Kirk Hammett, ‘Portals': Album Review
Under any other circumstances, Kirk Hammett would be the star of his band, dazzling fans with his breakneck soloing and tireless stage presence. But ever since he threw his lot in with James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich nearly 40 years ago, the long-suffering Metallica guitarist has resigned himself to a life on the sidelines, content to diffuse arguments between his public-facing, impossibly obstinate bandmates and hit the surf as they scrubbed his guitar solos from records.
So when Hammett announced his debut solo EP, Portals, fans appreciated the momentousness of the occasion and were excited to get their first glimpse of the guitarist's unbridled creative vision. Those fans will have plenty to sink their teeth into on the four-track collection, which combines eerie, cinematic soundscapes with the earth-shaking riffage that made Metallica a household name.
At 27 minutes, Portals is closer to a full-length album than an EP, with three songs landing in the seven- to eight-minute ballpark. Hammett, a noted horror movie aficionado, wasn't bluffing when he described these tunes as "soundtracks to the movies in your mind." It's easy to imagine a movie or video game protagonist excavating a tomb during the foreboding first half of EP opener "Maiden and the Monster," only to sprint toward the exit as an undead beast chases them during the blistering second half. "The Incantation" starts with a majestic, John Williams-esque intro courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra before morphing into a creepy, carnivalesque waltz full of gonzo, wah-drenched shredding.
While Portals' orchestral and metallic elements both succeed on their own, the segues between them are occasionally clunky, and Hammett leans on some by-the-book pentatonic soloing on "The Jinn." Thankfully, these missteps are few and far between. Repetition is one inevitable consequence of playing in the biggest metal band in the world for 40 years and writing some of the genre's most iconic riffs and solos, and Portals' enthralling arrangements and moments of sheer exhilaration far outshine the rare bum note.
Ironically, Portals achieves its most epic grandeur on its most concise track, the sub-five-minute lead single "High Plains Drifter." With its evocative string arrangement, playful piano flourishes and gorgeous, soaring guitar solo, "High Plains Drifter" stakes its claim as the most dynamic piece of music Hammett has written in the past 30 years. It's also remarkably, almost disconcertingly, similar to "The Ecstasy of Gold," the Ennio Morricone composition that's been opening Metallica concerts since 1983. It's hard to fault Hammett for being influenced by what he knows — and it's mighty impressive that he came within striking distance of the master on his first try.