Saturday 11 April 2009

Review: Metric's Fantasies -- compressed hubba bubba

Heavy Soil is very, very tired.

I'm just at the end of listening – start to end – (not, obviously, for the first time) to Metric's new record, Fantasies, which arrived in my inbox, neatly e-shrink-wrapped, at the end of last week. You can order a copy via Metric's website, should you so desire.

Now, as you might suppose of one who chooses to review releases on a music blog, I am not especially prone to music-induced fatigue. However, the fact remains that Metric's latest album has exhausted me.

Why? I give you one word:


Others have written with greater authority, with more prolonged and impassioned delivery than I about the musical phenomenon that is the loudness/compression wars. So please take the following explanation as only the most cursory of summaries.

But, essentially, compression is about making the quiet bits of music louder, whilst the very loudest bits stay the same. Because of the way our ears work, the effect is an apparent boost to the loudness of the whole track. Compression is why, if you put on (god forbid) Oasis's What's the Story (Morning Glory), it'll sound way louder than, say, 'London's Calling'.

But there's a downside to compression. The more you raise the apparent volume of the track by boosting the quieter sounds, the more you iron out dynamic contrasts – the distinction between loud and soft. Excessive compression can squash the life out of a recording, removing the impact of a snare hit or a distorted guitar entry that would normally create a dramatic change in volume.

This video explains it, no doubt, rather more concisely than I have managed:

Heavily compressed tracks also become tiring to the ears. There's no relief. Do you ever find yourself, partway through listening to a record (especially on headphones), with an odd sense of claustrophobia or irritation? A mild sensation of unease or the sense that you're in some way hemmed in? A vague desire somehow to put a bit of distance between yourself and the music that's coming into your ears?

That's probably the effect of compression.

So ... back to Metric, then.

Fantasies is pretty heavily compressed. And I find that a bit annoying. Okay, so it is very well produced, and the band is clearly going for a slick, pop-informed approach. But it's a bit much for Heavy Soil. A bit full-on. What might seem 'pumping' for two songs seems wearying by track 8 – at which point Heavy Soil's ears are craving respite.

But enough about compression, eh? Let's try and talk about the songs.

It starts well. 'Help I'm Alive' is big – with massive bass and a hoofing kick. The chord progressions carry the song forward effectively, and there's a strong sense of momentum. Yes, it's compressed to hell – but on this song, in isolation, it works.

And the momentum is retained over the course of the next couple of songs. 'Sick Muse' (pretty good) kicks into its chorus with more than a dusting of Ash (think 'Burn Baby Burn' [youtube]). Indeed, there's an awful lot about this record that recalls the guitar-pop of yesteryear.

... 'Gold Guns Girls' – for instance – starts off with a riff that could've come straight from Franz Ferdinand's debut. It's pacey, with heaps of on-beat delay and smooth, piped-cream fuzz. Emily Haines's heavily treated vocals soar above the glassy blend of beats, guitars and synths – the familiar Metric formula – and the juxtaposition works as well as ever. But it's not really leading anywhere.

There are quieter, more restrained songs, too. But often these fail to leave much impression. They may (as in the case of 'Front Row') mess around with a few interesting dominant seventh chords and a pretty melody or two – but they tend to congeal rather than attractively mutate.

At this point, please be my guest and download an mp3 of closing track 'Stadium Love' by Metric. It's probably the most interesting thing on the album. An 80s-tinged buzzing blend of distorted guitars and hard-edged synths hammer out an insistent, two-note bass riff that – in its simplicity – is more powerful than any number of mathsy guitar figures and hyper-layered 8-bar chord progressions. This is real momentum, a la Sonic Youth et al. And it's a pity – and something of a disappointment – that we've had to wait until the album's last track to get it.

Overall, then, the record is surprisingly two-dimensional.

I've always thought of Metric as intellipop – music that's interesting and slightly subversive in its tendency to seem simpler and more obvious than it actually proves to be. Whether through unexpectedly outre production tricks, wrongfooting chord progressions or Emily Haines's twisty, deadpan lyrics.

But on Fantasies, there's far less depth. Whereas I'd previously have condemned comparisons with bands like No Doubt as lazy, on the strength of this offering, I'd not be so sure.

You see, I smell a disconcerting whiff of Hubba Bubba.

There are too many familiar production techniques, too much delay. It's unavoidably a little bland: too artificial, mass-market-sounding. I come to Metric wanting the odd surprise, the shot of dark unpredictability that suddenly clouds its crystalline pop surroundings with inky blooms. And that doesn't happen often enough, here. Too much sheep's clothing; too little wolf.

As ever, if you like the free mp3 – which is provided in order that you, the reader, may appraise – please buy the music.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the loudness war, did you know Ben Folds recevied enough complaints about the compression on Way To Normal (although sadly he did nothing about the ABSOLUTE BOLLOCKS LYRICS) that he has released "Stems and Seeds" -- a double disc affair with the stems of the entire album for your remixing pleasure, along with a resequenced, remastered version of the album that doesn't hurt your ears. Although it still hurts the mind with its ABSOLUTE BOLLOCKS LYRICS.

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