21st Century Music: Metric
21st Century Music are shorter playlists and write-ups that focus on artists that have released their music since 2000. These highlight new(er) acts that continue the sound and spirit of the older acts that are highlighted on Ceremony. Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as you read along.
Metric is one of the best bands to come out of Toronto – ever. That’s saying something, but it’s also testament to the strength and consistency of their material. Yet they are emblematic of the challenge in the modern rock era; that is, to stay a modern rock band. Metric is not a typical band for me to write about on Ceremony, and that’s because they have achieved a level of mainstream popularity that they don’t require attention being brought to them or to be celebrated for a fast fading history – they are here and now. In fact, they are headlining the Field Trip festival here in Toronto this weekend.
Tracing the evolution of this band invites a sense of chagrin. They have moved from a pop-punk band with tight, catchy, guitar-driven songs into an almost all electronic act with songs that have lost their energy, power, and depth. They’ve sought a bigger, arena/festival sound – yeah, they even have a song called “Stadium Love” – and migrated to a danceable, modern pop-synth sound that has paid dividends for them. So kudos to their success, I’m not one to begrudge a band making a living and achieving success, but as has happened with so many other bands of the modern era, they’ve lost me along the way. I’ve barely listened to their last album and have no sense of anticipation for what comes next. Their first four albums, however, well they’re a blast to listen to and, as I said, mark some of the best music ever to have come from my hometown.
Metric was born as only an act from Toronto could be. Formed by Emily Haines and James Shaw, Haines was born in India and raised in Ontario, attending Etobicoke School of the Arts with Amy Millan (Starts, Broken Social Scene) and Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene). Shaw was born in London, England but also raised in Ontario, attended a music school in Boston where he met future Stars band members, Chris Seligman and Torquil Campbell, and then went on to do three years at Julliard before returning to Toronto in 1997, where he started dating and writing music with Haines. There then ensued six years of moving between Montreal, Brooklyn, London and Toronto as they pursued a music career and put their band together (Joshua Winstead on bass and Joules Scott-Key on drums). After abandoned demos, a fully recorded and postponed album, an EP, a couple of different labels, floating in and out of the collective of Toronto and Montreal artists that produced Broken Social Scene and Stars, they finally released their first official album in 2003.
Their debut, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, is a fantastic album of punky, power-pop songs. The whole thing runs at a tidy thirty-seven minutes and mixes grungy guitar with thickly-laid basslines and great slow tunes to balance things out. There isn’t a bad minute of music on the entire LP. This was followed by their second album, Live It Out, which kept in the same vein but started to allow for broader, more nuanced songs such as the fantastic, slow-build of “Empty.” The slow tunes also showed greater depth and dexterity, best exemplified by “Ending Start.” The third album was their first recorded, the abandoned album originally recorded in 2001. Interestingly, the keyboards play larger in the sound after being used in the background for effects and ambiance and their hooks are being culled from the electronics as well as guitar and bass. It was their first sound that they decided to move away from, but it’s telling that with this release it opened the door to a move into electronica. Regardless, Grow Up and Blow Away is another fantastic album and for a modern rock fan like me – who loves a little synth and dance mixed in – this was a hypnotic listening experience.
Despite the brilliance of these three albums, Metric had yet to chart any songs though had built a strong following. I recall trying to see them during a multi-night stint at the Mod Club on College St in Toronto, and they were solidly sold out. Getting tickets for them next time while on tour for their fourth album, Fantasies, was a little easier and we saw them at the larger space of Massey Hall. It was a sign of the growth of their fanbase and the fact that Fantasies caught on, reaching #6 in Canada and #76 in the US. It was also not surprising that this coincided with their sound embracing electronics to a greater degree, now standing even with the guitar at the front of their sound. It’s a solid album but in a very different way than their first two albums had been. The hooks are still there in abundance and the electronics provide power and drama to songs that take nothing away from their power-pop sound. Metric wouldn’t be heard from again for three years when in 2012 they came out with Synthetica, an electro-pop album that, while still familiar for their hooks and Haines vocals, is almost entirely a new sound from the band. The guitar is buried in the mix and heavily processed, there are dance beats, the larger sounds for larger venues hinted at in Fantasies are now riddled throughout, and more than a few songs sound like throwaway pop pap (like “Breathing Underwater”). There are many great songs on this album (“Youth Without Youth” rocks as good as anything prior and “Clone” is great), but it is not as satisfying a listen as the first four, it lacks depth and the warmness from when their sound was more raw and natural. In 2015 came Pagans in Vegas and the conversion was complete to a band I didn’t recognize and an album I couldn’t listen to more than once. There is one good song, “Fortunes,” which is a lovely synth-ballad. Despite my misgivings over their last two albums, Synthetica went to #2 in Canada and #12 in the US, while Pagans reached #5 and #36 respectively. Metric had broken through.
Metric now regularly headlines festivals and is a major artist, drawing fans likely across modern rock and synth-pop genres. I haven’t seen them since Riot Fest in 2014 and even then, only watched/listened from a great distance, not the least interested in fighting the crowds to get any closer. I’m glad I caught them at Massey Hall in 2009 when they were still rocking and you could get reasonably close to them. I won’t be going to Field Trip this weekend, but I imagine there is a divide between the fans that dig their recent albums (most of the crowd) and those more partial to the first albums. That’s ok, I’m very glad and applaud Metric’s success – they deserve it – and they now have a discography that provides music for different tastes, which is also not something to decry.
The Playlist - song\album (year)
- Combat Baby \ Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003)
- Wet Blanket \ Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003)
- On A Slow Night \ Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003)
- Dead Disco \ Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003)
- Empty \ Live It Out (2005)
- Glass Ceiling \ Live It Out (2005)
- Too Little Too Late \ Live It Out (2005)
- Ending Start \ Live It Out (2005)
- Grow Up and Blow Away \ Grow Up and Blow Away (2007)
- Hardwire \ Grow Up and Blow Away (2007)
- Raw Sugar \ Grow Up and Blow Away (2007)
- Soft Rock Star \ Grow Up and Blow Away (2007)
- Help I'm Alive \ Fantasies (2009)
- Twilight Galaxy \ Fantasies (2009)
- Gimme Sympathy \ Fantasies (2009)
- Blindness \ Fantasies (2009)
- Youth Without Youth \ Synthetica (2012)
- The Void \ Synthetica (2012)
- Clone \ Synthetica (2012)
- Fortunes \ Pagans in Vegas (2015)