With a sold-out show in Melbourne before their appearance at Splendour in the Grass, Metric could have been forgiven if they’d have just gone through the motions. However, judging by their delay in setting up and the intimidating array of architecture up on stage, it became apparent that the band was going for more than just a rehearsal.

If Metric do indeed have a wide appeal, it is due to their ability to pair darker indie sensibilities with charming, upbeat pop melodies. To see them play to these strengths would presumably be to be part of an endearing, nuanced and essentially intimate performance.

Frontwoman Emily Haines, like her fellow band members, took the stage clad entirely in black, the main difference being her s0-short-it-was-barely-there miniskirt.

While new album Synthetica boasts a slightly harder, groovier edge than the band’s 2009 breakthrough, Fantasties, Metric are still first and foremost a pop group.  Contrary to their studio output however, the band seemed too intent on honing in on mood and atmosphere to the detriment of their personality and musicality.

With the din of restless anticipation having risen to ear-splitting levels, eventually the lights went down and an ocean of synths engulfed the venue. Opener “Artificial Nocturne” promised an engaging set to follow; the kind of intro track that threatens to break out at any moment; Joshua Winstead’s steady, one-note bass riff keeping things nicely anchored. “Youth Without Youth” followed, but was met with little enthusiasm from the sell-out crowd.

Despite a seriously impressive light show that utilised reflections off steel beams and a huge matrix of coloured lights flashing in sync, the band members themselves never really seemed to emerge from the darkness at the front of the stage.

Winstead and guitarist James Shaw barely deviated from their designated points either side of Haines, who herself spent much of the gig facing curiously sideways as she bashed out the leads on her keyboards.

It was a strange dynamic, especially when accounting the obvious presence of another keys player hiding somewhere off stage. The group sounded good and tight, if a little low in the mix, but their apparent lack of enthusiasm offered little in the way of spectacle.

“Dreams So Real”, a sparse and moody cut from Synthetica, was boiled down to a three-minute exercise in reverberation, and after four or five songs there still hadn’t been a single word of banter. One of the band’s few journeys into their back catalogue, “Empty,” was met with warm appreciation from the crowd;and it’s ever-jarring grunge interlude served as a welcome injection of energy.

An extended instrumental outro however, sapped the song of all its momentum as punters became visibly restless. Elsewhere, Haines struggled with the high notes during the chorus on “Lost Kitten,” but predictably it was “Help I’m Alive” that drew the first truly impassioned response from the patient crowd.

Clearly the band’s biggest hit to date, its heavy synths were well suited to Mertric’s cool and calculated approach to this particular show. The track’s instantly-memorable refrain, “My heart’s still beating like a hammer,” was more than audible – even over all those synths – as the fans finally found their voice.

Title track “Synthetica” immediately followed amidst a wall of flashing lights and shadows, renewing the crowd’s energy. For the first time on Friday evening, many fans found themselves dancing. The set was rounded out with more tracks from Synthetica and Fantasies until “Stadium Ring” injected a final much-needed burst of punky energy.

“Monster Hospital” was the first song of the encore, before Haines belted out the standout “Gold Guns Girls” with a gusto that had been lacking from her delivery up until that point.

Remarkably, it wasn’t until right before the final song of the evening that Haines dared to talk to the crowd, explaining that “sometimes I feel like the last standing human,” whatever that means. The usual platitudes followed – “it’s hard being in a touring band, but you guys make it all worthwhile” – until a surprisingly touching acoustic rendition of “Gimme Sympathy” rounded out the evening.

The song’s cutesy lyrics (“Who would you rather be?/The Beatles or The Rolling Stones”) worked in Metric’s favour this time, finally allowing the cold facade to be pulled away, revealing the adorable pop band lurking beneath.

It may have been too little too late however, and to see the band members with ear-wide grins, high-fiving fans and bowing at the front of the stage without having bothered to utter a single word to their audience until five minutes earlier, was bewildering. These were, after all, the die-hard fans who had come to see the band one-on-one, in person, without the sense of distance that sometimes accompanies festival appearances.

Many would have been happy to have seen Metric play live, but few would have gone home feeling a true connection with one of their favourite bands.

– Darren Gubbins