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METZ: Automat Review

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METZ: <i>Automat</i> Review

As the familiar cries of “rock is dead” keep getting louder, groups like METZ give us cause to question whether the genre’s diminished presence at the upper echelons of popularity actually affects things on the ground. METZ, a post-punk/noise-rock trio from Toronto, essentially owe their existence to a crop of classic experimental acts—Big Black, Swans, The Jesus Lizard, etc.—who each operated in a commercial ecosystem that marginalized them arguably as much as today’s marketplace supposedly disadvantages guitar-based rock bands. Back then, it was laughable to imagine that anyone who sounded like METZ could come close to a major hit, even if they scored a major-label deal.

So what does it matter what’s left of that market share now, when it was slim to begin with for artists of METZ’s persuasion? In all likelihood, not much—provided we keep getting artists willing to re-invent the guitar-bass-drums formula in ways that are unrecognizable, even hideous and deformed, to previous generations of rock fans.

As we see on the new rarities compilation Automat, METZ were actually closer to that point when they released their first three seven-inches between 2009 and 2010 (before they hooked up with Holy Fuck’s Graham Walsh and, later, studio legend Steve Albini to sit at the recording console). Sequenced here in chronological order, those seven-inches, along with the odds and ends that follow, document the progression of a band getting less imaginative over time.

By the time their self-titled Sub Pop debut arrived in 2012, METZ had honed their songwriting into a neat and tidy (if highly abrasive) package—hardly revolutionary, even if their caustic billows of guitar noise brought back memories of a rock underground that emanated danger from the fringes of society as much as it dared listeners to wander off the well-lit avenues of the pop charts. Not long after Automat opens with a sound that resembles the rattling of two spray paint cans in stereo, it’s clear that METZ were willing to detonate the structures of their songs before committing them to tape. In fact, at various points over Automat’s first six tracks, it sounds as if METZ weren’t all that interested in writing songs so much as exercises.

Strangely, if you didn’t know that tracks like “Soft Whiteout” and “Lump Sums” were 10 years old at this point, you might think the band had taken a brave, quantum leap from its last album, 2017’s Strange Peace, into unknown territory. Less of a song than a series of pulses, album opener “Soft Whiteout,” coils and gnashes through various guises until the music suddenly disintegrates in its middle section, losing its shape and body as guitarist/frontman Alex Edkins’ wailing solo recalls Helmet’s scratchy early-career output on the Amphetamine Reptile label.

Likewise, even though guitars permeate “Lump Sums,” for most of the track, the instrument sounds like it’s been vaporized, an acidic cloud that threatens to eat away at drummer Hayden Menzies’ cymbals and kick drum occupying center stage. METZ would later learn to rely on a more conventional brand of guitar-based aggression, but on “Lump Sums,” the band’s penchant for brute force takes a backseat to a mood that’s harder to define. Fittingly, Edkins combines howls with a kind of meditative chanting, singing “I, feel cold cold water / I, hide my head in the sand / You, won’t even try to see / You, don’t have a good foot to stand.” It’s never quite clear who or what Edkins’ intended targets are, and for that the song becomes all the more enveloping as the music ripples toward the listener like waves of heat rising off a sun-baked blacktop road.

In 2012, shortly before the release of their debut, Edkins said that the band’s first three seven-inch releases “sound like a band finding its footing.” While still touring behind that album a year later, Hayden Menzies looked back on the earlier material, admitted that “we used to write songs that were more complex, but we got that out of our systems. It just wasn’t as fun.” Listening to Automat from start to finish, you could make a case that Edkins and Menzies were wrong. And as the track sequence arrives at more recent material (skipping-over the band’s 2012 cover of Sparklehorse’s “Pig,” for some reason), you can’t help but wonder what would have been had the band continued to explore freer song structures.

The title track, for exmple, allows us to imagine what Suicide might have sounded if Alan Vega and Martin Rev had grown up as ‘90s kids armed with guitars, amps and distorion pedals. On the other hand, later cuts like “Dirty Shirt” (2012), “Leave Me Out” (2012), “Can’t Understand” (2013) and album closer “Eraser” (2015) hew much closer to outright Nirvana imitation spiked with a bit of Devo thrown-in for good measure, along with Edkins’ now-obligatory Johnny Rotten impersonation. Whether or not you find those songs satisfying on a purely musical level, as Automat makes abundantly clear, METZ showed the world right out of the gate that they didn’t have to resort to being so derivative. Hopefully, as they look to take their next step forward, they’ll look back at the essence of what they once were. Perhaps they were too hasty in overlooking what they originally had to offer, which rock music, dying or not, could stand to benefit from.

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