For a band with a such a storied career as Metallica, it is rather surprising that the longtime active members haven’t ventured off into various solo projects. That said, if we were to have wagered which member was most likely to go it alone, our best bet would’ve been Kirk Hammett. For years we’ve been hearing about the guitarist stockpiling hundreds, if not thousands of riffs on his phone. Considering Metallica’s deliberate workflow, only so many of these riffs and melodies, if any, will actually make it onto one of their records. Kirk needed an outlet, and he found it with his debut solo EP, Portals.
No, this isn’t Kirk’s foray into becoming a singer-songwriter. Rather, the four-song release is entirely instrumental and contains minimal traces of heavy metal. Hammett said he took a “Audio-Cinematic” approach to the material, rendering something more akin to orchestral prog or classical. To achieve this epic sound, the guitarist tapped Edwin Outwater, the conductor for the Metallica’s S&M2 concerts, along with drummers Jon Theodore (Queens of the Stone Age) and Abraham Laboriel Jr. (Paul McCartney), producer Greg Fidelman on bass, Emmy-winning arranger Blake Neely, and producer Bob Rock.
As a reference point for Metallica fans approaching the Portals EP, the aforementioned S&M2 concerts are a pretty good benchmark. These saw Kirk’s guitar playing mixed with orchestral production and modern classical arrangements — the same approach taken on Portals. Kirk likened the EP’s title to the transportive experience he sought to achieve with each track, and opener “Maiden and the Monster” offers up a nice spread of the various moods explored across the duration of the EP. The crisp and succulent guitar tone makes an immediate impression, as melodic lines are treated with a crisp chorus delay. Mid-tempo solos are immersed in orchestral instrumentation that casts an ominous mood. Before the track ends, Kirk throws a bone to the Metallica faithful with a heavy, hard rock climax, complete with live drums.
The following track, “The Jinn,” picks up on these more tangible rock elements, offering a six-plus-minute prog’d out barnburner. Here’s where we get the impression that Hammett was liquidating some of those leftover riffs. More than a few sound distinctly Metallica (how could they not?). Though there are segues to connect the various passages, “The Jinn” is one of the clunkier pieces on Portals due to the sheer number of ideas at play. It comes off more like a compilation of riffs rather than a conceptual whole.
The opposite is true of the EP’s third track “High Plains Drifter.” Inspired by the film of the same name, the piece holds a consistent mood throughout, opting for more somber strings and a post-rock ambience that creates a sense of melancholy. Sadly, it’s the shortest track here at just under five minutes. But if Hammett can pen more music like this, he could have a second career scoring films in Hollywood. This is gorgeous stuff.
The Portals EP wraps up with an eight-minute piece titled “The Incantation.” The song lives up to its very metal nomenclature with an impressive exercise in symphonic power metal bolstered by touches of prog. As far as the heavy music contained on Hammett’s solo debut, this stands as the finest example.
It also makes us wish Metallica would indulge some more of Kirk’s ideas. “The Incantation” evokes shades of King Diamond, Opeth, and other epic European metal. Hearing Hammett shred out what’s literally been missing from Metallica’s music for the past two decades is cause for a bit of a side-eye glance. However, to digress from these qualms, it’s a fine song and a decadent way to end his first solo release. We know Kirk has more than four songs in him, and we eagerly await the day when we’ll hear more.
Essential Tracks: “High Plains Drifter,” “The Incantation”
Kirk Hammett’s Portals EP arrives Saturday, April 23rd, for Record Store Day. Check your local record shop for physical copies, or pre-order a digital version via Amazon. Listen to “High Plains Drifter” below.