Clad in chic black, superficially Metric resemble stylish fashionistas and pulsate like a synth-pop band you can dance to, but there’s more than meets the eye. Just because they rock the body doesn’t mean they can’t stimulate the mind.
“The idea is, we’re taking [René] Descartes and kicking him down,” frontwoman Emily Haines said of the French philosopher who said the psyche and body were mutually exclusive. “We’re saying soul, mind and body are together and kicking him where it hurts.”
Whatever their manifesto declares, the music works on multiple levels. “If you want to dance to it, then go ahead,” said guitarist James Shaw. “But if you actually want to sit down and listen to it, you can do that as well. That’s the point.”
Musically, the group isn’t easily pegged, either. Outwardly, the band’s sound is glammed-up 4/4 synth rock, but closer inspection reveals songs within songs, poignant emotions and taut, complex rhythm changes. “It’s probably two more steps of refinement than a simple pop song,” said Shaw. “It’s not that much harder, it just takes a little more work.”
The group started in Toronto as a creative partnership between Haines and Shaw in 1995, and the urbane duo refined their cosmopolitan sound over the years by living in New York, Montreal, London and Los Angeles. Along their nomadic path, the pair gave their soft electronic sound a bolt of rhythmic energy in drummer Joules Scott-Key and, shortly after, bassist Josh Winstead in 2002.
While inspiring, their global trek wasn’t without adversity. What was meant to be their introduction, Grow Up and Blow Away, fell victim to record-label limbo. So when a new deal was struck, the group scrapped the disc entirely and set off to make what is now their second “debut” album, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?
Reflecting such diverse influences as Duran Duran, Stereolab, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Blondie, Old World Underground bounces and buzzes with new wave romanticism and feral punk snarl, but an undercurrent of stirring melancholy permeates the melodies and lyrics.
“['Combat Baby'] is about disappointment,” Haines said of the group’s dynamic first single. “Observing things — the blending of twilight, the laming of neighborhoods and the fatiguing of youth.”
While Haines reminiscences nostalgically about the past, her observations also perform double duty as incisive social commentary. Politically aware and disillusioned by recent world affairs, Metric created a song in “Combat Baby” that says, “We’re not going down without a fight.”
“We’re not political in the sense where we’re not going to say really obvious statements, but having any energy to express [politics] or even talk about it means that you’re entering the political realm,” Shaw said. “Most people don’t even feel entitled to their own opinion. That to me is the biggest crime.”
On one track, “Succexy,” Haines sings, “All we do is talk, static, split/ Screen as the homeland plans enemies”— a sardonic salvo against apathy and the media’s “shock and awe” coverage of the war in Iraq.
“At the time we were making the record … we were overwhelmed with the amount of bad news [packaged] in a highly entertaining form,” Haines said. “Like the glamour of aggression and the gross sex of invasion and making it entertaining. The rhythmic constancy of images made us really bummed about the state of things.”
Seducing with their glossy sheen, Metric subvert listeners by reeling them in and then provide them with an almost subliminal subtext to chew on. While confronting ill-motivated adversaries, from velvet rope scenesters (“The List”) to those who fetishize retro sounds (“Dead Disco”), it’s all balanced with painfully real human emotion; one moment Haines is sarcastic and caustic, the next reflective and bittersweet.
And now that the fashionably tailored members of Metric are ready for their close-up, the distinguished are starting to take notice. French director Olivier Assayas (“Demonlover”) has already featured the band in his upcoming film “Clean,” their former Brooklyn roommates in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have given them props, and fellow hipsters in the Hot Hot Heat have taken them on tour.
Haines sums up the band’s musical goals in the form of a hypothetical over-the-counter drug. “It would give an amazing burst of real energy that was sustainable,” she said. “Not like a fleeting caffeine high; you would recognize that your body and mind was young and you’d act accordingly.
“With no hangovers of course.”