There's a lot of good electro-pop around at the moment; the kind
of stuff which plunders the past (especially the eighties) and
drags the genre back into focus with cool contemporary elan.
There's something about Austra, however, which sets them somewhat
apart from their contemporaries. There is a strange magic at work
in their new album 'Feel It Break'. This has much to do with the
voice of Katie Stelmanis; it is an extraordinary instrument!
Timeless; kind-of folksy-cum-summer-of-love-cum-classical-android.
(You will have to listen to it yourself and post me your own
attempts at describing it - I'm struggling here) I love it to bits!
Ms Stelmanis is assisted in her labours by bass player Dorian Wolf
and drummer Maya Postepski. There are eleven tracks in the collection.
The formula is a fairly simple one : sparkling synth chords and
arpeggios; four-square beats and quirky quasi-medieval arrangements.
It is the vocal performances, however, which bring the material to
sparkling life. Ms Stelmanis has a big range. She can sound almost
manly in her lower register but when she cranks it up to the top of
the stave she tweets and warbles like a happy nightingale on a warm
June evening! (You can hear her do both on 'The Future). The harmonies
are simple but haunting and the choruses curiously memorable.
I particularly enjoyed the sombre-hued (Bjork-ish) opening track
'Darken Her Horse', which would not sound out of place if played in a
Gothic catherdral by candlelight; the dense grinding textures of 'Spellwork'
(Ms Stelmanis' deadpan delivery is chilling on this one!) and the piano
flurries and wildly witchy vocals of spooky closing track 'The Beast'.
Music for the heart of an ancient oak forest at midnight.
on 20 February 2012
I walked into a record shop intent on buying the excellent album by Beth Jeans Houghton and this album was playing. Well, I'm a sucker for good synth pop and, at a very reasonable seven quid, it accompanied Ms Houghton home with me.
This is a sheer delight. Opera trained singer / founder member / songwriter Katie Stelmanis and her band have put together an album of eleven wonderful tracks, all in minor keys. I think I read that she has said she is unable to write songs in major keys ... well, I bet she could if she wanted to, but why try when she can do very nicely thank you in minor keys.
My fellow reviewer, The Wolf, has suggested we let him know our own description of Katie's voice. Well, to me, it's fragile at times, but when she needs to stretch it for the high notes, she gets there with no problem. Sorry, Wolf, I can't do any better than that; anyway, your description is pretty accurate. The one thing is that it blends and compliments the excellent keyboards, bass and drums to such a degree that it acts as an additional instrument.
The album starts with the very strong "Darken Her Horse" and continues on that very high plain until "The Choke" arrives, which sends the album into the stratosphere - yes, I'm rather partial to this track and have been told I've sung it in my sleep ... hmm! The rest of the album is simply brilliant, until we get to "The Noise", which is another special track.
There is nothing complicated about this album. It's just great tracks of darkly-laced lyrics and jaunty melodies (even minor chord melodies can be jaunty, I think.) The vocals are quite brilliant - I love her voice - and the harmonies are stunning. The other instrumentalists are bassist Dorian Wolf (no relation to The Wolf?) and drummer Maya Postepski, who make Austra a very tight band instrumentally.There is a distinct darkness about the whole album which, for me, adds to the excitement of the album.
I don't know Japan's music well, so will leave comparisons to other, more knowledgeable, reviewers. What I will say is that there are only very strong tracks on this album and it will take an album of utter magnificence to prevent this from being my album of the year. Now there's a statement!
One last point, those who follow music will not find this very interesting and may disagree with this observation, but what is it about Canada, a big country in terms of area but not necessarily in musical terms? You have Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, the Rankin family, Stan and Garnet Rogers and a whole bunch more. Austra is, I would humbly suggest, another example of brilliant music coming out of that country.
A wonderful album and very highly recommended.
Added note: 26 June 2012
I downloaded the extra tracks which you can find on the Deluxe Version of this album. There are six more originals, two covers and a remix (by Clown of Slipknot) of "Beast & the Pulse". The six originals are excellent, the covers of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" and Roy Orbison's "Crying" (the latter, with swirling soprano vocals) are wonderful. I'm not so keen on the remix, but I can cope with it.
on 13 May 2016
Underrated and not given enough of the "mainstream light", I discovered Austra in my local coffee shop, and was hooked immediately.
I have a wide taste in music: Rodrigo y Gabriela, Metallica, Lamb of God, Black Keys, 22-20s, Clutch, Florence ATM, PRML SCRM...usually anything that involves a guitar and immense talent. I can't play even the triangle, so something this special deserves extra mention, in an attempt to get more ears to it.
Favourites are the first five tracks, as they are pretty much the darkest and punchiest of the album.
Look for them on YouTube, particularly KEXP live sessions, you'll not regret it.
on 12 October 2012
During a recent investigation of bands who are alleged to have a sound similar to the classic New Wave/Alternative/Synthpop sound of the early 80's, I was lucky enough to sample Austra, a band that was unknown to me. Right away I was captured by the stunning female vocals, haunting melodies and classic Synthpop electronic sounds. Was this for real? I sampled track after track, very excited by what I was hearing. I instantly ordered the deluxe edition.
Wow, what a stunner of an album! Track after track is appealing. The album opens with the haunting "Darken Her Horse", which starts very mellow before picking up to a chill-giving gorgeous chorus. This is followed by the first video of theirs I watched on YouTube, "Lose It". The vocals are just breathtaking and the music has all those classic electronic sounds. There seems to be no lead or rhythm guitar in Austra, and they consist of electronics, bass and some real drums and drum machines. Talk Talk did a brilliant debut album in 1982 with this formula called "The Party's Over", and it still works all these years later.
The wonderful songs just continue with the amazing "Spellwork", another video which should be checked out. By watching Austra, you can see that they are a very artistic band in their visuals as well, without being pretentious. The album just keeps going with great tracks, then we get to "The Villain" with yet another powerful chorus that is so fulfilling.
The bonus CD just keeps up the greatness. "Identity" could be a retro dance floor filler, as could "Young and Gay". The most stunning track on this bonus CD is the melancholy "Trip". It's one of those songs that I sometimes have to play twice in a row. The downbeat melody with some wonderful drumming makes the hair on my neck stand on end.
What a stunning debut. I don't know if some of these younger bands are making efforts to sound like the Alternative pioneers from decades ago or if it's just a happy accident, but it's such a relief after living my twenties through the horrible 1990's music scene. I thought these sounds and melodies were gone forever. Thanks to bands like Austra, and a number of others, there is still hope. I hope the follow up album is just as amazing.
Note about the CD packaging. I purchased the Canadian digipack version and it's awful packaging. I've only had the CD's out of the casing a few times to get it transferred to my iPod, and the CD already shows numerous hairline scratches. Because I'm such a fan of this album I will be ordering the European deluxe edition as well since it comes in a standard jewel case. Plus it will add further support to this excellent band.
on 16 July 2011
I am madly in love with this band. They are so many things I've been looking for in music. Melodic, dark, full of addictive beats, emotional without being corny, with a nod to classic music. The lead singer is a very talented singer who has apparently been classically trained and has been in various bands, as has her drummer/producer, and a soloist for many years, so there is a wealth of musical experience there. This music is a dream come true for me. Cannot get enough. Lovely.
on 7 April 2012
I spent a few hours checking out the top 50 tunes as suggested by NME. Austra stood out for me. I love a female vocal that does that little bit extra, but can still sooth and enchant you. Combine that with strong drum and keyboards and it was a thrill to hear. The first time, then a second it got better. I have a great love for Kraftwerk, Heaven 17, Cocteau Twins, Clan of Xymox, Wild Beasts and if you do as well, then this band have a great sound and I think you could love it to. YouTube it and see for yourself, its worth the effort, honest.