Metallica’s sonic landscape is inseparable from the distinctive timbre of James Hetfield’s voice. While the band prides itself on crafting formidable riffs that define their sound, Hetfield has evolved into the seasoned metal warlord he aspired to be, renowned for his signature bark on anthems like ‘Battery’ and ‘Master of Puppets.’ Yet, amidst his ability to turn anything into metal perfection, there was one track that presented a unique studio challenge.
Initially resistant to being the lead vocalist, Hetfield harbored aspirations of becoming an all-star frontman. Talks circulated about finding a dedicated metal singer until the release of ‘Master of Puppets.’ As Metallica ascended to global stadium tours, Hetfield reluctantly assumed the frontman role, all while deftly playing rhythm guitar at breakneck speeds.
While the band’s early repertoire primarily featured songs with a limited vocal palette, Hetfield encountered difficulties when working on the ballads for their upcoming projects. ‘Fade to Black’ from the album ‘Ride the Lightning’ marked a significant departure, showcasing Hetfield’s closest approach to crooning.
However, achieving this vocal delivery wasn’t without assistance. Beyond the main vocal line, ‘Fade To Black’ subtly incorporates keyboard accompaniment in the background, guiding Hetfield along and aiding him in hitting the intended notes.
For the subsequent ballad, Hetfield delved into the theme of mental health struggles. Drawing inspiration from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ emerged as one of Metallica’s most celebrated compositions. It transformed from a slow ballad depicting the gradual unraveling of one’s mind into a heavy metal juggernaut as the protagonist breaks free from confinement, wreaking havoc on everything around him.
Despite Hetfield considering the song a highlight from the album, he confessed to regretting saving the vocal recording for the final day. In an interview commemorating the anniversary of ‘Master of Puppets,’ Hetfield discussed the panic he felt when grappling with the high notes in the chorus, stating, “I remember regretting coming to the part that I saved for last in ‘Sanitarium’. It was like a really high part. I’m like, ‘I can’t sing that’. And [producer] Fleming [Rasmussen] says, ‘Well, James, you knew this was coming. What are you going to do about it?’ I was just like, ‘Fuck!’”
While Hetfield omits the high part during live performances, the high harmony on the studio recording stands as a haunting element of the track. Unlike the lower octave, the high voice almost symbolizes the narrator’s fragile state of mind, serving as the one last part of his psyche about to snap. Although Hetfield eventually honed his voice for ‘The Black Album,’ ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ stands as a classic example of him utilizing his voice as another percussion instrument alongside his rhythmic guitar work.