Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Albums of 2012 # 9: Metric – Synthetica

Confession time: I’ve always reserved a special place in my heart for that guilty pleasure otherwise known as synthpop. No matter how sugary, how cheesy, or how blatantly commercial it may be, give me a half decent synthpop album to listen to, and your author instantly transforms into a very happy boy indeed.

Given that my formative pop music listening years coincided with the first wave of synthpop - Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan et al - I guess that none of the above should come as any great surprise. Those earliest musical influences can be very hard to shift from the psyche.

And in 2012 it would seem that the genre was very much alive and well. Some would even say it was thriving. Whether it was the retro styles of Hot Chip, the aggressive synthrave of Crystal Castles, the more offbeat variation as presented by Grimes, or this, Synthetica, the fifth studio album by Canadian four piece Metric, it felt like a fresh synthpop fix was never too far away during the year under review.

I’ve followed the work of Metric for a number of years now, with the 2009 album Fantasies also being one of the best albums of its year (according to me, obviously). Fantasies is certainly the release that tends to get the credit for providing the band with its most sustained commercial breakthrough, albeit a relatively minor breakthrough in big picture terms. I’m not really sure whether or not Synthetica will ultimately be recalled as a better overall album than Fantasies, but it feels like the band’s most consistent body of work yet, a better collection of songs, and an album void of anything in the way of obvious filler.

The voice of Emily Haines is pivotal to everything Metric does. Haines has a great vocal range – from gravelly and vulnerable, to silky smooth and assured – and on Synthetica we get a masterclass vocal performance from the ex-Broken Social Scenester. Right from the opening lines on album opener ‘Artificial Nocturne’ (... “I’m just as fucked up as they say, I can't fake the daytime, found an entrance to escape into the dark” ...) Haines grabs each track by the scruff, every word utterly believable, every song a short journey into the shadowy and frequently tumultuous world of Metric.

Musically a lot of Synthetica is synthpop-by-numbers (perhaps the clue is in the title) – glossy, lush, and often multi-layered, but where the band really excel is in the art of creating great pop hooks. Just as Haines wears her heart on her sleeve, the band itself is not afraid to present an unrepentantly commercial front. Even without its warm electronic vibe, even if those layers of synth were stripped away, there would still be a fairly formidable power-pop core right at the very heart of this album.

And while that might seem a little too conventional and possibly even a bit retro for some in 2012, it certainly isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Not when it is done this well.

Highlights: ‘Artificial Nocturne’, ‘Youth Without Youth’, ‘Speed The Collapse’, and ‘Breathing Under Water’ ... look out too for the appearance of Lou Reed on the less impressive ‘The Wanderlust’.

Here's 'Artificial Nocturne':

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