A few years ago, Canada suddenly exploded as the centre of the universe for all good things musically. Too often derided for producing Bryan Adams and Celine Dion, the Canucks could suddenly boast Arcade Fire, New Pornographers, more Wainwrights than you could shake a stick at, and Broken Social Scene.
Part of the intricately connected scene centred around the latter band, Metric’s four albums so far have ranged from addictive, rabble-rousing pop (the brilliant Live It Out) to glum and inconsistent synth rock (their disappointing last album Fantasies). Their fifth album, Synthetica, builds upon the synth sound (as the name would suggest) but thankfully the songs are much stronger this time around.
Lead single Youth Without Youth sets out Synthetica’s stall pretty well – a big, clattering glam-rock beat, full of the jittering energy that was sadly lacking from most of Fantasies. Emily Haines’ vocals snarl and coo, talking of “playing double dutch with a hand grenade” and “playing rubber soul with a hand grenade”. It sounds almost like a statement of intent, and the perfect track with which to welcome back Haines and company.
Lost Kitten treads similar, if more subtle territory, although Haines’ adoption of a weirdly child-like register to sing most of the song may irritate, while the title track is about the closest that the band get to the high points of the early days like Dead Disco and Monster Hospital, with Jimmy Shaw’s fierce guitar work lending the track a frantic, bustling atmosphere.
The reliance on a synth-rock sound inevitably draws thoughts of The Killers to mind, and it’s true that there are several songs that could easily sit on Hot Fuss or Sam’s Town – Breathing Under Water in particular has a chorus tailor-made for Brandon Flowers – but Haines is a subtler vocalist. Instead of the bombastic territory that the Nevadans often slip into, Metric never lose that more intimate touch which makes them such a satisfying listen.
Unlikely fan Lou Reed (who apparently recited lyrics to Metric track Gimmie Sympathy when he met Haines at a Neil Young tribute gig) contributes vocals to The Wanderlust. Although it’s not quite in the same disastrous vein as his infamous collaboration with Metallica, it’s still a bit incongruous to hear the New Yorker growling away underneath Haines’ brighter vocals. Although to be fair, he’s not helped by the fact that The Wanderlust is one of the weaker tracks on the album.
They remain a curious proposition all in all – they’ve never really seemed to build upon their early promise, and there’s certainly nothing here to touch their finest hour Live It Out. Yet Haines is a compelling performer, and there’s certainly more than enough decent songs here to satisfy the faithful who may have been put off by the lacklustre Fantasies. Next time round though, it would be nice to hear them step up to that level that they’re so obviously capable of.