Saturday, July 7, 2012

album review: 'synthetica' by metric

Short version: an intriguing, but flawed album from a band I can recognize is good, but I've never quite liked. In this review, I try to figure out why with mixed success, and take a look at a pretty good album that's missing the thesis statement that would elevate it to greatness.

Here's an odd question for you all: have you ever found something - be it a video game, a movie, a television show, a band, a song - that you've realized is quite good, but is just missing something to make them a favourite of yours? Maybe it's a flaw in the art design, maybe it's a bad character, maybe it's an awkward control, or maybe it's just a personal foible - hell, you might not even be able to distinguish what the flaw is, but you know it's there. You can fully recognize why other people like it, and you can even respect the talent and effort that goes into that thing, but you just can't get behind it like everyone else. 

I can answer the question definitively for a number of things. I know that Lil Wayne is really good, but his meandering flow and hashtag rap doesn't connect with me. I know the Foo Fighters are a great band, but there's something about their delivery and performance that puts me off slightly. I know both of these acts are really good, sometimes at the very top of their genre, but there's something that's preventing me from liking them as much as I want to.

And in the indie rock scene, one of those acts that I wish I could like more than I do is the Canadian post-punk New Wave band known as Metric.

This is going to be a weird review for me, because even as I'm writing this, I'm still trying to put my finger on what is blocking me from truly embracing this band. On the face of it, Metric does a lot that I like. The distorted guitars, the solid drumwork, the cerebral and layered lyrics, these are all the things I like in indie rock, and Metric is surprisingly consistent in providing that. They also innovate with their sound, write about something besides themselves and relationships, and they're surprisingly clever with their symbolism. 

But I don't know, something about them doesn't fit with me. It didn't surprise me that upon doing my research, I discovered that members of Metric once were roommates with members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which is another indie rock act I can't entirely get behind (albeit for different reasons). For me, relistening to Metric's mainstream breakout Fantasies was fascinating, because I could hear the band was talented, but outside of 'Gold Guns Girls' and 'Gimme Sympathy', there wasn't a lot that stuck with me. Granted, on every track there was a different interpretation upon the concept of living with fantasies, but there was something that wasn't clicking. 

Part of it is the lyrics - like most indie rock acts, Metric aren't nearly as profound as they think they are once the symbolism is decoded, but I have to admire the work that goes into constructing the intricate symbolism. But I think that's part of the problem - with the intricate setup to the symbols and metaphor, I expected more of a payoff and I didn't get it. But's that's minor and typical of most indie rock - I think the bigger issue is that Metric's songwriting on Fantasies has a problem with scope. 

Let me try to explain this: Metric is very good at constructing intricate symbolism and layered lyrics - but most of their songs are inwardly focused. They're writing songs about themselves - very intricate, well put together songs, mind you, with great instrumentation - but once you figure out what Metric is saying, you realize that Metric's really isn't saying all that interesting about themselves, and certainly not saying enough to dissolve the suspicion that the band is simply being obtuse for its own sake. The reason why 'Gold Guns Girls' and 'Gimme Sympathy' work as well as they do is partially because Metric is singing about someone else, somebody who seems a lot more interesting than Metric actually is.

I expect that explanation doesn't make a lot of sense, so let me lay out my other problem, a personal aesthetic quibble: Emily Haines never feels like a presence on her songs. Comparing her to, say, Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Haines doesn't seem to have a lot of energy to match the powerful instrumentation. In fact, when Metric put out 'Black Sheep' for the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World soundtrack and it was covered by Brie Larson in the film, I think Larson did a much better job (part of that is because Brie Larson is awesome, but that's besides the point). I think part of it is that Haines' voice never manages to sound all that mature - her lyrics are complex and interesting, but they're sung by a girl whose voice is so thin they lose relevance. And the general teenage-sounding voice coupled with the self-absorption I noted above really makes Metric look less mature and relevant and more in the vein of a teenage girl discovering her first thesaurus and writing oblique sillly poetry. 

But despite all that, I was intrigued by the early buzz surrounding their newest album, Synthetica. It also seemed that after the intricate poetry of Fantasies probably went over some people's heads, Emily Haines really wanted to make sure we all understood her intended theme of the album which is, as follows:

" about forcing yourself to confront what you see in the mirror when you finally stand still long enough to catch a reflection. Synthetica is about being able to identify the original in a long line of reproductions. It's about what is real vs what is artificial."

Huh. Well, thank you, Miss Haines, now I know what to look for.

Okay, I'm just being snide now, but I'm a little irked by the fact she felt the need to clarify things in a statement. The Flaming Lips roped together a whole collection of artists for The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, and they never had the need to do anything like that - they assumed you were smart enough to get it. 

But being completely fair to Metric, I actually dig this theme, the war between the real and the artificial, the blurring distinction between the physical reality and the digital reality and the associated changes to our lives because of it. Now, I could be a real jackass and say that Arjen Lucassen has been hammering on this motif for well over a decade in about five albums, but I won't - partially because, to my surprise, Metric kind of nails this.

I'm not even kidding here - and believe me, I was as surprised as anyone. Grimes may claim to be 'post-internet' (whatever the fuck that means - and no, I'm not reviewing any Grimes album yet because I still can't quite put together what the fuck her deal is), but I think Metric 'gets' the physical/digital conflict better than most. Part of this is due to the instrumentation, which I'd argue is the strongest of any Metric album so far. The retro-New Wave electronica blended with the distorted punk guitars does a great job musically carrying the motif of the album, and the added autotuning and synths on Haines' voice do the same (analogous to Kanye West's exploration of Autotune on 808s and Heartbreak). I think the real strength here is that she does manage to come across as surprisingly raw on some tracks, which lends the musical dichotomy further strength. 

But where I was most pleased were the lyrics. On the first five tracks, Metric nails this out of the park, with detailed observations of how the rise of the digital age has changed people. 'Artificial Nocture' first casts the digital world and the Internet as an escape for those who are damaged, a place where outsiders can gather, and it's her harsher delivery that sells this song. But that's just the introduction - the second song (and first single) 'Youth Without Youth' is a startling juxtaposition of old school yard games and more adult elements, a great set of symbols showing how exposure to the internet has effectively stolen the innocence of kids today. The next song, one of my favourites, 'Speed The Collapse', gets even darker as it explores the rise of internet schaudenfraude, how the misery and discontentment of others posted online draws the majority of our attentions, but also disconnects and dehumanizes us from our fellow people.

What Metric does next is important - after the avalanche of gloom, it switches things to a lighter tone with 'Breathing Underwater'. I'll admit, this song is significantly more challenging to decode, but the general sense of wonder that Metric's trying to convey, I'd argue the song is using the metaphor of 'breathing underwater' to simulate the sense of excitement and euphoria that does occasionally come in the digital world. It's a nice contrast, particularly with the next song 'Dreams So Real'. This song does a effectively brutal job of skewering the people who think that simple songs have such world-shaping power - and at the same time, Metric's own occasional pretentiousness (the self-awareness is a nice touch, I'll admit). 

Unfortunately, the album begins seriously losing momentum from there, as Metric begins to return to some bad habits with complex metaphors and symbolism ultimately not paying off. Their next song 'Lost Kitty' can only be described as cute, and since I'm fairly certain it's about an Internet porn star, it makes the song all kinds of uncomfortable (particularly when you consider alternate words for 'kitty'). The next song ('The Void') has even less content, as it seems to follow a girl trying to stay up all night to play video games with her boyfriend, and I'm a little amazed Metric wrung out enough material to write a song about it. And then we come to the title track - and as I should have expected, it doesn't pay off. Oh, it's good, and it completely sums up all of the themes Haines mentioned above, but my issue is that it's not nearly as nuanced as it could be. The first half of the album takes the presence of digital culture not as a good or bad thing, but simply as reality, but on 'Synthetica', Metric seems to come down very firmly against that artificiality. I'll give them points for noting the allure of the digital verse, but once again, there's just not enough here, and that's a problem - if you choose to use a title track, it's a thesis statement for your album, and I simply don't think it's a good one.

From there, the rest of the album is a mixed bag. 'Clone' is pretty enough, but also pretty empty and pointless. I was actually surprised how much I liked the next track 'The Wanderlust', which featured a welcome cameo from Lou Reed (another artist I'm still trying to formulate a solid opinion on). As a song, 'The Wanderlust' seems to explore the complicated fallout of meeting someone in person that you met online, and a desire for connection simply beyond the physical. It's a warm, genuinely interesting song - and it would have been volumes better earlier on the album. The last song 'Nothing But Time' also intrigues me, because it seems to be making a statement in the first half of the song about the theft of music (ultimately coming down to helpless acceptance of it as reality), but I suspect there's more going on here, as the second half of the song seems muse on the fact that the future is free for people to explore, because 'we have nothing but time'. Coupled with the generally youthful delivery of the words and the additional context of unrealized dreams, it could be a message of hope to the growing body of unemployed young people who generally do have 'nothing but time', telling them it's okay to seek their fortune through technology if they feel it can give them that sense of belonging... 

Or maybe I'm just reading way too much into things. Eh, it happens.

Overall, I liked this album despite a few problems, and while it's not enough to make me a Metric fan, it's enough to keep me interested. Unlike some acts I could mention, Metric is trying to evolve their sound and writing something somewhat interesting, and that's always encouraging. They're a band with a lot of potential who are only just beginning to realize it, and I'm looking forward to seeing more from them. If anything, I want to see them drive their ideas to their conclusion and make that strong, nuanced thesis statement. As it is right now, Synthetica feels a bit unfinished and it doesn't quite nail its central theme, but I get the feeling Metric will eventually produce something that does manage to tie it all together, and I'm looking forward to hearing it.

Coming up next... oh joy, Chris Brown, Maroon 5, and The Offspring all release albums, and each of them look from initial inspection to be fucking AWFUL. Well, instead of reviewing all three of them at once (the 'Cop-Out'), I'm going to give each of them the fair review they deserve.

Turn down the volume, folks, it's gonna get loud.

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