There are way too many electronic bands out now and not enough that maximize the genre’s full potential. Toronto, Ontario’s Austra is fortunately one of the few that know what they’re doing with their synths. Vocalist and keyboardist Katie Stelmanis, drummer Maya Postepski, and bassist Dorian Wolf embrace a range of influences, from house and techno to classical and opera. This is truly intelligent electronic music with a great understanding of how to incorporate human vocals and live instrumentation with computerized tones. Olympia is one of the coldest, catchiest, rhythmic releases of the year, and it should not be overlooked.
The band’s first record, 2011’s Feel It Break was a hit, having been nominated for that year’s Polaris Music Prize and featured on many critics’ year-end lists, specifically the Toronto Star and New York magazine’s. Their sound is eclectic, featuring unexpected instruments, a wide variety of synths, and funky beats. No stranger to melody, Austra are skilled in writing infectious pop hooks that still maintain enough complexity to blow away anything you’d hear on the radio. Their rhythm section is always on point, crafting tight, body-rocking grooves for every tempo. Austra’s greatest asset is Stelmanis, whose powerful, arresting mezzo is absolutely beautiful. She is highly influenced by opera and classical music, and it shows; she has obviously had some vocal training that is not often found in the world of pop music. She keeps the songs exciting and emotional, even when the instrumentals don’t.
Right off the bat, this record is something special. The first track “What We Done?” begins with low, pulsing bass, reminiscent of modern house tracks. But instead of exploding into a massive drop of criss-crossing synths, some flutes and horns enter, pushing out short, concise notes. Harmonized vocals lay down a subtle chorus before Stelmanis allows herself to let loose Florence + The Machine-style. Disco drums pick up the track and sweep it into electro-pop territory just as it’s getting a bit monotonous, making for an excellent lead-off number.
The first single off Olympia is “Home.” Groovy and piano-driven, the song’s bouncy riffs are delightful. When the percussion kicks in halfway through, you can’t keep from bobbing your head. Stelmanis’ warbling voice is captivating and full of pain as she belts out, “You know that it hurts me when you don’t go home at night.” Though the lines are repeated ad nauseam, Stelmanis could sing the phone book and it would be a hit. With some horn lines peppered throughout and a cute synth outro, it’s clear why it was chosen to represent the album.
“You Changed My Life,” is a stunning ballad that absolutely blows the listener away with a strong vocal performance and a simple, heartbreaking piano riff. It stumbles into a mid-tempo rock section with steady drumming and cluttered synths, interesting yet lacking the emotional release of the first half of the song. Closer “Hurt Me Now” makes up for that instrumental misfire with a churning, doom-filled, quasi-downtempo track. A well-timed triangle and arpeggios from some unknown stringed instrument perfectly accentuate this monstrous finale.
The formula Austra employs does wear thin at points and gets to be predictable; tight beats, minimalistic verses, surging choruses, slowly accelerating synths, and Stelmanis wailing above the fray. And though the album has excellent musicianship, it definitely isn’t as innovative as it could be. Nevertheless, Olympia is a solid record. Sometimes you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken. This album will grab you and make you interested in it, and for a rising band like Austra, that’s as much as they can ask for.
1. What We Done?
2. Forgive Me
3. Painful Like
7. I Don't Care (I'm A Man)
8. We Become
10. Annie (Oh Muse, You)
11. You Changed My Life
12. Hurt Me Now