The Evolution of Metric: Then & Now

MetricWhat can we say about Canada’s independent rock band, Metric? Well, it’s a national treasure, it holds onto the tradition of rock music while mixing new synthetic sounds, and it really expresses the attitude of Toronto life.

At this point, a lot of people have heard of Metric, especially since 2007 when their music was featured in television shows, commercials, and so on. The band has come a long way since its inception in 1998 when frontwoman Emily Haines met James Shaw (playing guitar and various synthesizers, as well as providing some background vocals) in Toronto. Their relationship and destined collaboration soon became the band Mainstream and the duo released an EP under this name.

They became Metric under the inspiration of electronic sounds synthesis coming from Europe at the time, and Haines called it “a little cold and standoffish”. It was, according to the duo, mere coincidence that they named themselves after a measuring system used in Canada. “But if we’d wanted to use a name that evoked Canada, we would’ve called ourselves the Toques or something like that,” Haines once joked in an early interview. Haines and Shaw met another two aspiring musicians: Joshua Winstead (working the bass, other synthesizers, and additional back vocals) and Joules Scott-Key (on the drums). This is the group in the making and this is where Metric truly started.

We start off with the band’s first release, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?. The intended first release was meant to be Grow Up and Blow Away though it was delayed for a few years. This album went gold in Canada and is still considered a classic amongst the independent Canadian music scene. All fans remember ‘Combat Baby’ and its flirtations with ’60s culture, juxtaposing rash military decisions and the make-love-not-war, flower-power movement. Other hit singles, like ‘Dead Disco’, are case-in-point of this band’s ability to mesh shredding guitars with beep-booping computer tracks. These singles were released before the actual album came out, and the collection received largely positive reviews. The album has the past generational feeling, for sure, that I can almost guarantee that they were inspired by – set this against the artificial modern sounds and you get something you didn’t hear very often when it came out. It was fast-paced, energetic, young – though having sounds more mature than the initial Mainstream EP, and only pauses to take a breath with thought-provoking songs like ‘Calculation Theme’.

Metric-GrowUpBlowAwayThis album may not be as accurate as Grow Up and Blow Away to call a debut album, but Old World Underground was the first album released and that’s what I’m basing my chronology on. It’s important to note also that it is bands like these that put modern Canadian music – especially of the indie variety – on the world stage. Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? is a testament to what Metric truly was, starting from the kick-off ‘IOU’, and hitting home with the hit song ‘Combat Baby’, and cooling off with ‘Love is a Place’. The themes are also much deeper than a lot of pop songs would have it and it trades the traditional views of love, sex, and fame with a perspective that the masses have not immediately considered.

There isn’t too much of a discernible difference from the last album to Live It Out. It was very well-received by critics and fans and went twice platinum in Canada. At this time, Metric’s fame went more largely noticed when they opened for the Rolling Stones in New York City. The first large Metric tour came from this album and expanded the band’s influence. So what makes this a stand-out album worthy of a tour of its own? The unmistakable vocals of Emily Haines is so different from other singers that even a non-fan could immediately identify a Metric song as soon as the words start.

Though there are tracks on this album that stand out as strong and jarring songs like the hits ‘Monster Hospital’ and ‘Poster of a Girl’, the album’s mood is more down-played and soothing with songs like ‘Empty’. The flavour doesn’t change too much here, which can come as a relief to fans of Metric’s previous releases, but stands as a distinct album – great for people looking for development in the band’s music.

In 2007, Grow Up and Blow Away was finally released by Last Gang Records, though it was initially meant to be the debut. Since its intended release in 2001, the tracks were largely reworked because the band felt as though their music had changed past the expectations of what fans wanted to hear. This album is practical for its perfect balance of uptempo songs like ‘Grow Up and Blow Away’, ‘Raw Sugar’, and ‘Soft Rock Star’, with downtempo tunes like ‘White Gold’, ‘The Twist’, and ‘Rock Me Now’.

This album was meant to be the debut which is probably why it sounds considerably unfiltered along with Live It Out, contrasting these albums with the newer releases. To me, these two albums didn’t have the same pizzazz or outstanding “wow” effect that Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? had, but they shouldn’t be dismissed as lesser albums. Nonetheless, it’s a great album that hits all the bases: it maintains the flavour Metric has established while being very experimental as well.

A change in the band can be seen with Fantasies, the first record to be released by the band’s own label: Metric Music International. It was a major step up on the business side of things, setting aside the fact that it sold 500,000 copies, making it the band’s highest-selling album. The change worked out in the band’s favour with its higher promotional value with a few film and television show collaborations around that time. Fantasies takes the band in a more mainstream light and expands its fanbase much more drastically. While I am a bigger fan of the older works, this is a great album and is one of my favourite on the Canadian music scene.

Metric-I also have to appreciate the attention the band received from this release. The hits on this album are probably much more familiar to the non-fan and casual radio listener and had them turning their head with the astounding ‘Help, I’m Alive’, ‘Gimme Sympathy’, and ‘Stadium Love’. Admittedly, it also made me turn my head. That’s right, it actually took me a few years to really fall for what is now one of my favourite bands. While people tend to root against the whole “garage band going mainstream” idea (at times, myself included), it really worked to get my attention. ‘Gimme Sympathy’, from what I remember was a very frequently played song on radio and television. It was the song that converted me and I haven’t looked back since.

Synthetica is where the band is today, from the bright and blitzy album cover of Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? to this cover’s more subtle and subdued portrait that still demands attention. It stands today with the theme of refusing to be made artificial in a very commercial world. Emily Haines said it better than I can in a letter addressed to fans before the album’s release:

“Synthetica is about staying home and wanting to crawl out of your skin from the lack of external stimulation… about forcing yourself to confront what you see in the mirror when you finally see in the mirror when you finally stand still long enough to catch a reflection… about being able to identify the original in a long line of reproductions. It’s about what is real vs. what is artificial.”

The album managed to sell 16,000 copies in Canada and 27,000 in America. This album’s release has also promoted more television appearances for the band’s music.

So did the band sell out in the end? I don’t think so. So they might not sound just like the way they did when they started out, and sure this may be my least favourite album in their discography – but it is still very unmistakably them. They’re still out there experimenting, they still have meaningful songs and lyrics, and the hits, ‘Youth Without Youth’, ‘Breathing Underwater’, and ‘Synthetica’ might be somewhat farther from what they were – but it still has traces of them written all over it. Emily Haines still has that unique aloofness in her voice and the rest of the band properly mixes the hard rock instruments with the smoother synthetic tunes.

I don’t think the next album will be my favourite either, but I’ll definitely still go out and buy it. As long as Metric keeps on being Metric.

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