Tuesday, June 12, 2012


So, obviously, it's been a while. The reasons for the hiatus are numerous, but not particularly interesting or compelling. Just busy. But rather then spend much time discussing why there hasn't been any posts, how about just dive back in with a full-on review. And it should be a good one, for a group that I've referenced on four occasions (reviews of The Arcade Fire, Ra Ra Riot, Gold Motel and Eisley all include mentions of this week's profiled act) and one I've been waiting to assess since I began this space. Plus, they're Canadian, which is always a priority here.

Synthetica – the title chosen by the Canadian indie rock quartet Metric for its fifth full-length release (out today on the band's Metric Music International label) – is not only fitting for the tone and style of the new record, but is also an apt summation of the group's overall sonic approach.

Allow me to spend just one paragraph expanding on the concept of synthesis. For most, it's a phrase that you hear often enough, but is one that doesn't benefit from much wider understanding of the term's ultimate meaning. You see, synthesis is the merging of two ideas which stand in stark contrast, and of which one necessarily precedes the other: the thesis and the antithesis. Or, in other words, the synthesis is a bringing together of an original concept and its oppositional response. Those of you who are or once were policy debaters might understand this in terms of the plan, the counterplan and the permutation (or, if you're more critically inclined, the affirmative statement, the kritik and the permutation). Michael Stipe even once commented on the opposition of thesis and antithesis in his famous screed against policy debate, "It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," singing, "offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline!"

It is in this framework of the origins of synthesis that Metric's similarly-titled offering should be considered. Namely, Metric – and more precisely the work contained on their most recent 11-track compilation – is inherently a synthesis project, bringing together the original sonic thesis (rock-n-roll) with its antithesis (electronica) in a manner that incorporates a portion of the respective components of each into a unique construct of it's own. I've always found their catalog an engaging and well-executed pairing of rock and electronica to form a final output that should equally satisfy proponents of both styles. The four-piece continues this good work on Synthetica.

The group eases into the blend, with opener "Artificial Nocturne" and it's sufficiently-electronica sounding title, verging more to the antithesis rather than the rock foundation. Much in keeping with singer Emily Haines' tendency to avoid lyrical subtlety throughout her career is the number's opening line, "I'm just as fucked-up as they say / I can't fake the daytime," hanging hazy over a grainy wash of synthesizers and other manufactured noise provided by Haines and James Shaw, who trades-off with Haines on guitar and synth. The realization of the synthesis first occurs just past the two-minute mark, as the precise but not thundering rhythm section of bassist Josh Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key steer the proceedings towards the band's rock instincts.

One of my few gripes with the unit's approach has always been Haines' reliance on repetition in her lyrics, which is evident again at the outset of the new material. Not that they're inherently bad lyrics on their own, but her frequent go-arounds on both verses and choruses make the songs seem longer than they should. But it's hardly a fatal chink in their armor, and she nearly always compensates for the lack of ingenuity with her pearl-quality vocal clarity.

What comes next, however, should make an easy fan out of anyone unfamiliar with the band's style. Lead-off single "Youth Without Youth" is pulsating from its opening strains, muscular and driving courtesy of the efforts of Winstead and Scott-Key. It would be easy to accuse Metric of a blatant rip-off of the Muse's smash hit, "Uprising," (another fine example of the rock-electronica synthesis) but for the fact that they've been at this for nearly the same amount of time as their UK mates, and deliver it just as effectively.

Meanwhile, "Speed the Collapse" is a touch less anthemic and brightened up by more straightforward, piano-sounding keyboard parts from Haines. The track is buoyed by a natural energy and infectiousness that belongs among the top highlights of the band's catalog such as "Stadium Love" and "Glass Ceiling." Haines' lyrics suggest an urgency bolstered by linear rhythm luring the song along like a baited hook through fast-moving current.   

"Breathing Underwater" features a looping guitar track from Shaw reminiscent of The Edge's early work, while Haines contributes a full-throated, hooky chorus much like Bono accompanied so many of his guitarists' jangly constructions. Of this trio of big, catchy numbers, "Breathing Underwater" is the most rooted in electronical, but the group deploys its synthesizers and computers effectively to yield a ethereal mist that compliments the melody, not fragments it. To a more rock-first listener such as I, the electronic tools and techniques are appetizing here instead of force-fed.

And while the dawn of "Dreams So Real" threatens a jarring rake of "strange machines and thumping bass," it really only suffers from the aforementioned sin of incessant repetition. Still, its my least-favorite option here.

"Lost Kitten" is much in the Blondie-does-disco vein, with Winstead's rubbery bass line and Scott-Key's steady snare. Haines dances around the upper reaches of her range during the cloyingly suggestive narrative but doesn't tumble off the cliff – the measure of a seasoned vocalist – while Shaw contributes some welcome acoustic guitar and bouncy chimes. Unfortunately, "The Void" isn't too far afield of its title – a little too synth-and-drum-machine heavy for my taste, but benefits from a little more lyrical direction and melodic direction than its counterpart, "Dreams So Real."

The title track is a pleasant return to the rock-electronica balance of the earlier numbers, an appropriate reinforcement of the record's predominant theme. The band is at its stride in tracks like this, forceful in drawing your attention, but graceful in ultimate execution. By the time Shaw reels out his swaying solo around 2:45, the number's promise is realized. Even better, the breezy "Clone" is the record's light-weight counterpoint and is the type of ballad the band doesn't have enough of.

The closing duo of "The Wanderlust" and "Nothing But Time" are fine, but generally end-of-album filler. The appearance of Shaw on echo vocals on the former is a new twist, although he's nowhere close to Haines' league and doesn't add all that much.

Come for: "Youth Without Youth"
Stay for: "Speed the Collapse"
You'll be surprised by: "Clone" 

P.S. I would have liked to have had time to for more discussion on the larger rock vs. electronica debate. You could start as early as David Bowie and Pink Floyd, get sucked into the swamp of New Wave vs. Punk, and spend some time in the late 90s / early 2000s arrival of full-fledged electronic in the form of The Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin. Today, there's some very interesting hybrids in the likes of M83, Passion Pit (to receive the full NMT treatment for their forthcoming Gossamer on July 24th) and Matt & Kim, among many others.

P.P.S. Another topic that could have used some more attention here is the spawning of Metric out of the massive Toronto musical collective, Broken Social Scene, which also spun of Leslie Feist and Stars (NMT). If you're yet unfamiliar with the background on BSS, you may want to spend some time doing so.

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