Kirk Hammett has a confession to make. Metallica’s lead guitarist is talking about the band’s new album 72 Seasons, and how the energy within it comes from a spontaneous approach to writing and recording...
“First and foremost I’m an improvisational musician,” he says. “I’ve realised that everything you do is pretty much improvisation. Any songwriting is improv. Writing melodies is improv. Improvisation is playing guitar.”
And as he muses on this subject, he admits to a longstanding ‘fixation’ with one of hard rock’s greatest lead players, AC/DC’s Angus Young. “One of the things I love about Angus is how he never plays the same solo twice,” Kirk says, before adding in a conspiratorial tone: “I have to confess that this is the album that got my Angus fixation out of my system finally.
“I’ve been obsessed with AC/DC most of my life – Angus and Malcolm’s guitar tones, just their whole approach. I don’t speak too much about it because it’s a real common thing. Everyone’s blown away by AC/DC.
“But I’ve always marvelled at Angus’s guitar style because it’s the perfect combination of blues, hard rock and boogie. He has a lot of humour in his playing, and yet it’s just so intense. You can’t fucking beat it! Coming from Angus it’s just so organic. You know he’s not thinking about what all the guitar magazines are gonna say. He just goes up and fucking does it. And I love that.”
A similar ethos is at the heart of 72 Seasons, which finds Metallica doing exactly what they did in the ’80s. Not always sounding like they did in the ’80s, but determinedly being themselves without giving a single shit what other people think.
The weight of history can be a heavy burden. Metallica’s key albums – such as Master Of Puppets from 1986, and their self-titled multi-million-seller from 1991, forever known as ‘The Black Album’ – are landmarks in metal, which now come with more than 30 years of attached memories and myths.
Other legendary bands have been intimidated into mediocrity by that kind of pressure, but 72 Seasons has Metallica operating at full power, drawing on everything from their thrash metal roots to the heavy grooves of their classic early ’90s songs Enter Sandman and Sad But True. Some of 72 Seasons will remind you of old Metallica because this is Metallica. But all of it sounds reinvigorated.
Aside from 2011’s Lulu, the band’s one-off collaboration with Lou Reed, 72 Seasons is Metallica’s third studio album since bassist Robert Trujillo joined the ranks alongside Kirk and the two founding members, guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. And with Hetfield currently unavailable for interviews, it’s Kirk and Robert who speak to TG about how this album came together.
For Kirk, the years between this album and its predecessor, 2016’s Hardwired... To Self-Destruct, saw him rediscovering his earliest influences.
“I started a deep dive into all the guitar players that really influenced me when I was a kid,” he says. “Hardwired was me listening to a lot of Michael Schenker and that generation of guitarists. On this [album], I went back even further. I realised that there’s a generation of British guitar players that I love. I even like the obscure ones, like Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown. So I started relearning all this stuff, and that British guitar player influence really rubbed off on me when we started doing this album.”
Incredibly, ‘new’ bassist Robert Trujillo has now been in Metallica longer than Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted combined. While Kirk revisited British blues-rock, Trujillo took cues from his predecessors in the band.
“Cliff and Jason were so different in the way they play, and in their approach to the instrument,” he explains. “It’s very exciting for me because I understand what they did best. I have what I can offer to the song, but I can also pull from that existing bag of possibilities from Cliff or Jason. I love Cliff’s melodic approach.
“If you take a song like For Whom The Bell Tolls, it’s melodic yet edgy, and has that anthemic quality. He was so great at that, and also changing the sound of the instrument and bringing it into an arrangement. That idea wasn’t really prevalent in metal. Jason was just really solid. The Black Album has very well‑produced bass parts.”
Tonally, both Kirk and Robert’s choice of sound is influenced by James Hetfield’s gargantuan rhythm tone.
“One of the important things about being a bass player in Metallica is to find the sound that sits well between James’s and Kirk’s guitars,” Robert says. “Fortunately, our producer Greg Fidelman is really aware of that. On the record you can hear every note of the bass. The way the parts are slotted together, everything works so it becomes a team effort. There’s a lot of energy in the songs, so the sound is important, the attack of each note.”
Kirk’s British blues-rock kick also influenced his choice of gear. His main axe is Greeny, the 1959 Les Paul formerly owned by Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green and then by Gary Moore, which Kirk acquired in 2014 for an undisclosed price reportedly “less than $2 million”.
His guitar amp choices also reflect the tones of that era. When TG suggests it sounds like Metallica have been using Marshalls, Kirk replies “We always use Marshalls.” But while Marshall amps are almost always part of Metallica’s tonal equation, they have rarely been this prominent.
“I was so much more into Greeny’s sound, and that classic British thing of plugging a Gibson Les Paul into a 50-watt Marshall,” Kirk says. “I really fell back in love with that whole sound. I have a special Marshall that I use in the studio, a hot rodded ’80s Marshall. It never really leaves the studio, and whenever we record it always works its way into my setup.”
The secret sauce on his tone is the Solodallas Schaffer Replica EX Tower, a replica of the tone circuitry from the Schaffer Vega Diversity wireless system most famously used by AC/DC.
“It’s a type of preamp compression unit,” he explains. “People like Angus Young, David Gilmour and Eddie Van Halen were able to boost the output on that transmitter, hence Angus’s amazing guitar sound. So the Tower is a bit of a secret weapon – I can’t believe I’m telling you about it!
“It’s a large part of how I got that super dynamic lead sound. It’s really full sounding, there’s a lot of mid, but it doesn’t sound harsh or too bold or solid. The harmonic distortion is amazing. I hit a note on Greeny and it literally will never quit.”
He continues: “The tone on 72 Seasons is based on my live sound, which is a Fractal Axe-Fx modelled on a blend of my Fortin Meathead amp and my Dual Rectifier. We took that lead sound and tweaked a little EQ, added the Tower and we’re good to go. Maybe there’s a Tube Screamer in there also, because I just love that sound.”
For parts requiring a Floyd Rose, Kirk used an old favourite. “Guitar-wise, I just went back and forth from Greeny to my Mummy guitar. Why bother with anything else? The Mummy is my best-sounding ESP, and Greeny... everyone knows how that sounds! There was no need for a really crystalline clean tone. There’s not even a ballad on this album.”
That lack of ballads reflects the incredible energy Metallica felt when they first reunited after Covid lockdowns. Instead of mellow tracks, Trujillo says there was one key ingredient: big riffs. “You always go to that, go back to your anchor. A great riff makes songwriting a lot easier. When you have that you can play with it so many different ways. That’s where we incorporate accented rakes, muting, and all that kind of stuff.”
One great riff is on Screaming Suicide, which found Kirk paying homage to another early hero. “That is a complete tribute to Ritchie Blackmore. The melody is very reminiscent of what he plays in [classic Deep Purple song] Black Night. A large part of my guitar style and attitude comes from him. He had such a vision and he wrote great songs. I just feel indebted to him for his music and his spirit.”
In the first track released from the album, Lux Æterna, Kirk’s frenzied whammy solo drew a lot of criticism, of which he is well aware.
“That solo seemed to get people talking on the Internet to the point where people were doing their own version,” he says. “I was just laughing the whole time. Yeah, anyone could do a technically better solo than anyone else on any song, but what’s the point? My fucking friends down the street could probably play a better solo than Lux Æterna, but the solo that’s on there is part of the experience. For me, what’s appropriate is playing for the song and playing in the moment.”
He speaks again about the value of spontaneity. “I’m constantly working on my improvisation,” he says. “Constantly finding more ways to get within the groove. The groove is everything. If you’re in the groove it really doesn’t matter what you’re playing. You can even play outside notes, but if the groove is there you’re golden. You get a bad note? Play the next note and it’s good. After playing guitar for 40 years, I’ve come to this conclusion. I wish I knew back in the ’70s and ’80s, but that’s just not how it was meant to be for me.”
This renewed enthusiasm for improvisation comes from another of Kirk’s recent discoveries. “I’m really into prog and jazz fusion these days. A lot of those bands embrace everything that I was just saying. I missed out on prog while it was happening because I was into Tygers Of Pan Tang and Angel Witch. But I’ve discovered a whole world of music I love.”
He says that this desire for spontaneity extends to the entire songwriting process. “If we get to the point where we’re agonising over something, that means we need to move on to something else fresh. The last thing I want to be is stuck on any music, like I don’t have any more ideas and I’m too locked into this feeling. We never agonise over anything, and if anything’s too complicated to play, that means it probably shouldn’t be on the album.”
Spontaneous or not, the songs on 72 Seasons are all meticulously arranged, and the intros are a particular highlight, as Robert points out: “Pretty much every song builds into something. It doesn’t start out as the thing it’s ultimately gonna be,” he says. Similar care was placed in selecting the tracks for the album. “It’s like you’re looking at works of art in an exhibition and each song has its place in there,” he continues. “You take songs like You Must Burn or Chasing Light, and then you take a song like Room Of Mirrors and it helps complete the overall picture.”
Kirk’s contributions, meanwhile, are focused on melody and hooks. In many songs he memorably doubles Hetfield’s riffs in a higher octave. “Sometimes not playing a harmony but playing an octave is just as effective,” he reflects. “We tried harmonising a lot of the stuff, and sometimes harmonies just make something sound a bit more pretty than the intention.
“If you play an octave, it kind of underlines the statement. If I could sum up my playing on this album, my solos are mostly rhythmic. That’s just how I feel like playing these days. I really wanted to sit in the rhythm, lock in with the groove and play for the song.”
For Kirk, playing for the song means more melody and less shred. “I don’t try to reach outside the boundaries of the song,” he says. “I don’t think that’s appropriate. I could string together six or seven three-octave arpeggios, sit there every day and practise it and go, ‘Hey, look what I can do!’ But where am I gonna put it?
“Arpeggios mapped out like a lot of people do, four or five chords with a different arpeggio over each one? Come on, it sounds like an exercise. I don’t want to listen to exercises and warm-ups. The only guys who I think play arpeggios as a means of expression are Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen and Paul Gilbert.”
Warming to his theme, Kirk argues that melodic playing is both more meaningful and, counterintuitively, more difficult than shredding. “I could fill up these songs with a bunch of really fast modal playing,” he says. “I know my modes, Hungarian scales, symmetrical scales, whole tone scales, I know all that shit. Is it appropriate? Diminished runs – is that appropriate? Maybe earlier in our time, but not now.
“What’s more appropriate is coming up with melodies that are more like vocal melodies. And guess what? The best scale for mimicking vocal melodies is the pentatonic. There’s a reason why the blues is so expressive, and it’s because of pentatonics. I prefer pentatonics because they’re more expressive.
“It’s actually harder to say stuff with pentatonics because you don’t have that many notes. It’s easier to play modal, because you’ve got so many notes. Okay, some of them are repeated in different octaves, but I will challenge anyone on that. One, two, three, five notes – what’s more difficult? You tell me.”
What Kirk says in conclusion is that this passion for improvisation will be carried forward into Metallica’s live show, which UK fans will witness over two nights at the Download festival in June.
“I have every intention on playing every solo from this album differently when we play live,” he says. “If you watch old videos of Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, or even Michael Schenker, they’re not playing the solos on the album – they’re playing whatever the fuck they wanna play. I love that because it’s a moment of real honesty.
“With this album I went in intentionally to improvise 20, 30 solos, give them all to Lars and Greg, and go ‘You guys edit them!’ I know I’m gonna play something completely different live, so I can offer something different every time you see Metallica. When you buy a ticket to a Metallica show, you’re not gonna hear carbon copy versions of the album.
“At a time when it’s just so accessible to see videos of your favourite band, there needs to be some sort of impetus for people to go out and see live shows that are actually somewhat spontaneous.” He laughs. “That’s my thing these days – and if people don’t like it, that’s just tough!”
- 72 Seasons is out now via Rhino/Blackened Recordings.