Metallica‘s Kirk Hammett has finally made an EP of horror music. In the same way that Rob Zombie channeled his love of horror movies into a career of soundtracking and directing similar films, it seemed like blood-spattered destiny that Hammett would eventually do the same, musically. Not only has he done just that on his solo debut, but Portals features some of the heaviest riffing we’ve heard from the guitarist in some time.
Set for release on April 23 by Blackened Recordings, the LP started to take shape in 2017 as Hammett was preparing for his first It’s Alive horror exhibition in Salem, Mass. He wanted to have some background music that would play during the exhibit.
As he listened to “Maiden and the Monster,” the nearly seven-minute epic that kicks off Portals, Hammett realized that “this has already become something so much more than its original intention,” as he tells UCR. A second attempt, which became “The Jinn,” produced the same results. “Fuckin’ hell, it happened again,” Hammett adds, with a laugh. “Twice already!”
By then, he knew he was on a certain path. The title of Portals is deliberate, as Hammett sees each of the four pieces as gateways to myriad musical and psychic destinations. He says the music has an “audio-cinematic” approach, one that is meant to create “soundtracks [to] movies in your mind.”
Hammett enlisted a variety of musicians and collaborators – most notably conductor Edwin Outwater, who had previously worked with Metallica on S&M II. They bonded over their love of all things horror-related, staying in touch. As Portals took shape, Hammett knew that Outwater was a natural for the project.
He never saw himself recording as a solo artist, but things reached a point where Hammett knew he had something he couldn’t keep under wraps. “Shit, okay we’ve got to put this stuff out. It’s obvious now,” was his thought at the time. “This stuff is screaming to be heard.”
In Hammett’s view, it would be a “crime” for fans not to get a chance to hear the music. “It would be selfish of me to just think, you know, I could sit on this and just play it for people when I feel like it,” he explains. “When you collaborate with somebody, you make something of consequence. The next logical thing to do is just share it with everyone.”
During a recent conversation, he explained to UCR how the new music took shape.
The guitar solos on this new EP are intense. We get to hear the virtuoso side of your playing, but also your shredder roots. It’s an interesting hybrid.
Yeah, you know, there’s no real limitations put on me. When I was working on this stuff, I didn’t want to labor over any of it. So I said to myself, “If I can’t nail these solos in three or four takes, then I’ll just hang it up and wait until the next day, and then try and nail it in three or four takes.” You know, that’s what I did. These solos have no limitations on them. What I mean by that is, a lot of times when I’m coming up with solos for Metallica, I have to play for the song. I have to play within the context of the song. I have to make the solo somewhat accessible – and what I mean by that is, it needs to have hooky parts. It needs to have something that’s dynamic that catches your attention. You know, it needs to be somewhat commercial. That’s always kind of shaped my guitar solos, as well as working with whoever the producer is on that particular album – and also, with Lars [Ulrich] because Lars likes to micromanage everything. So when I’m in there doing a solo, he gives me input. That shapes the solos. It’s not 100% me. I’ve always kind of alluded to that. On this LP, it’s 100% me with no limitations and stream of consciousness. They’re all fuckin’ first or second or third takes because I just didn’t want to be caught up in the slog of, “I’m changing the solo because I don’t like this part or I don’t like that part.” Or it’s not shred-y enough or anything. I didn’t give a fuck about any of that stuff. I just walked up, I played the solo and if I felt it was an honest moment that we captured, [we kept it].
I didn’t try to fuckin’ outdo it or anything. If I felt like it fit the feeling and the emotion of the song, I said, “Great, I’m not going to second guess it; that’s what it is.” That’s what you get. You listen to the solos, and they’re not composed. You won’t see any weird cuts or weird edits. You know, sometimes you can hear weird cuts or weird edits in guitar solos. You won’t hear any of that. The last guitar solo on “Maiden and the Monster” was actually a first take that I did for the demo in a hotel room at two o’clock in the morning in Miami. [Laughs.] When we were recording the track for real and it came time to do that guitar solo, everything I did was not as good as that demo solo, so I just said, “Fuck it. I’m going to fuckin’ take the guitar solo from the demo and fly it in.” That’s what we did.
You’ve talked about how you had a very clear vision of what you wanted these songs to sound like. How did it arrive so fully formed?
Well, I mean, this is all kind of based on just the entire horror genre’s impact on my psyche ever since I was a little kid, you know? [Laughs.] I didn’t have to run out and start watching specific horror movies. I’ve seen so many horror movies, I’ve read so many books. I’ve collected so many posters and ephemera. I’m so deeply enmeshed in the genre. I can just think, “Okay, I want this kind of mood.” I picture it in my head, sit down with my guitar and capture it and put it into the track. It was amazingly simple for me to do all of the stuff. Part by part, I had a very clear vision of how it was supposed to sound, how it would work in the track and how it would work with the next part over. It was very, very easy for me to have a very clear vision of how everything needed to go because it was all informed by my love of horror movies and the genre. It was extremely easy for me to do something like this. It was shocking, but it’s because I have this own personal history of just being so in love with horror movies to this day. It was very natural for me to put myself into certain horror situations, trying to capture that mood. I believe I can do it with other genres of movies, as well. I’m exploring that now too. My joke is the next thing I’m going to do is write a space opera. [Laughs.]
To that end, these songs seem like a pretty good calling card for you to hand to anyone who might want to know what you can do. Has this started to open up any doors for similar work?
I’m hoping that it will. I feel that doing that stuff would be literally second nature to me. I’ve been so involved in being a touring/recording musician with Metallica that I’ve never really sat down and thought, “Well, can I do soundtrack stuff?” When I started writing this music and recording it, it was very apparent that I have the ability to do this. You know, judging from the consequence of all of the music that I’ve written for this EP, it’s very clear to me that I could do this. I could do it pretty fucking naturally. It’s because it’s part of my life. [Laughs.]
The intro of “The Incantation” has sort of a Star Wars / John Williams vibe to my ears. It made me wonder what the first film music was that made an impact on you.
2001 was definitely a huge, huge thing for me. When that movie came out, my dad took me to see it in a movie theater, and I was only six or seven years old! You know, for a kid to see that movie on the big screen, it was pretty huge. I mean, I didn’t understand a lot of it, but the mood of it, the atmosphere of it and the music made a really big impression on me. There was a point where all I wanted to do was listen to 2001: A Space Odyssey. I really think there’s been few soundtracks that have caught that futuristic sci-fi vibe like 2001 has. I think it’s even better than anything that ever came out of those Star Wars soundtracks – and there’s a lot of good stuff in there. John Williams is a great, great composer, but there’s something about that 2001 soundtrack. I mean, it really just goes to my core.
Did you get to use Peter Green‘s “Greeny” guitar on any of these recordings?
I used three guitars. I used Greeny, I used the wood-colored Ouija guitar and I used a Teuffel Tesla guitar, which is a German [guitar]. This guy named Ulrich Teuffel makes these amazing guitars. I love his guitars. The Teuffel Tesla was the perfect guitar for “The Incantation.” There was a drop tuning – and it has all of these little controls, it was just perfect for that song – but almost everything else was on Greeny [and] an ESP guitar. Oh, and there also was a Gretsch guitar on there as well, for “High Plains Drifter” for some of the more twangy guitar parts. I played a friend of mine’s Gretsch guitar.
Instrumentally, what’s something that you loved getting on this EP that wasn’t a guitar?
When the chamber orchestra came in to record “High Plains Drifter” and “The Incantation,” my eyes went to the guy who was playing the French horn. I came to realize that the French horn is actually the most difficult instrument to play in the entire orchestra – because you know, you have to do all of the intonation by yourself. You don’t have frets or the buttons to squeeze to guide you towards the intonation. You just have to do it yourself and that’s extremely difficult. Since then, I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff that has the French horn in it. It’s pretty cool. Edwin [Outwater] has such an extensive knowledge of classical music. Every couple of months, he says, “Oh yeah, you have to listen to this.” I’ll go find it and I’ll listen to it and I’ll go, “Wow.” It’s great stuff. I don’t know if that answers your question, but as a consequence of doing this, I’ve gotten even more into classical music.
Listen to Kirk Hammett’s ‘High Plains Drifter’
Only you could end up meeting a conductor and orchestrator who is also a horror fan, by the way.
I just couldn’t believe it! Literally, when I found that out, I could not believe it. You know, we just became instant buddies. He texts me all of the time, “Have you seen this?” “No, but have you seen this?” “You’ve got to get this book. Get this graphic novel!” We’re just constantly going back and forth on horror stuff and it’s great.
How did you find out that he was a horror fan?
He told me! He said, “I’m really into horror movies!” I’m like, “Oh yeah!” – because of course, you know, my ears are going to perk up. There’s one thing about being a horror fan in the present day. It’s another thing if you’ve been a horror fan since you were a kid. There’s a particular classification for those kinds of people. We call them “horror kids,” because you know when you get into the horror movies when you’re a kid, you’re also getting into the comic books and the toys and the books and the TV shows and just about everything else. It’s a level of commitment that only happens when you’re younger. Then you grow into an adult and you’re still into the horror stuff. Then, you’re labeled a “monster kid,” because you were into it since you were a kid. It’s different with fans who are monster kids and people who are horror fans present day that got into it in their 20s or something. It’s just a different thing. I’m a monster kid, you know? A person like Glenn Danzig and all of the Misfits, those guys are all monster kids. Edwin is a monster kid. So that bond over being monster kids is really, really strong. I mean, he sent me this one thing from this TV show that aired in 1974 that scared the shit out of him. He found a clip on YouTube and he sent it to me and I was like, “Oh my God, I remember this, from when I was in like fourth grade and this shared the shit out of me too!” He was like, “You can’t do that with people who are currently horror fans.” It shows a level of deeper commitment, I guess, is what I’m trying to say – and he has that.
Will you get to play this stuff live in front of people at some point?
Well, I’m still trying to figure that out – because you know, it would only work if we had a chamber orchestra. A chamber orchestra is a smaller orchestra of six or seven pieces or so. That’s what a chamber orchestra is. You know, I’m just trying to figure out how I would do it with a chamber orchestra, or maybe we’d put stuff on tape. Maybe the drums and guitar are live – or maybe I just play to a backing tape and I’m the only one on stage, or maybe we get a full band and just tour it with that. I’m still trying to figure it all out. I would love to take it on tour. Are you kidding me? To go up there for a half an hour and play this music would be epic. Adding to the show too – you know, playing some other songs, soundtrack-y stuff and writing stuff for the occasion or something. Whenever I get into something, I dive deep. I give it my full commitment. So if I committed to taking it on tour, I would only do it if I could do it effectively and 100%.
What’s the horror movie that you’re recommending to people right now?
I saw one called The Empty Man, which is relatively new, that I really liked. Nicolas Cage has come out with a string of really, really great horror movies lately. I mean, his track record has been great. There’s this one called Mandy that he did which was really great and another one called Color Out of Space, which was based on an H.P Lovecraft story. That was really great, as well. I love anything that Robert Eggers has done. He’s only done three movies, but he’s the guy who did The Witch and The Lighthouse. I’m looking forward to him doing Nosferatu, but I know that there’s some complications because of the pandemic, so I don’t even know if that’s happening or not. I’m also looking forward to Universal’s Renfield movie. Renfield was Dracula’s helper. So Universal is doing an entire movie about Renfield, and I can’t wait for that.
You have a lot of shared history together, obviously, but how did Bob Rock end up mixing these new songs?
When it came time to get the stuff together, it was last summer. Most of the stuff was recorded. But I still needed to do a few guitar parts here and there to add to the songs. All of it needed to be mixed. The four tracks needed to be mixed and I thought, “How am I going to do this?” You know, I can’t really travel to the mainland and do all of this stuff, because I have commitments in Hawaii and COVID is happening – but when things started to open up a little bit more too as well, I thought, “Wait a second, Bob Rock’s in Maui. I’m here in Oahu.” That’s a short flight and I know that he would be the best person to do this because he loves guitar and this is all fuckin’ guitar-oriented stuff. I mean, it’s guitar-dominated. The guitar dominates everything. I thought, “How about I give Bob a call?” I didn’t want to bother Greg Fidelman, because he had his hands full with all sorts of other Metallica stuff. I didn’t really know who else to call. So you know, when I thought about Bob, I thought, “That’s great because Bob and I are friends.” We have a great working relationship. We love the same stuff. We love the same guitar players, the same guitars, the same amps, the same types of music. We have a history and we’re buds. So when he came over to Honolulu, it was really cool to see him again and be working with him again. You know, when I see Bob, the start of those days were like this: We’d talk about guitars and music for fuckin’ two hours and then say, “Oh, shit! We’ve got to start working!” Then we would work. I mean, we just have a mutual love for this kind of thing. I really didn’t have anyone else to call. Like I said, I would have loved to have had Greg do it, but he was up to his neck in other Metallica commitments, so Bob was the next best guy. You know, he came through for me and really helped me out. I am really appreciative of that.
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