There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to take stock.  He has to take a moment and a step back from the here and now and ask himself some soul searching questions, even though the thought of the answer might worry him; scare him, even.  Tonight, mere days after my 35th birthday, I asked myself such a question.

Do I like Metallica anymore?

Previously, I thought the answer was a simple and resounding yes but with the release of Death Magnetic less than a week away, I’m less confident.

It was Karen McPherson who got me into Metallica when I was 14 or 15 or so.  Karen loved Metallica.  She had a Master of Puppets patch on the back of her light denim jacket and her bedroom was covered in posters of the band and particularly the guitarist Kirk Hammett.

Thanks to her, I loved Metallica, too, although I never could see what she saw in Mr Hammett.  Those tunes are the soundtrack of a youth spent in cold bus shelters, drinking Smirnoff and Irn Bru, talking about forming a band, wearing woolly gloves, being spotty and looking down on people who bought the latest Jive Bunny single.  Whenever I hear the crescendo intro to Blackened, I remember those times.

And to this day, I still listen to them a lot and I catch whatever scant coverage they get on TV.  The recent performance at Leeds / Reading was excellent, as was the Hetfield interview on the Culture Show.

But I was reading the review to their latest album — Death Magnetic — in the Times today and was disappointed to see it only gets three stars and the reviewer seemed to be on the two side of three.  And it made me think, what was the last Metallica album I actually like?

In order, their studio efforts are:

  • Kill ‘Em All — the debut from 1983, when I was ten.  I’ve never liked Kill ‘Em All.  I’m anal enough (actually, I’m more than anal enough) to rate all my songs in my iTunes library and there’s not one from Kill ‘Em All that rates more than three stars.  So, 0/1 so far.  Off to a bad start.
  • Ride The Lightning — now we’re talking.  A year later and let’s just forget about that messy debut, shall we?  This is where it starts.  For Whom The Bell Tolls, Fade To Black, Escape, Creeping Death … all quality stuff and in songwriting terms a fucking quantum leap from Kill ‘Em All.  Well constructed, inspired lyrics and music. 1/2.
  • Master of Puppets — The album artwork that adorned Karen’s back makes me tingle before the acoustic opening of Battery even starts.  Battery is one of the best songs ever written.  Master of Puppets is, perhaps, the best metal album ever recorded and maybe even one of the best albums ever recorded.  In design, it’s practically a carbon copy of Ride The Lightning, but the ante is upped and the gamble pays off.  Damage Inc closes off the album and I still reckon that’s a fantastic name for a song.  A very definite 2/3.  I’m tempted to award another 0.5 just because.
  • …And Justice For All — now, this is where I actually entered the Metallica scene, in 1988.  Everything before this, for me, was a retrospective.  It’s an album that gets a bit of stick, primarily because you can’t hear the bass.  Rumour has it that this was a deliberate ploy by other members as a sort of twisted initiation for Jason Newstead who was replacing the late Cliff Burton.  Whether that’s true or not, I dunno.  But for me, back in 1988, this was a door to a new world of music.  The title track lasts nine and a half minutes and every time I listen to it (which is quite a lot) I’m surprised that it lasts more than four.  Maybe more albums shouldn’t have bass.  3/4.
  • The Black Album — what the hell is this?  It’s almost pop.  Thrash can’t be poppy, can it?  Okay, so most people will hear Enter Sandman and think Metallica and think Live 8 and maybe the Freddie Mercury gig, but this was as much of a step as the Kill ‘Em All -> Ride The Lightning transition.  It got them radio play.  It encouraged them to make videos.  And it sucks, just a little bit, because of these things.  I’d lost touch with Karen by this point, but I wonder what she would’ve made of this album.  Not a fucking lot, is my best guess.  3/5.
  • Load — I remember, back in 1996 when Load was released, me and Andy Fraser were looking forward to it so much that we raced to the shops from work at lunchtime to buy a copy.  Cars didn’t have CD players at that point — or at least ours didnt — so we hadn’t heard a note from the album by 5 o’clock and I wouldn’t until I got home.  I was through the door for a minute when the phone rang.  When I picked it up, Andy was playing the intro to Ain’t My Bitch at massive volume down the phone at me.  It rocked.  It’s an excellent song.  The rest of the album, not so much.  I’ve barely listened to it and to this day, some 12 years later, I’ve never listened to it all the way through in one go.  Over the years, I’ve begun to accept certain other songs such as 2 x 4, King Nothing and Until It Sleeps, but really, it’s not very good.  3/6.
  • Reload — by definition, it’s inferior to Load.  It’s the stuff that wasn’t good enough to make a not very good album.  If there was any lingering doubt to maybe give it a shot, one of the tracks is called Unforgiven 2.  Guys, if you’re going to record a sequel to one of your own songs, don’t be so cheap as to use the number 2 in the title.  I’m more than a little surprised that it doesn’t contain the line, “I’m still unforgiven.  By the way.”  Eurgh.  Avoid.  3/7.
  • St Anger — if Master of Puppets is perhaps one of the best albums of all time, this heap of shit has got to be one of the worst.  Not helped by any manner or means by the documentary Some Kind Of Monster.  Kirk Hammet has no spine and judging by his contribution to the songwriting process (“My lifestyle determines my deathstyle”) he has no lyrical ability either.  It’s a mess from start to finish.  There are no redeeming features.  It’s the sound that four multi-millionaires make when they no longer care.  Avoid at all costs.  3/8 with the removal of any Master of Puppets bonus points.

So, the last Metallica album I liked was released twenty years ago and, chronologically it was also the first one I’d heard and if that isn’t the cue for a midlife crisis, I have no idea what is.

And perhaps what’s more depressing is that despite all this, despite the mediocre review, despite the poor albums and the years in between, despite my better judgement, I’m still going to end up buying Death Magnetic next week and I might even bump into similarly jaded Andy Fraser and Karen McPherson in the queue unless, of course, they gave up years ago.

Next week, just to depress myself even further, I might go through my Radiohead back catalogue.  OK Computer, anyone?