CD Review: Synthetica – Metric

Poor Metric!  They had the misfortune to drop their latest album during my sleep-deprived week of NXNE madness.  As such, I never got around to properly examining Synthetica.  Then again, that may have worked to their advantage.

You see, I love Metric the band.  They’re talented as all hell.  That said, all of their albums tend to be growers for me, and not a single one is A+ glory, start to finish.  I loathe at least two tracks on every single album they have.  To bastardize an old poem, when Metric is good, they’re very, very good; but when they’re bad….  Blech.

Having spent a significant amount of time with Synthetica, certain songs have been given the chance to move from “like” to “love”.  It’s also allowed me to run it alongside past releases in comparison and determine that Synthetica is probably the best Metric has ever been.  That runs counter to a lot of mixed fan reactions back in June when tracks leaked, but I’ll argue you to the end that Metric is a band that, like good wine, improves with age.

Let’s start the argument now, with a track-by-track examination of their fifth album, Synthetica.

Artificial Nocturne:  “I’m just as fucked up as they say,” Emily Haines remarks with a twinge of bitterness, opening up Synthetica with a moody, foreboding tune that speaks perhaps to the downside of fame:  the inability to escape the watchful, judging eye of society and the struggle to balance the private and the public life.  In keeping with theme of the artificial versus natural, Emily paints a picture of a life where even night is a construction.  Airy vocals and a guitar riff brimming with bottled frustration make this a stellar kick-off.  It should also be known that a nocturne refers both to night scenes and a piano piece, perhaps pointing to the fact that much “piano” in music these days is created on keyboards with an artificial “piano” setting.  The line “Fate don’t fail me now” should be remembered:  it’s the thread that ties this album together.

Reflection #2:  An instrumental transition that, although pretty, is unnecessary with a tracklist adjustment.  While “Youth Without Youth” may have sounded wrong next to “Artificial Nocturne”, “Speed The Collapse” would have been fine in terms of sonic shift.  Then again, from a narrative standpoint, the tracks fit together better as they are.  I suspect this track was literally created to deal with this conundrum.

Youth Without Youth:  Easily one of the best tracks Metric’s ever put out, the lead single is a rocking, sardonic composition that smashes together images of innocent play with scenes of chaos and destruction.  An anthem for the internet generation, where only misbehaviour merits looking up from a smartphone screen.  “Can you read my mind, read my mind?  Follow along to the end of the song,” Emily coyly directs listeners, and sure enough, the final lines make clear the song’s intentions.

Speed The Collapse:  While I liked this tune on first listen, it’s grown to be one of my favourites on this album (and perhaps part of my Metric top ten).  If the preceding track depicts the teens of turmoil (or a reflection upon those turbulent years), “Speed The Collapse” is a foreboding, cautionary tale of what happens when we lose sight of who we are, sacrificing it for the sake of adult success by others’ standards.  “Auctioned off our memories in the absence of a breeze/Scatter what remains…”  The mansions feel like metaphors for constructions of public image, with the house collapse symbolizing a crumbling facade. Again, that thread emerges:  “Fate don’t fail me now.”

Breathing Underwater:  I didn’t care much for this track on first, second or third listen, but now, I really enjoy it.  The more I pick apart the overarching theme of the album, the more relevant and meaningful it becomes.  Bright and pulsing like Fantasies-era Metric, the song reads like the mental dialogue of a star who’s just made it, and given the band’s meteoric rise on the heels of Fantasies, the dizzying and sometimes disappointing experience of “making it.”  They were right when they said we should never meet our heroes,” Emily sings, and one imagines one of those constructed “mansions of public image” from the last track came tumbling down upon Emily’s examination.

Dreams So Real:  This is one of those Metric songs where I love the message of it, but hate the instrumental side of it.  The synth-heavy, almost white noise feedback that carries through the song just induces a migraine.  Maybe that’s the point, but it’s frustrating, especially since the song is so confessional and telling.  “Have I ever really helped anyone but myself to believe in the power of songs, believe in the power of girls?  Though the point we’re making is gone…”  Emily wonders, before admonishing herself:  “I’ll shut up and carry on.  The scream becomes a yawn.”

Lost Kitten:  I hate this song.  I really hate when Emily Haines sings an entire song in her airy high-pitched notes.  It’s like nails on a chalkboard when done in excess, and “Lost Kitten” is one such case.  Again, it’s frustrating, because there are lyrical zingers in this almost dainty, strutting melody:  “I was looking for a hooker when I found you.

The Void:  With a sassy hip-sway groove, “The Void” is a song of admitting defeat.  No matter how big your ambitions, no matter how hard you try to rise above, by virtue of stepping into the world of celebrity, you are one more cog in the machine.  Another ghost within the void.  Everything good about the previous two tracks is here, which shows me that Haines et al. have the perfect album in them somewhere.

Synthetica:  The title track is another highlight of the album, with its punchy percussion and straight-up rocking guitar.  I’m admittedly more fond of Metric’s rocker turns (“Monster Hospital”; “Dead Disco”; “Empty”, for older examples).  It’s an outright refusal to play along with the synthetic industry and its army of PR/brand creators.  An anthem for originality and staying true to oneself.  “Hey, I’m not synthetica.  I’ll keep the life that I’ve got.”

Clone:  In spite of the bitter refusal to conform in the preceding track, “Clone” offers up a mea culpa.  “Call me out.  My regret only makes me stronger yet.”  Let’s face it, kids:  even Metric has bent under pressure.  You can’t not bend at times and survive/thrive.  The artificial that Haines holds disdain for has become a part of the band, like it or not.  The experience informs the music and its insights.  There’s almost a carousel music feel to this one, tying in nicely with the line “It’s too late in the day to take you on all the rides.

The Wanderlust: A lot of critics are falling over themselves to praise this track and honestly, it’s probably only because it features Lou Reed.  Allow me to serve it straight, and you can call it blasphemy if you so desire:  this is the second-worst track on the album.  In fact, on some days, I’d rather listen to “Lost Kitten”.  It’s a song delving into the impossibilities of maintaining relationships when one is a wandering soul with no privacy and the other is an “average Joe”.  It’s been done before in more remarkable fashion, and Reed feels like he’s been tossed in for street cred.  Nothing stands out – it’s average and typical Metric in terms of composition as well.

Nothing But Time:  Ethereal and lush with musical colour, the album closes on a repetitive mantra, one that builds over the course of the song.  A gathering of strength and resolve made sonic.  “Steal one, pay twice – advice to heed.  I won’t.  I might.” By the time the song hits its midpoint, optimism creeps in.  There’s a sense of closing the book on the first stretch of the band’s career, a reflection on lessons learned and determination fixed within.  “I got nothing but time, so the future is mine.”

Final Comments:  While Fantasies was a coherent album and very strong, Synthetica is ironically a little more real.  A part of me feels that between the two albums, one could assemble a coherent and thorough discussion of fame, image and the real versus the fake.  A perfect Metric album.  They’re not sonically mismatched; if anything, Synthetica builds upon the shifting base of the band’s sound.

Haines has always had a wry pen when it comes to her lyrics, but she wields it just a little more effectively here.  None of the songs I care less for have lyrical issues; it’s all in the instrumental composition or performance.  For that, I give the band heavy praise.  They’ve nailed that one area perfectly now.  Where the band needs to improve is the ability to know when it’s too much:  too much synthesizer; too much high octave;  unnecessary guest vocals.

All that aside, I think Metric is finally hitting their stride and is on the right track.  I look forward to album number six, because I suspect it may just be the Metric album I all-out love at last.

Highlights:  Artificial Nocturne; Youth Without Youth; Speed The Collapse; Synthetica

Lowlights:  Lost Kitten; The Wanderlust

Final Grade:  A-

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