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Photograph: Justin Broadbent Metric

Metric hits the big time at Radio City Music Hall

The indie-rock band breaks through to a wider audience—and questions its resulting responsibility

By Marley Lynch

Quite the opposite of acts that skyrocket to overnight fame due to blog approval or the strength of a well-received debut EP, Metric has enjoyed a slow and steady rise. “The nice thing about the path we’ve chosen to take is it has been incremental steps,” says Emily Haines, the group’s vocalist and songwriter, by phone from Toronto, preparing to head out the very next day on an extensive tour.

That’s not to say Haines and her bandmates—guitarist-arranger Jimmy Shaw, bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott Key—haven’t been very, very busy. Since the 2009 release of Juno Award–winning disc Fantasies, the Canadian-American band has performed for the Queen of England; landed the theme song for megablockbuster film The Twilight Saga: Eclipse; wrote the score for David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis with Howard Shore; and collaborated with Lou Reed on its newest and fifth album, Synthetica, issued in June on the band’s own label, Metric Music International (as a joint release with Mom + Pop in the U.S.).

This week brings another milestone for Metric, a headlining gig at Radio City Music Hall in support of the new LP. Playing the venerated space holds personal meaning for Haines, whose parents (her father was the famous poet Paul Haines) took her to see Dionne Warwick there when she was a kid. But the significance extends beyond childhood memories: “[Synthetica] feels like the record that people will actually hear,” explains Haines. “That’s been the main challenge for us—we’ve done things our own way, and only recently does it feel like anyone’s been paying attention on a larger scale. That’s why playing Radio City is such a special moment for us.”

But with a wider audience comes greater responsibility, a notion that Haines is keenly aware of in this run-up to the American election. Since her emergence in the Canadian indie rock scene during the early 2000s, the 38-year-old singer has become known for fiery songwriting that often grapples with social and political issues.

Synthetica is no exception, though Haines refrains from simply commending or denouncing a particular way of governance. Instead, the album is a call to action. On “Dreams So Real,” Haines considers the role of music in sociopolitical commentary, asking, “Have I ever really helped anybody but myself / To believe in the power of songs?” She engages in harsher introspection on the galloping “Artificial Nocturne,” which opens the album with the resounding statement “I’m just as fucked up as they say” over tense, tight synths. Unexpectedly, this phrase of self-hate has become something of an all-inclusive slogan during shows.

“The songs transform live in ways that I could have never predicted,” says Haines with a mix of relish and surprise. “I’m perhaps nostalgic for another time, but I think there’s a power to a song that can unify people. What I hope is happening on this record is that people feel energized by the fact that we’re not fucking lying. For people as fortunate as us in our generation, you gotta find a way to put your back into it.” Metric, which has placed voter-registration booths next to its merch table at past concerts, appears to be exploring how active it wants to be in this sphere—and how active it ought to be.

Haines’s examination of these topics—which began as notes scribbled on napkins during the band’s whirlwind post-Fantasies era—suits the “sonic palette” her creative other half, Shaw, initially created, described by Haines as a “20-minute orchestral-synth piece full of different movements” that grew into a full album. Grim but catchy, dynamic but constrained, futuristic but created with vintage gear, the instrumental aspect of Synthetica could easily serve as a soundtrack to the end of the world. “Jimmy [Shaw] has a way of expressing sonically what I’m saying lyrically, often by doing the opposite, which is one of the aspects of the band that I enjoy the most,” notes Haines. “Sounds happy? Listen closer. Sounds like it’s really a downer? There’s probably something uplifting in the lyrics.”

Metric plays Radio City Music Hall Sun 23.

Follow Marley Lynch on Twitter: @marleyasinbob

Buy Synthetica on iTunes

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