Metric - Synthetica

If there's one thing to take note of about Metric's outfit as both a band and a sound, it's lead vocallist Emily Haines' deeply emotive and testing delivery of lyrics across the band's more upfront and compelling sway of traditionally alternative and contemporary indie rock formulas. When the concept of a female vocallist pops up - spear-heading a band's expression onto both the physical and non-physical stage of music - it's not surprising that the majority are associated with drowning appliances of shoegaze filters or the upbeat quirkiness of more present-day electro-pop/indie-pop constructs. Haines on the other hand stands as both a figure-head and as a testament to the continuing string of strong, confident female vocallists whom remain fearless in the wake of an age where musicians take to the indulgence of one's voice rather than its honest beauty. But more than that, Metric's vocallist - like a Beth Gibbons or Shirley Manson for the contemporary age - remains one of the few stand-out females in rock circuits of an international scale. But to give credit to the equally-important members of the band, Metric have continued to push this honest modest rock aesthetic with a slight electronic kick in such a way, it's hard to push the Canadian quartet away as if the latter edges of their discography have seemingly become irrelevant. 'Synthetica', which marks the band's fifth outing, is also their first into the second decade of this third millenium. As we all know, music trends change as quickly as a weather forecast, but here, Metric show no sign of being left behind in the dust. And thus, the debate over whether past success is sustainable, begins.

'Artificial Nocturne' opens up with a warming sweep of synths, Haines' choice of vocal detail here melding into the swamp of electronics that creep their way through the opening third of the track. Soon though the ambience of the sounds are replaced swiftly with more associative beating of drums and guitar strings. For a track that gives a vast portion of its length to the build-up, the deliverance is quite admirable, but it doesn't add as much as one would hope to discover on the latter half of the song. Haines' vocals remain enclosed around the music - the rhythms of drums and guitars alike meshing into some kind of torrent of mellow alt-rock deliverance. Fortunately, the follower 'Youth Without Youth' doesn't waste time in letting itself out into the World. The guitars here are more raw and less reserved than previous, but here Haines feels less unsure more than anything about where her delivery lays in the overall mix. The simple one-two leading tempo actually works quite well in the larger scope of the track, and while the range of sound doesn't exactly alternate, the glow-like buzz seeping through is what makes this song catch interest.

There's a pattern running through the record of maintaining a steady and relatable beat to the song's progression - percussion being the stand-out (and sometimes stand-alone) instrumentation that the listener is quick to latch onto. And as the album continues on, there's a growing sense that both Haines and the other band members supplying the string-based sounds are fond of this similar pacing of what is mostly your typical steady alt-rock construct. That's not to say this is necessarily a bad thing, but one can't help but imagine this almighty omen of uncertainty creeping out of Synthetica's opening content. 'Breathing Underwater' then can be seen then, in regards to this issue, of a variation on this formula of previous. Anyone familar with Britain's steady output of four/five-man (emphasis on the 'man' part there) alternative bands over the past five years, will instantly find themselves accustomed to the mesh of in-between bass, the rising electric guitars and steady 4/4 timed drums. But what makes this track more than just a lead for yet another face-in-the-crowd band - that mainstream British rock has unfortunately looped and cycled into - is, again, Haines' deliverance and the way she spells out her modest emotion through the lyrics: 'Lights of days, will beat a path through the mirrored maze/I can see the end, but it hasn't happened yet'. True, this is a track that will no doubt lie on its potential hook through the lead lyrics, but here there is at least some considerate attention to the moments in-between.

Hooks such as these only emphasize Metric's balance between the alt-rock transgression of instrumentation and Haines' more pop-influenced delivery of vocals. This is no clearer than the track 'Lost Kitten' which here showcases a more colourful palette in Haines' singing. The hump-back of bass and skipping of drums add that latter pop-focused context to the band's playing, and when drawing comparisons between itself and the previous tracks on this records, it stands most importantly as a deserved branching-out from the band's usual rooting into contemporary rock structures. And given the fact that it's one of the shorter pieces not just on the album, but throughout the band's career, it deserves credit for demonstrating a keen eye for keeping things simple yet effective on the structural side. 'The Void' too carries on this same no-messing-about line of thinking - both the electronically-charged rung of guitars, and Haines' trawling voice, add a considerable measure of depth and playability to the song.

If there's one criticism I must bring to light, it's that the instrumentation doesn't exactly share the same intrigue and means of development that Haines shows in vast portions of this album. The self-titled 'Synthetica' for me lacks any differentiating mark on the album, and here I feel more focused on the vocals than I am the music, which is a shame given how passionate the drive of pace and rhythm is, here. 'Clone' too, while incorporating less of an organic sound in its drumbeat, doesn't necessarily push the boundaries. But more troubling is the way Haines' voice feels almost trapped by the music - caught in some kind of limitation for how far she can push her engrossing voice outwards. The closing track 'Nothing But Time', however, makes up for any lacking of venturing or misguided venturing that may or may not be recognized on first listen. The swatches of piano and synthesizers creates a hefty and motivating beat to the song. And while guitars - and the playing of said guitars - are lesser here than they have been, it doesn't take away from the band's signature drive of energetic rock. Again, I feel that Maines' choice of lyrics deserve some merit for actually reeling me further into the track - past the exterior layers of synths and drum beats. 'You always said love was not enough', Haines slowly burns her way in the midst of a track finally finding its feet, 'I wanted to be part of something/I've got nothing but time'.

Had it not been for Emily Haines and her continuing strike of delving vocals - both of a rock and later, pop materialism - there's a strong possibility I may not have given as much attention to Metric, as I have done here. It's a strong, and possibly misguiding, feeling to both express and suggest, but while I am impressed with 'Synthetica' as an outfitted collective, I do feel slightly wry about where the band go from here. I have no doubt long-term fans of the Canadian group will find this a refreshing burst of contemporary rock songs - with a splash of synth usage here and there - but as this marks, as stated, their fifth album, it's a record that is as much note-worthy for its future hinderances as much as it is for their present-day skills as a band. Nevertheless, in the here and now, the album we hear is all that matters. And what I've heard is deserved of praise.


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Discovery: Metric - Synthetica
Metric - Synthetica
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