Here's something completely unexpected: a solo album from a member of Metallica. They've been around for over four decades now and not one member of the band has released anything solo. In fact, I seem to recall James Hetfield stating something about how it would never happen because it would only serve as distraction from Metallica. I guess times have changed. Metallica famously have, after all. And, almost as if to show just how far, Kirk Hammett, who's been their guitarist so long that only Dave Mustaine really remembers them without him, clearly chose to release music utterly unlike the music he's known for in his day job.
While there are moments that remind very much of Metallica, because Hammett's soloing is very recognisable, this is emphatically not a Metallica album. It's entirely shorn of vocals, for a start, a completely instrumental release; there are precious few riffs, so little of that ever-reliable James Hetfield rhythm work; and the drums aren't really there to keep time, at least not throughout. As heavy as it gets, and it's not unfair to label it metal, it never truly steps into any of the genres that Metallica have been known for. Maybe there's a section in The Jinn that would qualify, if it wasn't for the cello.
For the most part, I'd call this progressive metal or post-metal, but it dips more than its toes into the genre of soundtracks, music composed to accompany something visual, like a movie. We know that Metallica are aware of Ennio Morricone, as they open each gig with The Ecstasy of Gold, after it was suggested to them by the late Jon Zazula, their first manager. There's a lot of Morricone on this album, especially in High Plains Drifter, even though that western was not scored by him, and at a number of key points in The Incantation.
What else I heard in The Incantation was classical music, not that that's a long way away from the sort of thing soundtrack composers conjure up. The staccato riffing is reminiscent of Holst's Mars, the Bringer of War. The lively midsection is quintessential Mendelssohn. The lonesome beginning and frantic ending mix the unusual instrumentation of Morricone with the swells of John Williams who, of course, was massively influenced by Holst. Listen to The Planets and then watch Star Wars if you don't believe me. There's orchestration throughout The Incantation, even a sitar section.
And it's easily my favourite piece here, as well as being the most visual. None of this was created to score a movie, but some of it appears to have been composed as background to an exhibition of Hammett's horror and sci-fi memorabilia called It's Alive. I have no idea which bits and what they accompanied, but there's serious menace in The Incantation and I could easily see it put to use in the soundtrack of a horror movie or thriller. That doesn't hold true for everything here, but it all goes a couple of steps beyond what we might expect from an instrumental guitar album.
That's my biggest takeaway here and it's the biggest reason I like this EP so much. It's not there to showcase Hammett's technical virtuosity, though he does exhibit plenty of that, because it's not a shred album. It's not about taking the guitar into new places, either, like you might expect from a Joe Satriani or a Steve Vai. It's fundamentally about composition and feel. It's telling that while a guitar may be the central instrument, others often take over. There's cello on every track, plenty of other strings, horns and even a harp. There's plenty of percussion that isn't on a drumkit. All of this is there to add texture and feel and evoke some impression or other. And it succeeds.
I believe this is being marketed as an EP, but its four tracks add up to twenty-seven minutes, only a couple shy of Reign in Blood, so it's not a skimpy release, even if it's hardly an sprawling epic. It's a decision on your part as to whether you want to dive in, because it's not Metallica. The question is going to come down to whether that's a good thing or not. Right now, to me, it is. I've been a huge fan of Metallica since Ride the Lightning came out and I enjoyed this more than anything they've done since ...and Justice for All. Their choices as to which musical adventure to take next can be of greatly different validity, but this is emphatically a good one.
I want more of this and may well up my rating. The Incantation is a 9/10 for me. High Plains Drifter is an 8/10 and The Jinn is really close. And Maiden and the Monster, easily my least favourite track, is a 7/10. So this is closer to an 8/10 than anything. So be it. Now, let's have another EP, Kirk, with a similar lack of creative control from a certain overreaching drummer.