Kirk Hammett: Portals Album Review

“When someone does a side project, it takes away from Metallica’s strength,” frontman James Hetfield once said. Playboy. But much has changed since the busy days that gave birth to the 2003s St. Remorse and A kind of monster, one of the most revealing and intimate rock documentaries ever made about a band that apparently hates each other. At the time, Metallica was at a crossroads struggling with interband tensions, sitting through therapy sessions and even banning guitarist Kirk Hammett from playing any of his famous virtuoso solos on their new records. Today, however, Metallica, in the pleasurable role of senior statesmen, is content to repeat past glories and indulge in extensive mixtape projects like 2021’s Metallica’s blacklista crowded tribute to their 1991 breakthrough album, which grouped various artists such as Moses Sumney, Miley Cyrus and Kamasi Washington.

Portals, Hammett’s debut solo excursion and the first proper side project ever from a member of the long-running thrash band, arrived at Record Store Day with not only the blessing of his bandmates, but via the band’s own Blackened label. Recorded over five years in several locations, the instrumental four-song EP reveals Hammett’s ambitions to be a film composer, combining crescendoing horns, flamenco interludes, bulging strings – and of course oversized riffs and undisturbed shredding – to accompany compositions zombie westerns, gothic giallo thrillers or apocalyptic sci-fi. Sometimes his cinematic references are explicit – “The Incantation” opens with a theme that sounds like pure John Williams, and “High Plains Drifter” shares its title with a Clint Eastwood western from 1973 – but Hammett suggests an “audio film” “approach that is is not tied to any specific narrative, and frees up space for his imagination to wander.

While some of these songs began as background music for a Hammett’s it’s alive exhibition, a traveling showcase of memorabilia from his horror and sci-fi collection, he often avoids mood and stage surroundings in favor of fully present rockouts. It does not matter that the territory is more Thin Lizzy than Hans Zimmer; it’s a thrill to hear Hammett play so rudely. It evokes a sense of “larger than life” awe, the sound similar to the expression on Hammett’s face as he watches his 13-foot King Kong poster on the Columbia Museum of Arts YouTube channel. Opens “The Maiden and the Monster” fades in with John Carpenter-like synth swells and tape reversed guitar before falling into “Call of Ktulu” -like finger-picking. Drums enter the second half and when the epic reaches its end, it feels like one loadera Bond theme with Hammett’s Santana – style squeals hovering over a roaring fanfare. “The Incantation” follows a similar narrative journey in which its intro evokes Hogwarts’ magical ingenuity before making room for a psychedelic sitar break and overlapping riffs that are equally indebted to Danny Elfman and the proggy thug from Mastodon.

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