James Hetfield's self-empowering anthem depicts a vagabond unbound by commitment, material possessions or any authority: Invictus as a headbanger. Employing an electric sitar and twelve-string bass over an undeniable hook, Metallica's unconventional arrangement still sounds like a single entity, six minutes of metal power without as much as a blast beat or even a scream. Some of the weirdest, tightest one-man vocal harmonies this side of Prince. A sitar on modern rock radio. On the Black Album, Metallica was honoring the Beatles and subverting them, claiming their place as the biggest band in rock by writing their own rules (sometimes with a sitar). They lived impervious to trends and created new ones.
"Wherever I May Roam" is arguably the highlight of the Black Album, even over the signature "Enter Sandman" and "Nothing Else Matters", or the classic "Unforgiven" and "Sad But True". Out of the entire album, "Wherever I May Roam" sounds the least like any other Metallica songs, and therefore is the most Metallica-worthy, knocking out metal conventions, preconceived notions and mainstream pretenders by trying something completely different. It's a sense of adventure that complements the lyrics, and one that has come closest to defining Metallica, for better (The first five studio albums) and worse (the next three) over their entire career. "Wherever I May Roam" emphasized the fact that Metallica could keep adapting their music without conforming to anyone else's standards.
It also helped establish an influence that has stood unmatched in metal over the past 20 years. "The song is probably the closest thing to a personal anthem for me," wrote metal intellectual/wanderer Cosmo Lee. "The Phrygian-flavored intro is delightful; years of metal have made Phrygian modes feel much more natural to me than standard major/minor scales. But when it shifts up a half step at :58, it feels like a wonderland opening up – which connotes the openness of the road that the song celebrates."