Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pre-Polaris, Day two: Metric, METZ

Day two our my annual pre-Polaris Prize round-up. Day one is here. The gala is next Monday, Sept. 23.

The shortlisted: 

Metric – Synthetica (Metric Music)

The album:
The oldest album on this list, Synthetica came out in June 2012. I love it as much as I did back then; songs like “Clone,” “Breathing Underwater” and “Dreams So Real” still sound like perfect pop music to me (unlike, I don’t know, Tegan and Sara), and hearing them in the middle of a crushingly dull modern rock radio playlist is a breath of fresh air. I’ve said this a thousand times before, but I hated Metric’s music with a passion before 2009’s Fantasies, which I loved, and this one is even better. They managed to convert this extremely skeptical detractor, so more power to them.

I wrote the following review 15 months ago, but I still stand by it.

You know that great pop album that U2 have been trying to make for the past 20 years, since Achtung Baby? Metric just did it. And, unlike U2, they achieved it without sounding like they’re trying impossibly hard to do it.

The soaring melodies, the anthemic songs, the epic scope inside a five-minute song, the Edge-influenced guitars that bleed into synth textures, the slightly clever platitudes and one-liners that straddle the line between profound and pointless—all you could ever want in a rock’n’roll record that sets its sights for the back rows of stadiums.

It’s instrumentally that Synthetica really shines: Shaw’s guitar sounds are increasingly textural, while Haines’s synth sounds are harsher than ever; it’s hard to tell who’s playing the lead on the fuzzed-out, droning “Dreams So Real,” but the buzzing, dirty sound is a perfect counterpart to Haines’s sweet and sour vocals.

The rock songs are divine, but the Robyn-ish bubblegum of “Lost Kitten” and “The Void” work just as well without distracting from the po-faced seriousness pervading the rest of the record, which seems set to score a sci-fi film about, you know, the alienation of modern life and such. (Much of it, in fact, is not unlike the Arcade Fire contribution to The Hunger Games soundtrack—and for two bands that once had nothing in common, there’s a lot of Synthetica that sounds like it’s trying to one-up The Suburbs.)

Haines is writing about lives in stasis, lives once full of promise now facing defeat and monotony: “Is this my life? Breathing underwater?” The power of songs and the power of girls are two apparently ancient concepts to the idealistic narrator of “Dreams So Real,” who resigns herself to singing: “I’ll shut up and carry on / a scream becomes a yawn.”

It’s funny, then, that after singing “we should never meet our heroes,” that Haines invites Lou Reed to appear on “Wanderlust.” On one hand, it’s an inspired nod to the counterculture icon who was central to Andy Warhol’s Factory, the birth of glam rock and punk, all key influences for Metric. On the other hand, when you invite the Lou Reed of 2012 to be a backup vocalist, it essentially amounts to an old man muttering in the background. Even U2, for all their Lou Reed worship, has never done that.

Maybe Metric shouldn’t meet their heroes, then, and instead focus on making albums as good as this one for the modern age. (June 21)

The chances:
Slim. I won’t lie: people hate this band. They always have, of course, but now they’re also bored of them. (Which is why my late-blooming love seems all the more curious to most people to whom I confess.) Oh, Canada, what would award season be without some tall-poppy syndrome? People who like to bash Polaris will immediately point to Metric and say, “What the hell are those rock stars doing there? Who’s giving them a free pass?” I wonder if they also complain that David Bowie is competing for the Mercury Prize with a bunch of artists who could be his grandchildren. Despite the fact that Arcade Fire and Feist successfully buried Polaris’s reputation for neglecting popular choices in favour of left-field weirdos, Metric does not have the same kind of critical traction those two artists do. They have enough to land on the shortlist, of course, but I’d be downright shocked if they won the prize. Even though I think they’re one of the few nominees who deserve it.

Metz – s/t (Sub Pop)

The album:

But I’m trying to get over that and give them a fair shot. It’s hard.

Years ago, the year Fucked Up won the Polaris, I heard that one juror defiantly declared to the room that he didn’t consider hardcore punk (and hip-hop, apparently) to be music. I laughed at his ignorance. Now, listening to METZ—a band with a fraction of the imagination of Fucked Up—I feel like I would be the grandpa in the room complaining about these kids making too much gosh-darn racket that all sounds the same.

It’s true, I’ve never liked hardcore: too macho, too much repressed sexuality, too much posturing, too doctrinaire and little imagination. But at its best, at least it has some sense of dynamics and release, two vital elements METZ is lacking entirely. My copy editing concern turns out to be an accurate metaphor: there’s nothing remotely subtle about this band. Like rubbing salt in my wound after spending half an hour with this album, a glance at the song titles confirms all my worst suspicions: “Headache,” “Sad Pricks,” “Nausea,” “Negative Space”—and, most apt, “Wasted.”

To their credit, yes, they play well together. The drummer is amazing, and he drives the band like a runaway train. Yes, it sounds like In Utero-era Nirvana, which is perhaps central to its appeal—but it’s devoid of any hooks, riffs or melodies. No, I honestly can’t tell any two tracks here apart, and I don’t think it’s because I’m over 40. Humbug!

The chances:
Part of the reason this year is so tough to call is that it’s so tribal. I can’t see someone considering a vote for Tegan and Sara being pulled over to Godspeed instead, for example. Unless you grew up with hardcore or still listen to your Jesus Lizard records, I can’t see METZ converting newbies in the way that, say, Fucked Up can. (I don’t enjoy that band either, but I can at least appreciate why people do.)

Yet people who love this band love them to death. So at least one person in the jury room will be extremely passionate about this album and will be crying tears of frustration when they can’t convince everyone else to be on board.


Stranger things have happened, right?

Two of the could've/should've beens:

Headstones – Love and Fury (FrostByte/Maple)

The album:
I never expected to love a Headstones record, or even really to like one a lot. Which is why I was totally shocked to find myself completely taken with this reunion record. My review from May 2013:

Dear dudes. Hugh here. It’s 2012 and look, I’m itchy. Flashpoint is about to wrap up. It was a blast. And, honestly, a sweet paycheque. But let’s be fucking frank here. Even an action-packed TV show involves standing around for inordinate periods of time in a monkey suit waiting for action to actually begin. I did that for five years. Five fucking years! People kissed my ass. It was great, though. Now I’m sitting around waiting for voice-over work for insurance company ads. So like I said, I’m itchy. Twitchy, even. I miss you fuckers. Those reunion gigs were a good time. Got the blood pumping. Got the juices flowing.

So let’s bottle that shit. Let’s kick over some chairs. It’s been 20 years since the first album. It’s been 10 since we called it quits. Let’s show these whiny, pampered emo kids what’s the what. I’ve got some tunes. I’ve got some shit to get off my chest. I’m old. I’m cranky. But I’m ready to rumble and I can still kick the ass of punks half my age.

And you know what? I ain’t got time to waste. This will be 10 songs, all under four minutes long, recorded as live as possible. No studio tricks. No artistic maturity, whatever that is. No grunged-to-death Nickelback bullshit. If radio doesn’t want it, fuck ’em. I want those guitar solos to be breathless and last no more than eight bars. We can drop the tempo here and there, but Jesus Christ, no fucking ballads. (Note: I may break that rule once. And the four-minute one, too. So that will make 11 tracks. Sue me.) And—now hear me out—I want to cover ABBA’s “SOS,” because that song makes me fucking weep, and we’re going to do it like the Ramones on amphetamine. Don’t worry, though, my new songs are as good or better, so nobody’s going to think it’s a cheap novelty trick to get on the radio.

Yeah, this might be like a fool’s game and we’ll still end up playing shitholes called Cowboy Ranch and Toronto critics will think we’re nothing more than a soundtrack to a bar fight. But you know what? We’ve been written off before. We can do this. I’m ready. I’m fucking ready. I’m hungry. Are you? Fuck yeah.

Love, Hugh.

Why it didn’t make even the long list:
Love and Fury should have been what this year's Japandroids' Celebration Rock was to last year's contest. The Headstones have never been a critics’ band, and that’s not about to change now, even if Hugh Dillon’s enduring performance in Hard Core Logo alone should land him in some kind of CanRock hall of fame. Also, this came out weeks before the Polaris cutoff date, leaving little time for an underdog rally from the two or three jurors who actually love this album as much as I do. Not that I can imagine anyone at Headstones HQ giving a shit about their shot at Polaris.

Curious? There’s actually an amazing backstory to the album’s inception. Listen to this great interview Hugh Dillon did on Q.

Hilotrons – At Least There’s a Commotion (Kelp)

The album:
I’m sure I love this album primarily because, as a keyboardist myself, I have mad respect for the ways in which main man Michael Dubue is a keyboard wizard who’s made a wallop of a rock record with barely any guitars in sight. He’s also pulled off the incredibly rare feat of making an electric, vibrant rock record without a live band. The production here is all-around brilliant; I’d love to hear him put in charge of a Spoon record, for example, and bring an already excellent band to a whole other level.

Here’s an abridged version of my original review:

"I know he's got the hooks!" are the first words you hear on this record, over a whip-tight smackdown of a drum beat, and emitted from a jerky, strangulated vocalist who sounds like he's confessing under torture; almost immediately, a staccato synth starts oscillating in ways not heard since Bernie Worrell in Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. No, the Hilotrons have never heard of you either, which is why they open their first record in five years with all guns blazing and demanding to be heard.

Kelp Records' head honcho, Jon Bartlett, sent me the new record by this Ottawa band and claimed it was one of the best records ever made in that town. Obviously he's biased. But he's also right. 

Dubue is the rare frontman who is also the keyboardist, and so his records are full of synth sounds and pianos of every timbre, roped into a rock'n'roll context by killer drummer Philip Shaw Bova, the only other musician on this record (though there is vocal assistance from Ottawa's who's who: Bryson, Jeremy Fisher, Lynn Miles, Snailhouse's Mike Feuerstack). 

There are obvious influences from late '70s fidgety new wave: Devo, Joe Jackson, XTC, Talking Heads. But with the exception of the outright Kate Bush homage “Emergency” (itself a cover of local Ottawa artist Yellow Jacket Avenger), this album carves its own path: heartbreaking, space-age country balladry (“Not There Tonight”), punk rock with AC/DC riffage (“Modern Way Woman”), '50s soul played on '70s synths (“My Number”), the Cure-like “She Knows My Condition,” all transcending their origins and ultimately sounding like no one else but the Hilotrons. The key is Dubue's vocals, capable of operatic heights and delivered with a Freddie Mercury gusto that precious few male vocalists in this country attempt (unless their name is Hawksley Workman).

Amazing singer, great band (all two of them), incredible sound and some killer songs: the Hilotrons will not be Ottawa's secret any more. (Ed note: Except that they still are. Whoops.)

Why it didn’t make the shortlist:
I honestly thought it might, because the few jurors I know who love this record spoke passionately about it, and it ranked high on my ballot. But the simple fact is that this band rarely tours, their profile is negligible and their rep as musicians’ musicians doesn’t extend far outside the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal axis. Also: terrible album cover.

1 comment:

Mike Hickinbotham said...

Joe Jackson - classic. Steppin Out - one of the best intros ever.

This has been a great guide to purchase new Canadian music. Purchasing Canadian music is one of my active direct connections back to the homeland. That and watching the Leafs lose. Thanks Apple TV NHL app.

Keen to hear what the Matthew Good album sounds like. Hoping it's a return to his earlier solo work.

PS - bought the Grapes of Wrath. Excellent!