Released on January 10th, 1989, ‘One’ is one of Metallica’s most enduring pieces of work. The third and final single from their fourth album, thrash metal classic, …And Justice for All, ‘One’ is hailed as a masterpiece amongst Metallica fans and guitarists alike.
It features moments that rank among some of the band’s most influential, ranging from the intricate, clean guitars in the introduction to the distinct changes in rhythm and guitarist Kirk Hammett‘s overdriven guitar solo. Production on the song and album was helmed by Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen, who had previously worked with the band on Ride the Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986).
Owing to its brilliant composition, the song became the band’s first top 40 single in the US. This is a significant moment in Metallica’s history, as the next single they would release was ‘Enter Sandman‘ – their most popular hit – and lead single from their 1991 self-titled record, The Black Album. The 1991 LP marked the start of Metallica becoming a commercially successful band and, in this sense, ‘One’ can be regarded as the start of this trajectory.
Written by frontman/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, ‘One’ is actually an anti-war song, which may come as a surprise to the many who associate heavy metal with anger and violence. It is the density of Metallica that has made them one of the most well-respected metal bands of all time. The track portrays a World War I soldier who is critically wounded. As such, Hetfield screams these lyrics as the iconic thrash rhythm totally consumes the latter half of the song. In truth, they speak for themselves: “Trapped in myself/ Body my holding cell/ Landmine has taken my sight/ Taken my speech/ Taken my hearing/ Taken my arms/ Taken my legs/ Taken my soul/ Left me with life in hell”.y arms/ Taken my legs/ Taken my soul/ Left me with life in hell”.
Capturing the terrible essence of war and the fictional soldier’s ideation, the central vocal refrain of ‘One’ is “oh please, God, help me”. The soldier’s plight is demonstrated perfectly in the equally as famed music video. He sits up in his hospital bed, spelling “Kill me” in Morse Code in what is a shocking yet compelling anti-war statement.
Directed by Michael Salomon, the video is partially made up of shots of the band playing alongside scenes from the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun, written and directed by Dalton Trumbo. The band regularly had to pay royalties to continue airing the video on TV, so they bought the rights to the film.
The song has remained one of their most popular pieces and has understandably been a staple of their live show since release. The success did not stop there though, in 1990, the song won the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance, making Metallica the first band to ever win in the newfound category. The band would yet again perform the song alongside pianist Lang Lang at the 2014 Grammy Awards.
In 1991, frontman James Hetfield said that the idea for the track’s B-G chord change was taken from English metal band Venom’s song ‘Buried Alive’, taken from their 1982 album, Black Metal. He explained: “I had been fiddling around with that B-G modulation for a long time. The idea for the opening came from a Venom song called ‘Buried Alive’. The kick drum machine-gun part near the end wasn’t written with the war lyrics in mind, it just came out that way. We started that album with Mike Clink as producer. He didn’t work out so well, so we got Flemming to come over and save our asses.”
Reasonably, ‘One’ is largely recognised for its brilliant musicianship. The guitars, “machine gun” thrash rhythm, and introduction are all iconic in their own right. However, James Hetfield’s vocals are just as arresting, although they oft get overlooked, owing to the song’s visceral dynamics.
The incredible isolated vocal track effectively displays Hetfield as a highly talented vocalist whose trailblazing guitar work has somewhat sidelined his vocal skill. The anti-war sentiment of ‘One’ is made clear through his voice’s isolation, and the frightful lyrics outlining the soldier’s wounds and mental distress are made even starker. The isolated vocal track is powerful in displaying the band’s total affront to war, and throughout the song, regardless of the change in dynamics, it is easy to heed that the song’s central idea was close to Hetfield and the band’s hearts.
The standout lyric from the isolated vocals is clear: “Darkness imprisoning me/ All that I see/ Absolute horror/ I cannot live/I cannot die/ Trapped in myself”. As well as the song’s central motif, the line “nothing is real but pain now” is also a clear highlight.
The isolated track is fantastic in the way it demonstrates Hetfield‘s skill as a vocalist and lyricist. Furthermore, it would also do great damage to any proponent of warfare’s argument, as the isolated vocals need very little explanation. This is the true majesty of Hetfield’s performance.
Listen to James Hetfield’s isolated vocal track on ‘One’, below.