“He’s really reaching now,” you’re probably thinking. “He can’t keep reeling in synthpop bands forever. I want more industrial, fucker.” And sure, Metric, the four-piece new wave revival band hailing from Toronto, may appear strictly modern, having painted the alt scene gold and black with their 2009 release, Fantasies. Ten years later, they almost feel like a relic of a bygone era, those naïve days between the 1990s and the late aughts in which our greatest problems were heartbreak, meaningless consumerism, and crushing existentialism. I feel a deep connection to Metric, however; I feel as though their journey has been akin to my journey, slowly waking up to the horrific state of affairs the world has been building to behind the curtain.
Like all revival genres, New Wave Revival has been inspired tremendously by the original movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. Unlike modern retrowave genres, which now has unprecedented access to media of the first decade in which many forms were becoming dominant, New Wave Revival, like its sibling genre in the garage rock sectors of pop culture, was more about creating new sounds with new tools. From early Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys’ sardonic lyrics set to a fusion of punk and garage rock sound, to the Bravery, the Killers, and even OK Go’s ruminations on love and the world we live in (sometimes taking a pretty dark turn), everything under the post-punk revival umbrella took inspiration from the underground scenes of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and became the dominating movement of indie rock in the 2000s. In fact, the “revival” suffix is somewhat of a misnomer—most of the bands under the post-punk revival banner between 2000 and 2010 didn’t seek to replicate the sounds and style of their predecessors, but wanted to create something new, something that could only be found during their time (compare this to the works of Drab Majesty or the Midnight, whose dedication to reviving the spirit of the original new wave movement is a near-perfect replication of the 1980s, merely tinted by nostalgia). Instead, “post-punk revival” is more of an evolution of old sounds into a new era while still holding true to their inspirations’ original bad attitudes—a new wave of new wave of new wave, if you will.
However, despite the DIY-collage nature of the post-punk revival movement, it’s important to note that last decade may have represented the last generation of music that was able to hold onto that final shred of humanity we had left before the modern digital revolution of megacorporations, life-altering tech, and unbelievably dystopian turns in current events. This does mean that, for the most part, post-punk revival doesn’t quite fall onto the cyberpunk radar, as their thematic focuses somehow feel retroactively insignificant—attempting to retain individuality in a society that demands conformity, exploring emotional experiences, and self-examination aren’t exactly things people can usually afford under our current economic circumstances on the edge of the Cyberpunk Now.
But Metric is different. Frontwoman Emily Haines’ lyrics, while sometimes soft around the edges and admitting to attachments that the stigmatic paranoia of cyberpunk culture won’t allow for, harbors a deep-seated resentment for authority as well as detachment from society, painting her as the perfect cyberpunk femme fatale.
Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?
Metric was initially the brainchild of Haines and Metric’s main instrumentalist, James Shaw, who formed the act in 1998 under the name Mainstream. While they’d released EPs between 1998, they’d signed on with Last Gang Records in Canada for their first album, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? Their early works, particularly their debut album, is a treasure trove of early 2000s femme-punk sound with electronic touches. However, Haines homes in on themes that are prevalent in Metric’s works in Grow Up and Blow Away, their initial independent release. While some of these topics she covers are relative to the time period, Haines has consistently expressed feminist ideals and a severe mistrust of authority, rails against rampant consumerism’s effect on the global economy, and suffers from an inability to connect with her partners, which are just as, if not more, relevant today than ever.
What’s more is, while the imagery Haines weaves into her music is appropriate for the time it was written in, they tend to lean into motifs related to mass urbanization (folding into static anonymity in “Siamese Cities”, fears of dying in a high-rise grave in “Raw Sugar”) and disconnection from others and the environment (“Calculation Theme”, “Parkdale”). “Calculation Theme” in particular feels like a cold analysis of a dying relationship. Additionally, “Succexy” shines truth on the impacts of nationalism and consumerism on the U.S. after 9/11—specifically, the implementation of a semi-fascist organization (the DHS) and invasions based around the thing that freedom smells like. Also, “Dead Disco” bemoans the long, slow death of creative expression in a culture saturated with media, representing the highest-energy track on Old World Underground and contains elements that would become essential to Metric’s signature sound—particularly that smooth, clean bass.
Of course, the lyrical elements by themselves do not a cyberpunk band make, and considering many tracks off Grow Up and Blow Away and its follow up are in the vein of ‘90s folk rock acts, that doesn’t exactly add to their street cred. However, their 2005 album, Live it Out, progresses in the vein of other post-punk revival acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Bloc Party, expressing anxieties about consumer culture feeding into a vicious capitalist system to jangly, garage-rock style guitars and light synths. Oh also, Haines heavily implies on multiple occasions that she’s into BDSM (I’m sensing a pattern here), particularly in “Poster of a Girl”, in which Haines also questions humanity and reality in an age when media saturated with unrealistic beauty standards for women reduces them to mere images, shades of reality.
But, in my opinion, Metric’s sound wasn’t fully fleshed until Fantasies, in which Haines’ sometimes-airy, sometimes-punky vocals were paired with crisp, modern electric sounds. While much of Fantasies’ lyrics express Haines’ personal struggles with rising fame, the running theme of our greed-driven society, and displays rare tenderness in songs like “Collect Call” and “Twilight Galaxy”. However, the pieces don’t start to fall into place until the final track, “Stadium Love”, an anthem-style illustration of a gladiator-style arena in which the fight for survival becomes a performance. And we all know how much cyberpunk likes its bloodsports.
Coming off the heels of Fantasies was possibly Metric’s most popular single, “Black Sheep”, which you gamers out there might remember from the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World soundtrack. In it, Haines bitterly recounts a friendship gone sour with biting lyrics that appeal to the misanthropy and distrust between individuals in punk culture. Also, dat bass.
While I personally don’t have strong opinions in terms of sound about Metric’s 2012 follow-up album, Synthetica, it’s undeniable that the lyrical content has evolved, amplifying previously hinted-at themes concerning the paranoia and disillusionment of living in a complacent world teetering on the brink of post-reality. If the album’s title, Synthetica, wasn’t any indicator, Haines had this to say in an interview with Elle:
“The name Synthetica is an idea that I had tossed around for a long time in my writing. It’s sort of almost this character, this sort of nightmarish person that we would all recognize, where you ask yourself, ‘Is that person actually still human? Or have they eliminated all their flaws to the point of being sort of a robot?’ Just thinking about that, thinking about the pressures that people feel to be less than human by being supposedly more than human. Then those ideas kept developing as we were working on the record, just even living in the age we live in in terms of technology, the changes we’ve seen, you know, are your friends real? Is this conversation real when I text it to you, you know? Just really looking at it somewhat philosophically but also just taking a moment, taking stock of—this is our fifth record; we’ve been together for ten years—taking stock of what’s changed and for us what’s real and what’s artificial.”
Of course, Metric’s criticism of modern society in Synthetica doesn’t start and stop with Haines’ backlash against its overwhelming power over identity and relationships, but how this is detrimental to the whole; “Speed the Collapse” acts as a metaphor for the United States’ opportunistic rise to power following the world wars, “Youth Without Youth” is a twist on the war protest song, depicting the inhumane conditions that children in war-torn countries have to grow up with, and “Dreams So Real” ties these messages together, comparing the complacency of those of us stuck in our own narrow worldviews with waking from a nightmare—say, for instance, the initial shock of learning that the Chinese government has turned 1984 into a reality and is harvesting the organs of its own citizens, which subsides in the minds of those who have the option to close that pesky little news article on their phones.
2015’s Pagans in Vegas marked a slight shift in Metric’s sound—while before their experimentation with synths led to a melancholy flavor that I can only really describe as “pure Metric”, the rise of retrowave and its osmosis into modern synthpop acts like the 1975 or Mystery Skulls may have influenced Haines and her bandmates to revert to a musical style that pays homage to their 1980s predecessors. The lyrics in Pagans in Vegas also mark a shift in Haines’ attitude—she adopts a more active outlook, urging herself and her audience to finally try and take back our world, even if the first step is as simple as shuffling off our existential dread and just get the fuck out of bed already. That’s not to say that Haines has gone completely soft; the first track off Pagans in Vegas, “Lie Lie Lie”, sheds light on Hollywood’s predatory nature, “Fortunes” and “For Kicks” outline her difficulty forging and maintaining a sense of belonging, and “Too Bad, So Sad”, in addition to being a song that sounds fucking phenomenal to blast on those crowded mag-lev rides, expresses no pity for those in hedonistic downward spirals.
Finally, after a three-year gap, Metric released their latest album, The Art of Doubt, which takes its name from modern sociologist Ulrich Beck’s philosophy on how to fight the subtle-yet-oppressive tactics employed by our corporate overlords. The art of doubt, according to Beck, has been described as “an antidote to the hubris of the Enlightenment and its lodestars of ‘the individual, identity, truth, reality, science, technology and so on'” (John Cash, as quoted in The Consequences of Global Disasters). In a nutshell, Beck asserts that “reflexive doubt” is our last line of defense against the frivolous pursuit of perfection in a system whose societal standards are dictated by the forces of capitalism, consumerism, and industrialism. The Art of Doubt aligns with this mentality perfectly, finding a fitting balance between their sounds on Pagans in Vegas and Fantasies. The lyrics deal heavily with maintaining a sense of authenticity in a world that doesn’t give a shit about reality and expands on Haines’ boldening resolution to discard society’s standards. However, tracks like “Dressed to Suppress”, the title track, and “Die Happy” finally ask the question that has been lurking beneath the surface of Metric’s lyrics and our own cultural zeitgeist: “Is this dystopia?”
Now or Never Now
Fueled by electronic riffs and a defiant feminine attitude, Metric’s fight against society’s simulacra is closely related to our own. Sure, Haines doesn’t hit quite as hard in her imagery as MC Ride or Trent Reznor, instead making herself vulnerable for her audience. While Metric is slowly shedding the pessimism of their earlier works, something that might make you give Art of Doubt and Pagans in Vegas the side-eye, I see this as their attempts to stay human in a world that is growing more and more inhuman by the day. A friend of mine recently told me that optimism in the face of dystopia is a pure act of rebellion. While I still think getting pissed off and smashing up your local Amazon headquarters might be more suited to a burnt-out gutter punk like myself, Haines, Shaw, and their bandmates encapsulate this mentality perfectly. One thing’s for sure: Metric has achieved self-awareness.
Have you been stuck down an industrial/synthwave rabbit hole too long? Do you miss music that doesn’t try so hard? Wanna expand your musical horizons and erase the borders between reality and fiction at the same time?? If so, check out this column’s previous entries, as well as our articles on Theatre of Tragedy, David Bowie, and Massive Attack. It’ll melt your brain. And, as always, if you are aware of any other musicians that are erasing the line between cyberpunk fiction and reality, give ’em a shout-out.
I always liked their older works. Fantasies and Synthetica are some of my favorite albums to listen to while driving on the highways at night. Beautiful but at the same time oddly disturbing. Just like driving 180 in a Mitsubishi Mirage…
“I see this as their attempts to stay human in a world that is growing more and more inhuman by the day. A friend of mine recently told me that optimism in the face of dystopia is a pure act of rebellion”
Are you aware of the philosophy of absurdism? Simply speaking it is kind of an answer to nihilism. While the nihilists say everything is f*cked, nothing has meaning or value or purpose and this is leading to depression, anomie and general apathy, the absurdists say much of the same. But in contrast to the nihilistic viewpoint this is seen as something positive, or at least not negative. Even if there is no intrinsic meaning to life we can still make or own. Or at least have fun while we can. If there is really no value or meaning in your life that means nothing really will happen if you disappear from this world. Time to do whatever you want, even if it involves risks.
As to soundtracks to a dying world: maybe “A perfect circle” would warrant another entry to the series?
Yeah, I think Fantasies is my all-time Metric album, but that’s because I’ve got so many memories from my teenage years wrapped up in it. Art of Doubt is a close second though, in my book.
I’ve heard summaries of absurdism (I’ve been told Rick and Morty is a good modern example if you look at it through Morty’s eyes) and I think a lot of my own personal philosophy aligns with it, but I’ve never explored it too deeply. I also ascribe to the Observer Effect, a quantum theory that, on the philosophical side of things, suggests that consciousness shapes reality and simply that there is someone in the universe that can comprehend that there is a grander scheme of things gives all that they observe some kind of meaning.
I completely forgot about A Perfect Circle! I’ll definitely have to dive into their stuff, thanks for the tip!
Steven J. Matos (Scum)
I’m…actually a big Tool/A Perfect Circle fan so YES we can totally tackle that.
I also forgot that was Maynard’s side project, that fits super well. LETS DO EEEET
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