Metric has some of the best use of electronic synthesizers that has ever graced music. Emily Haines is a master at the keyboards, and her sounds can only be described as other worldly. Along with her guitarist, James Shaw, she is also a master songwriter. Metric songs are impossibly singable while having a lot to say about human existence and our place in the world, and if that isn’t enough, Emily has a beautiful voice and is a gripping singer and performer. The band has revived new wave sounds into highly original compositions that are entirely danceable but also able to capture a traditional rock aesthetic, especially with the excellent guitar work that James contributes to the band. Metric creates a genuine feeling that the roots of rock and roll are being catapulted to some dark and strange future of powerful electronic pulses and glimpses of visionary insights we don’t usually realize or see.
As a live band, they are deeply transcendent. At the Fillmore Auditorium on March 20, the band was as mind expanding as being on board a spaceship, and it was impossible not to move and sing while Emily danced across the stage. Metric songs are a celebration of life. So having someone who loves to dance to her own songs comes across less as entertainment than as profound clubbing and the kind of release that happens when completely lost in waves of sound, as though they are carrying one’s existence to a different place. James is an accomplished guitarist with beautiful classic rock styling that seems to capture rock tradition against Emily’s ethereal, groovy, and haunting keyboards. Her use of synths creates such a powerful electronic layer for the band that it almost feels like having your brain rewired by electronics.
That experience is one of the more powerful things that can happen with the best electronic music styles such as industrial, dubstep, and house when they are done intelligently and less commercially, but like industrial music, Metric manage to combine electronics with rock into a natural harmony. They lack the breakages and the sampling that characterizes industrial music in favor of synth driven beauty and light with strong hooks propelling their songs into very unified depictions of life on each album. The result is a synth rock band that succeeds at recreating new wave music in a very original way. Up front with this band at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver was one of the friendliest experiences I’ve had at a show. The off mic comments from Emily were charming, and standing in front of James’ guitar for much of the night was a pleasure of traditional guitar sounds from a positive personality who is very much in tune with his instrument and the whole canvas of what guitar sounds are capable of doing, both traditionally and alongside newer electronic canvases. It’s hard to find a band that is so positive and innovative while at the same time capturing beautifully dark aesthetics about a pessimistic world all within deeply authentic rock tradition.
Emily Haines’ skill on synths is a revelation, and the songs are profound as well as catchy. They’re as fun to sing with as Ronan Harris’ imminently singable songs with VNV Nation, because the lyrics actually say meaningful things at the same time as being catapulted by beautiful keyboards, strong messages, and elevated ethereal moments. Metric is doing something that is a bit similar to VNV by using their songs to show an experience of light amidst darkness, but they are far more a part of rock tradition and less tied to goth subculture.
The lighting setup that Metric used on their stage was absolutely beautiful with glowing lights of different colors and shades cast around the stage and performers. The lights captured the intent of the songs perfectly and painted the stage with illumination that seemed to exactly correspond with Emily’s keyboards. The central staging she gives to her keyboards just in front of the drums makes them look like a shrine to synthesizers or part of an electronic church that was built inside of a spaceship. When she heads over to play them attention shifts from her vocals to the keys, and every touch is so magical that the room practically spins as strangely beautiful sounds come out in a transcendent broken harmony that has an odd way of seeming like it continually progresses to still more peaks as one note glides gently but forcefully into the next.
The keyboardists who stand out to me the most besides Emily and classic figures are Nero of Psyclon Nine and Jeremy Dawson of MXMS and Shiny Toy Guns, which admittedly has a lot to do with my love for industrial music, but I enjoy the strange innovation and experimental impulse with edges of beauty that these musicians bring to electronic instrumentation. Emily’s playing is deeply soulful and rhythmic. It’s also spacey and does the best I have ever heard of making synthesizers sound like pure light. Her harmonies are beautiful, and the deeper sounds she produces capture odd and moving vibrations that work their way even deeper into a person’s awareness by being contrasted with her higher notes that seem to float above the horizon of the other instruments. The whole mixture seems to fall somewhere outside of normal perception, as though her keyboards are somehow above everyday awareness, a sort of dark psychedelia without any drugs.
Into this powerful mixture comes Art of Doubt, a very beautiful and accomplished album. The only hard part about making the case for it is that the earlier Metric albums are also incredibly accomplished. However, this particular album has a beautiful way of capturing darkness, angst, and absence that makes it a standout, and that does make it seem like a beautiful advance on 2015’s Pagans in Vegas. Die Happy has gotten a lot of attention from the band on tour with its powerful line of, “Is this dystopia?” being emboldened on the drumhead as a backdrop for Emily’s imposing and oddly geometric keyboard setup. It is a profound question to ask right now, and part of the beauty of Metric’s songwriting is that they are deeply existential even with all the danceable beauty of their songs. Asking whether we live in a dystopia in 2019 is a very serious question that can plausibly be answered with a yes for a variety of disturbing social and political reasons having to do with corruption, the concentration of power and resources into the wealthy which is bolstered by increasingly low wage jobs, and the rise of fascist tendencies in western politics. Besides those concerns, war fighting and technology being used to surveil, exploit, and oppress people are major worries. Amidst all of that though, continual exposure to electronic screens and trickery from social media and other places leaves people more encouraged to be superficial and false than ever. Then if all that’s not bad enough, the environment is also nearing massive collapse.
It is very reasonable to say that dystopia is literally the present then, but Emily’s response is a wonderful embrace of life and not giving a fuck. Metric songs strongly encourage people to go and live, because negativity is built into the world and is best handled by doing the best one is capable of and embracing life regardless of surroundings or circumstance. The act of living life itself in accord with one’s better nature is what breaks through negativity in these songs. Like many of the very best musicians, Emily’s songs find better things within the potential of humanity than to be exploited masses, and following the grace of one’s own spirit and refusing to give up or to do nothing help to overcome dystopia. At the same time, Emily and her cowriter James have an awareness of how limited and negative the world is, and dystopia would seem to be a real thing to this band.
Dark Saturday opens the album nicely with a song about living to overcome darkness. “Forever and ever, a night in search of the day,” describes looking for brighter things while living as an outsider and reveling in the fun of nocturnal life. Love You Back is a soulful song with very penetrating rhythms and Emily’s voice singing in a quiet and high register. “I wanna love you back so bad,” portrays desire and closeness amidst hesitation and disappointment. The song is existential, because Emily doesn’t sound trusting after previous disappointments. So the pleasure of connecting is placed around the brokenness of existence and fractured life as she sings, “I’ve been held in place with wire and lace and waltzed around the drain.” So the song sounds both dark and exuberant, a fun waltz of pleasure and disappointment at once brought into harmony.
Now or Never Now is about living in darkness as well. The beautifully sung refrain of, “It’s now or never,” accompanied by soft sounding keys emphasizes the need to take life and not wait, ignoring how broken everything might be to simply live the way people are meant to. “The last time you let yourself feel this way, it was a long long time ago,” suggests both loss and fright. Art of Doubt as the title track then captures the album and Emily’s beliefs very well. It’s a kind of existential skepticism over the certainty of life and other people through which she recognizes the need to create and live nonetheless as the only way to fix anything. Whatever happens around us, we exist, and we should control our own lives and do things with them. By doing so, we realize that what happens around us doesn’t even matter very much, because within every person, there is much more for people who are brave or inspired enough to embrace creation and life.
The entire album is strongly split between both existential ideas and transcendent ones. Underline the Black has the memorable line of, “They’re still waiting for their lives to start.” It’s a line that seems meant to get a reaction from the audience, making a difference to all of us through conveying inspiration and a deep understanding of existence. Many people do effectively devote their lives to petty things and thus never really live. For a highly existential band like Metric, dying while doing something great and trying to succeed is not such a bad thing while not being yourself is a horror. Life is about living and doing, and that ultimate life affirmation drives much of the album. The brand of existentialism that it has a lot in common with is Jean-Paul Sartre, with his claim that humanity is ultimately free, that we are obligated to control our fates and recognize that existence is inherently a horror no matter where one is. The only way to overcome that horror is to live and to do things, taking ownership of one’s narrative.
Dressed to Suppress takes the superficiality of looking good to overcome negativity and turns it into making yourself who you want to be. Sorrow exists and is part of life, but making oneself into something above it can go from appearance to reality if we go out and live and create ourselves into who we choose to be, as though existence itself is an X waiting to be filled in by what we choose to do for ourselves, by what thrills, moves, and engages us to act. It has some of Emily’s best and most interesting singing with fast emphasis on her lines. Risk is another existential song about the risk of connecting with someone. Every line of the song is memorable and beautifully sung, and it’s one of the most fun songs to sing along to. “Can I send this kiss back to you now, ‘cause the risk belongs with you somehow? Can I return this kiss that you gave? Already know it’s borrowed anyway. Was the risk I sent to you received?,” Emily sings skeptically. She later tells us, “There’s another way to leave the garden of eden,” which seems to be a reference both to falling and also to innocence.
Seven Rules is about finding safety with someone else and is slow and beautiful, making a transition into quiet melody after the album has done an excellent job of preparing us with so many sweeping keyboard passages. After the skepticism of relationships on the previous song, this one celebrates being safe with someone, and it is lovely for its dryness and lack of excessive emotional drama. It lets the song remain existential and authentic, an examination of connection rather than a superficial ballad. Holding Out by contrast is about waiting when we should be doing things. Waiting for tomorrow or better situations effectively wastes the limited lives we have. So the time to live is always now. Anticipate takes Emily’s ability to make her keyboards sound like a UFO and amplifies it to absolutely strange sounds that are beautiful in a haunting way with a remarkably dark echo under her heavier choice of keys. No Lights on the Horizon is an especially deep song with its sensitive line of, “If it wasn’t for your kindness lately, I’d never get out of bed.” Then Emily makes what seems to be a statement about the human condition with, “It’s true. I’m flawed. I’ve made every mistake.” That is part of living and having awareness rather than regret, and the song is a very dark close for the album that clearly emphasizes the pervasive darkness and romantic nihilism that has been carried over from goth rock.
The entire album is a powerful statement and musical journey, and it is even more interesting against Pagans in Vegas with the two albums showing two complementary sides of synth rock. The synthesizers in Emily’s hands have a moving capability of conveying deep, soulful, and ethereal sounds with gliding and subtle shifts between notes that allow for every other instrument to achieve new forms of expression. Pink Floyd is a nice touching point for me in seeing how they fit against rock history for creating such an innovative sense of going on a journey through music and discovering a new palette of possibilities. The production on the album is especially beautiful and well balanced with nuances of sound laid throughout such that the smallest of vibrations is clearly audible. It’s a relief compared to the endless stream of overly compressed albums that are made to play on junky 21st century earbuds with no dynamic range. The album cover also fits the strongly existentialist nature of Art of Doubt. The empty circle looks like the Zen use of the enso symbol. In Zen it is used to show emptiness, but most especially the emptiness of the self, and Emily is laying bare the human soul as an open place waiting to be given meaning and to make its own existence.
The songs were especially beautiful live, and the album seems like a Zen celebration of nothingness begetting life. This was even more profound with seeing Metric play these songs against older ones like the great Sick Muse from Fantasies. “Everybody just wanna fall in love; everybody just wanna play the lead,” captures Emily, the band, and the reverie of the audience all very well, with conflict and beauty clashing to become a new transcendental melody. After one realizes how much nonsense everything around us is, living and enjoying absurdity by going out and doing things is a fun response to embrace. Gimme Sympathy and Gold Guns Girls also made the point of their music very well at the concert. Songs from the masterpiece, Synthetica, also figured prominently in the set, with a very moving performance of Breathing Underwater standing out as showing that the band’s celebration of life comes with a strong acceptance of struggle. It is no doubt one of the best bands in the world to see perform and one of the most beautiful, authentic, and inspiring shows.
They are overall the best and most original synthesizer based rock band one can see. The skill Emily Haines brings to her synths reminds me of true instrumental greats such as Charlie Parker with his saxophone. James Shaw adds wonderful classical styling through the intricate riffs from his guitar, and this lets the band coexist as an innovative project with moving electronic sounds and a landscape that deeply draws on and advances ideas from classic rock. It’s telling that they toured with the no less than the Rolling Stones and worked with Lou Reed in the past while also recreating new wave sounds, using obvious goth rock influences on Art of Doubt, and turning electronic music on its head by having more sophisticated synth playing than anyone else accompanied by strong and real rock and roll. Metric is a great band to reckon with, and if attention to rock is still sincere in the 21st century, it’s one of the biggest and most perfect adjustments of rock aesthetics since Pink Floyd showed that rock could be a darkly psychedelic journey into weirder places than most people can ever anticipate.
They are also a very cohesive unit of musicians. While Emily Haines gets most of the fame, James is important as a songwriter and a moving guitarist to be in front of live, while the drummer and bassist are long time members with excellent skillful playing, evoking beautiful rhythms that catapult much of the songs. The rhythm has an especially important role with Emily’s keys and James’ guitar both alternating as the lead, and they play beautifully in synch in a way that bands with changing lineups are challenged to deliver. People who are this expert at their craft add a fun layer to a show beyond the excellence of the songs, and the last time I was so moved by the pure beauty of musicians playing so well together was at a concert for The Cure some years ago. That genuine excitement is a pleasure to see when a band plays, and in Metric’s hands, electronic music clearly does its best when it stays with rock as so many industrial bands have also indicated. Synth rock is clearly offering a bold statement to reckon with through Metric, a slightly different direction where much more classic style and songwriting is intricately updated to mesh against strangely beautiful electronic sounds that add more depth than keyboard can normally accomplish in human hands.