shows the singer exercising his full vocal range, moving from low rasp to soaring keen at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, the song’s downtrodden, hopeless lyrics hint at the personal growth James would later reveal in the band’s documentary Some Kind Of Monster, and beyond.
“Disposable Heroes” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
It is sometimes baffling why “Disposable Heroes” is not Metallica’s most lauded song. The track absolutely seethes with the horrors of war that have made the band’s lyrics more relatable than those of your usual dragon-mongers. Especially powerful is Hetfield’s’ mocking tone, the relish with which he calls out his final “Back to the front!” making one imagine the gods of war laughing at their quarry. And if that doesn’t put goosebumps on you, you better believe his’ shrieked “I was born for dying!” sure as hell will.
“Don’t Tread On Me” (Metallica, 1991)
The beauty of James Hetfield’s performance on “Don’t Tread On Me” is that it sounds a hell of a lot like what the track’s about. Between the tough-guy gang vocals on the titular line and the steely, harmonized singing on the chorus (it says a lot about you whether you think Papa Het is saying “So be it” or “Soviet”), the track gives off a bicep-tattoo bravado that’s distinctly American. Though the sentiment on the track might feel loaded today, the attitude exuded by it is one that parties on both sides of the line can get behind.
“Trapped Under Ice” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
It’s hard to pick a song from 1984’s Ride The Lightning that could be called “underrated,” but if there’s one, it has to be “Trapped Under Ice,” the only Metallica song for true thrash diehards. The track shows James mastering his craft, embracing both melodic singing and old-school speed metal shrieking. Especially delicious is the bridge, featuring Het doing double duty with punk-ish cries and his patented raspy crooning. Besides, you gotta love a classic thrash anthem that takes an entirely un-metaphorical approach to its subject matter.
“That Was Just Your Life” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
2008’s Death Magnetic presented Metallica with an interesting task: return to their thrash roots without totally losing everything they’d become over the past two decades. This was especially hard for James, whose early vocals sound like a knife being sharpened (and probably felt like one, too), and whose singing has matured considerably over the years. And yet opener “That Was Just your Life” shows the vocalist applying his steadier wail to a song that could’ve been written by Anthrax in ‘89. The result was a welcome reintroduction for Metallica for many fans, but one that sometimes feels lost in the band’s recent musical milestones.
“Phantom Lord” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
For more contemporary fans, it can at times be hard to associate James Hetfield’s vocal style with those of, say, Exodus’ Paul Baloff or Kreator’s Mille Petrozza. But Kill ‘Em All features Young Het at his most rabid, and few songs show that off like “Phantom Lord.” At times jumbled in its speed, James’ delivery displays a young singer with incredible potential who still just wanted to sound like a goblin in a chainsaw orgy. Of course, the best part is the “deep” vocals of the chorus, with a teenage James trying to reach octaves he’d one day dwell in.
“King Nothing” (Load, 1996)
1996’s Load was a big move for Metallica (whether it was a move forwards or backwards is up for debate), specifically with their embracing of a grunge-oriented alt-rock vibe. But there are a few moments where the band hit that tone the head without losing their muscle, and James Hetfield’s vocals on “King Nothing” are definitely one of them. While first single “Until It Sleeps” included a lot of Papa Het warbling in the verse, this track has him going full burly, with even his countrified yarling moments having a Lobo-ish smirk to them. For those fans who only discovered Metallica at this point in their careers, a song like “King Nothing” seemed like a firm counter-argument against arms-crossed metal purists of the day–this is what you call going soft?
Words by Chris Krovatin