I’m still getting used to the idea of Metric playing Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Because of the Music City’s inflated sense of itself, getting to play the Ryman should humble the artist at the weight of living up to the standard of the venue, while simultaneously paying honor to the ghosts of all who have ever played there.
In reality, Nashville’s rock club scene is on life support, and in most cases, playing the Ryman means the band doesn’t have to play the Mercy Lounge or Exit/In but can’t quite sell out Bridgestone Arena.
The last time I saw Metric in Nashville was at the Exit/In on March 22, 2004, before the time when the Exit/In shuttered up their window to passersby and the excluded local acts. Metric was still touring on their first full-length album Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? which came out in 2003. They had previously come through in support of Hot Hot Heat and then Broken Social Scene, and this was their first headlining gig in Nashville.
Back on that evening in 2004, Metric was on fire. Every song was perfectly placed; Emily pranced around, but not too much, and each member of the band played like it was their last show. Haines even deigned herself to the audience when she asked about the correct pronunciation of “Moog,” which dropped everyone’s guard.
During an extended version of “Combat Baby” the unthinkable happened: audience members were invited to stage dive, and some of the crowd uncharacteristically obliged. As the band played on, Haines grabbed the mike and calmly said, “I don’t want to say anything that will get us in trouble, but fuck Clear Channel.”
The lead singer gave a look of faux apology before espousing her support for David Cross (in the aftermath of his documentary Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! Cross was sued by the then-owner of the Exit/In for being improperly filmed). The rant continued as Haines turned her attention to the “Budweiser: True Music” banners hanging from the monitors affixed to the ceiling that flanked the stage. “I guess it’s only music if Budweiser says it’s music. It’s like we can’t live without it. Wouldn’t it be a shame if these came down?”
In an instant, crowd members began jerking on the banners in time with the backbeat of “Combat Baby.” The banners were solidly attached to the monitors and the force of the efforts to tear them down increased. The monitors they were affixed to remained steady, but there was a sense the banners weren’t coming down without serious damage to the venue or to someone beneath them.
Haines took stock of the situation and casually said, “Now, I didn’t say to tear them down.”
Immediately it stopped. Everyone went back to paying attention to the act on stage. Haines brought us all to the precipice and just as effortlessly pulled us back from it. She could have started a riot if she had wanted to. Everyone was in tune: the band, the lead singer, the crowd. There was an unspoken symbiosis. Something amazing had just happened. I have never before or since been to a better show.
A lot happens in eight and a half years. 2009 saw Metric reach top 40 status, as the band released Fantasies, and the single “Help, I’m Alive” wound up in heavy rotation – all without the support of a label, as Metric self-released the track on their own label, Metric Music International, achieving mainstream success on their own terms.
Whether or not the realities of sudden mainstream fame scared them, Metric’s 2012 follow-up, Synthetica, offered up much more complexity. Thematically, Fantasies questions what is real and what isn’t between desires and needs, while also asking listeners what type of mark they want to leave on the world — it is palatable because Metric hides these themes within an upbeat record. Synthetica, however, is a downer. From the dour arrangements, to Haines mostly using the lower part of her register, the album basically says, “My whole life is a lie and everything is completely manufactured.” It’s a great layered record that gets better with every listen; a raw look at a band following up the premise of “Gimme Sympathy” from their previous album.
And all of this weighed heavily when Metric came into the Ryman. Following a solid performance by warm-up act Half Moon Run, Haines and company took the darkened stage to the instrumental strains to “Clone,” which gave way the slow drone of “Artificial Nocturne.” The slow build into the song exploded both sonically and visually when the entire band kicked in, and the amplifier stacks turned into spotlights that surrounded the band. It was a wonderfully timed misdirection that added to the show throughout.
The Nashville audience, which is notoriously difficult to impress, was a little reserved at the onset of the show. With the exception of those in the front few rows, the crowd remained still through the opener and the follow-up, “Youth Without Youth.” Likewise, the call-and-response in the refrain of “Speed the Collapse” reached few audience members. Metric was going to be in for a fight — they weren’t going to get us all just by saying “Hello Nashville!”
The transition from the hypnotic drone of “Dreams So Real” to “Empty” started the slow burn as the latter’s quiet-loud-quiet dynamic primed the crowd. The newer fans were already won over, happy to be there. The older fans seemed content to just see the band, but not participate.
A switch was flipped during the passionate “Help, I’m Alive.” Whole sections of the balcony were suddenly filled with people on their feet – not surprising since it was the lead single on their most successful record, but there was a tonal shift before and during the song. Those who weren’t already standing were now on the edge of their seats, waiting for the right push.
The band followed up the jam with the title track off the new album, but made a calculated step back with a mesmerizing version of “Clone” and “Breathing Underwater.” They reclaimed the build up with “Sick Muse.” We were primed.
Metric came back with the always killer “Dead Disco,” and the crowd ate it up. The audience members in every section of the Ryman Auditorium were on their feet, save a few stragglers. Haines then took the opportunity to address the crowd. The band was indeed humbled to be in the Ryman, and all that meant to the Nashville fans, and “Stadium Love” closed out the main set.
The light effects in the background switched off, and a two-minute timer began counting down, breaking the illusion that Metric might not play any other songs. A full-throated countdown began at the five-second mark in anticipation. They immediately launched into “Monster Hospital” for the first song of the encore, followed up by “Gold, Guns, Girls.” This was as political as the band got. They’ve never shied away from their political leanings, even in song. They’ve certainly been more subtle about their views on Synthetica, which makes one ask if that’s a calculated move as to not entirely alienate their new-found audience.
Closing the show, Haines and guitarist James Shaw performed an acoustic and heartfelt version of “Gimme Sympathy.” The crowd was taken from hysteria to mellow in just a few chords. The audience sang along, and even some couples in the front slow-danced. It was a rare moment of honesty and appreciation from a usually fickle audience in Nashville, appreciative of the experience they had all just gone through together, band members and old fans and new fans alike. Metric has fought to earn every fan for more than a decade with shows like this.
The band offered little from the furthest reaches of their back catalog for the older fans in attendance — only three songs from the first two albums made it into the set, but how could anyone complain about a show that was this good? Whether we have been around for the entire ride or are just discovering Metric, each fan in the audience came away knowing they’d seen a great show in a great venue. For a second, we were all one, just like eight and a half years ago. As long as Metric keeps putting on shows like this, I guess I don’t mind sharing them with the new kids.
Stream their latest album, Synthetica, below. And below that, grab a free download of a “Help I’m Alive” remix from their previous album, Fantasies.