You have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to see if you attend a classical music concert. You know the songs you’re going to hear in advance, roughly what they’ll sound like, and you know you won’t get a lot of patter from the people on stage. Some conductors will vary the tempo or the volume of a particular instrument, but in general it’s not going to sound too different from any recorded version you’ll hear.
The Strathmore, where Canadian synth-rockers Metric played on Friday, is perhaps best known as a classical music venue since it’s home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Seemingly taking a cue from classical performances, Metric’s songs, with few exceptions, sounded exactly as they do on their records. There was also very little audience interaction, and most folks in attendance could have guessed the set list (likely in order) before the show even started. Not a winning formula for a rock show.
This is not to say the show wasn’t enjoyable; it just got off to a prolonged slow start that saw the initially standing and screaming crowd settling into their seats. It didn’t help that three large racks of extremely bright spotlights repeatedly blinded the audience throughout the evening, beginning with the show’s opener, “Artificial Nocturne.” “I’m just as fucked up as they say,” sings vocalist Emily Haines in the first line of the song, the leadoff track to their recent album Synthetica. She may seem that way on record, but in concert Haines seems less fucked up and more like an Olivia Newton John impersonator, crisscrossing the stage with a run/dance move straight out of an 80s workout video that was on display all night, even as she played her keyboards.
Initially it seemed as though Metric might just play their new record in order. Because of the Strathmore’s flawless acoustics it was easy to close your eyes and hear absolutely no difference between the songs played live and the way they sounded on record. The fourth song, “Dreams So Real,” also fit this description but was a welcome change only because the incessant spotlights finally took a break. By the fifth song, “Empty,” it seemed as if we were in for an extended experience in Depeche Mode non-variation. Even the raging guitar solo at the song’s midpoint (backed by a bass riff stolen from Nirvana’s “Breed”) seemed perfunctory.
However as the song wore on Metric seemed to emerge from a shell – the sound got dirtier, Haines urged the audience to sing along with her, and the crowd got their feet moving. This continued into “Help I’m Alive,” arguably their most popular song, which swept the crowd up, especially some super-fans in the first balcony. The only downside from that point was the spotlights. It’s unclear if Metric wanted to see their audience or, conversely, prevent us from seeing them, but the 24 insanely bright spinning and flashing lights behind the band seemed as laughably misplaced as the strobe lights at Flight of the Conchords’ benefit for epileptic dogs.
Things settled down again as the band swung back into sleep mode with “Clone” and “Breathing Underwater,” both off Synthetica and both indistinguishable from their recorded counterparts. Once again the audience began to utilize the Strathmore’s comfy seats.
It took 11 songs, but Haines eventually did acknowledge the audience, heaping heavy praise (as all visiting artists seem to do) on the 9:30 Club. Metric finished their first set with “Stadium Love,” a Sleigh Bells-esque rocker that featured yet still more strobe lights, before Haines sauntered off the stage without saying a word.
To their credit, Metric mixed things up wonderfully for their six-song encore. “Monster Hospital” was revved up and punked out, with Haines bounding around the stage screaming, “I fought the war but the war won.” “Wanderlust” was made better by a lack of Lou Reed (who drags the Synthetica track down each time he appears). Perhaps to make it up to Reed, Metric brought opening act Half Moon Run back to the stage to assist them in a fantastic version of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” As if to prove the spontaneity of the song, Haines giggled, “I really enjoyed that” to her bandmates at its conclusion.
They finished the evening with a slow, acoustic version of “Gimme Sympathy,” and while it was a fantastic way to cap the set it also proved that Metric is more than capable of varying their music in some amazing ways. Hopefully they’ll work more of that into their sets in the future. And turn off those lights.