METZ isn’t hooky in the traditional sense of the word, but their appeal is immediate as that of any pop band. Years before Shellac and Hot Snakes broke their hiatuses, the Toronto trio’s Sub Pop debut proudly kept the bad vibes going for antisocialites who didn’t care to pledge full allegiance to hardcore, punk, noise, or indie rock. If Steve Albini producing their 2017 album Strange Peace didn’t move the needle much, it’s only because you might’ve assumed he did the other ones too. And yet, Strange Peace started to renege on the promises Alex Edkins made two years earlier on II: that METZ would never hire a big producer, clean up their sound, or make anything accessible enough for radio. Three years later, Atlas Vending verges even closer to “accessible” and “expansive.” For better or worse, the snare tone is still their best hook.
But what a snare tone. It’s about the first thing heard on the opening “Pulse,” a form of “grimy, airless 200-cap venue” vérité so antithetical to a typical studio-produced sound that it comes off like CGI—as if Hayden Menzies is banging oil drums inside a meat locker, which itself in inside a well, which itself is inside a cave. Getting on METZ’s wavelength has always required a miserabilist bent, and the insistent beat is self-explanatory: It’s the pulse of a man whose heart pumps coffee sludge, steel shavings, and malevolence, soldiering on in the hopes that tolerance for pain might amount to something useful.
It’s an apt state of existence for Atlas Vending, as METZ’s music skews more political by default in 2020. We’re told that Edkins addresses “crushing social anxiety, addiction, isolation, media-induced paranoia and the restless urge to leave everything behind,” and really, what else is an aggrieved noise-rock band supposed to write about? “A Boat to Drown In” and “Hail Taxi” avoid restating the obvious, but would benefit from a less oblique approach. Edkins attacks every lyric with the same unyielding, agitated bark, making it hard to grasp any heightened sense of stakes or outrage. Is he newly infuriated by three years of doomscrolling since Strange Peace or is this the inevitable outcome of matching his band’s unyielding, agitated music?
The cerebral aspect of METZ’s music is always secondary to its concussive power, and on Atlas Vending they take great care to get the sound and associations in place. Co-producer Ben Greenberg’s stint with The Men coincided with their creative zenith before he pivoted back to the industrial, urban assault vehicle of Uniform. The mixing comes courtesy of Seth Manchester, who guided the mainstream breakthrough of Daughters’ You Won’t Get What You Want, recreating their prior sonic snuff with a prestigious, filmic scope that roped in Nick Cave fans. METZ doesn’t lack those acts’ extremist convictions; Atlas Vending is among the most pummeling music released by a big-league indie label in 2020. Nearly every track has something to offer the pedalboard gawkers—the guitars of “Parasite” replicate a dentist’s drill on chattering teeth, the harmonies of “Blind Youth Industrial Park” imagines Alice in Chains’ Facelift as part of Sub Pop’s back catalog, and Chris Slorach’s bass tone ought to require oversight from OSHA.
Each of these things happens within the first 30 seconds or so, and METZ struggle to find ways to take their songs somewhere more interesting than they started. The choruses of “Blind Youth Industrial Park” or “Hail Taxi” are clean enough to pass for anthemic, but their impact diminishes with repetition, Edkins’ melodic austerity and rigid intonation ensuring they’re anthemic only relative to other METZ songs. “The Mirror” kicks off with an intriguing post-hardcore rendering of the Bo Diddley beat and cycles in place for about five minutes. Lead single “A Boat to Drown In” does this intentionally, a seven-minute motorik meant to signify a bold new direction rather a low-risk pivot, the result of incrementally widening their influences over the past decade. There’s no denying METZ’s ability to summon a white-knuckled, visceral disgust where tension and release are indistinguishable. It slaps, but it doesn’t leave much of a mark.