Musical Journeys with Metallica’s Kirk Hammett
I’ve appreciated Metallica’s instrumental compositions, particularly “Orion,” but I prefer music with lyrics. Really, I’m obsessed with song lyrics. My book The Meaning of Metallica: Ride the Lyrics explores lyrical themes in Metallica’s songs, including freedom, religion, insanity, death, war, and addiction. I like a song to tell a story or at least poetically paint a scene. I’ve tried to get into instrumental jazz and classical music, but I always end up bored. That’s just me. So when I heard that Kirk Hammett was releasing a solo EP of instrumental tracks called Portals, I was only mildly interested.
In interviews, Hammett has expressed his love for classical, blues, jazz, funk, and other genres. So I expected something distinctly non-metal, something that would sound odd and inappropriate if played by Metallica. Portals, though, makes perfect sense as the product of Metallica’s lead guitarist. Yes, there are flamenco elements and traces of other genres, but the dominant non-metal sound is classical.
Metal fans are well aware of the potential synergy between metal and classical, and Metallica has recorded two live albums with symphony orchestras. I remember first getting excited about the potential fusion of metal and classical in the 1980’s with Randy Rhoads, whose untimely death left us wondering how he might have gone further in that direction. Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force was the first full-length fusion of classical and metal, and it has its moments of brilliance. But Malmsteen’s ego has never been able to get out of the way of his music, such that most of it simply sounds like a self-indulgent display of his technical proficiency. The same could easily have happened with Hammett’s album, but it didn’t.
Instead Hammett has blended elements of traditional metal with classical in a way that doesn’t just highlight his playing. The four tracks on Portals don’t exactly tell stories, but they do take the listener on brief journeys. Much of the music sounds like a film score, and with each piece Hammett takes us through a portal to another world. For example, the piece titled “High Plains Drifter” sounds like it could be the score to that film, though to my ear it sounds even more like it could be the score to Dune.
Of course, the tracks on Portals are not movie scores, and the worlds they create are much more open to interpretation. They are not bound to visual images of a fictional world. Nor are they bound to lyrics. As a result, the music is richly suggestive in a way that I’ve never fully appreciated before. Sometimes all you need is a good gateway drug, and Portals may just be the pill that finally gets me hooked on instrumental music.
William Irwin is the General Editor of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series and the author of The Meaning of Metallica: Ride the Lyrics.