Metric has been getting its house in order to greet some new visitors. Following some high-profile soundtrack contributions (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and respectable Billboard modern rock chart placings for singles from 2009’s Fantasies, the Toronto four-piece is on the cusp of the big time. Accordingly, the group’s latest release feels like a consolidation, one that focuses and streamlines Metric’s quixotically synth-loaded rockist swagger in anticipation of mass acceptance.
Sure, Metric is making a big ado about how its music is now being self-released, and that Synthetica is some statement about maintaining integrity in a dehumanizing industry. Whatever… Metric has always carried itself with a very classicist sort of rock ‘n’ roll attitude, the kind that gamely fits the more unnuanced popular conceptions of how rock stars should come across. On record, these neo New Wavers carried themselves as if they were the coolest people in the club, and long seemed that they would welcome heavy radio play and packed venues readily. Interestingly enough, on Synthetica the quartet feels more mechanical than ever before: the beats are rigid and exhibit a programmed flavor, the synths and distortion boast a shiny’n’buffed veneer, and Emily Haines’ vocal mannerisms are professionally delivered with unwavering preciseness. If mechanoids wanted to form a garage rock band, this is what it would sound like.
Metric could stand to be less mechanical on this record. As if assembled on a factory line, Synthetica is permeated by consistency and sameness, for good and ill. There are half-realized stabs at transcendent grandeur in the airy, drumless sweep found in segments of “Artificial Nocturne” and “Dreams So Real”. Aside from those moments, Metric is far more interested in relying on repetition and attitude to build up an album full of dancey, ultra-processed robot rock that sticks doggedly to its self-imposed parameters. Metric is a very rhythmic band to begin with, so it’s understandable that a cut like the single “Youth Without Youth” would be nothing without its brawny shuffle groove that barely wavers from its basic intent. However, Synthetica suffers from a lack of variance not only in beats, but in Haines’ phrasing. “Youth Without Youth” may eek by due to her cocky, cool demeanor, but “Dreams So Real” doesn’t have such a saving grace, as Haines utters her lyrics in a monotonous rhythmic pattern that turns the entire cut into the musical equivalent of a run-on sentence. After about 20 seconds of the same thing, it’s hard to not skip ahead on the tracklist.
Synthetica is not bereft of hooks—look no further than “Lost Kitten”, where Haines’ playtime-like melodies are charmingly delivered with a hint of a joyful squeal. What happens though is that Metric’s use of repeating phrasings and undiverging rhythms robs those hooks of their specialness, turning them into yet another overused motif and making the tracks hard to remember after a listen is concluded (“Wanderlust” inventively avoids the fleeting memory pitfall by adding a totally out-of-place Lou Reed on backing vocals—which raises the question of who in the world wrangles the croaky protopunk curmudgeon into a guest spot for his singing). That leaves listeners to fixate primary focus on the tidy production (perfect for 21st century modern rock radio), which is more commercially-minded surface glare than finely-crafted details.
If there’s one moment on Synthetica that has me thinking Metric is really onto something here, it’s the first minute of “Breathing Under Water”. There’s a majesty to the segment, where Joules Scott-Key’s snare drum flourishes build up anticipation behind Haines’ voice as it arches upward, gliding into heavenly high notes in the sweetest spots. Once the band settles into a fuller propulsive rhythm, though, the tension that was built up dissipates slightly yet enough to undercut the greatness song appeared to be on the verge of fulfilling. Suffice to say, Metric doesn’t make up for that spent promise elsewhere on the LP.
Synthetica preps Metric to hit the masses head-on, and while the presentation is up to snuff, it’s hard to get all that excited about the individual tracks. None of them really stand out, and there’s a distinct sense that the whole Metric aesthetic is more important than the songs themselves here. Which is probably not a wise move, as a full-length listen to Synthetica in all its endlessly-restating glory will only do more to hammer home how few tricks the band has up its collective sleeve.