When Austra emerged in 2011 with their debut album Feel It Break, they were – alongside the likes of Zola Jesus, Esben And The Witch and Niki And The Dove – one of a number of vaguely gothy, synth-wielding acts whose music kept fans of The Knife happy during that band’s prolonged leave of absence.
Now that The Knife have re-surfaced with an album that almost completely abandons conventional song structures, there’s a sizeable gap in the market for emotionally-wrought synth pop with female vocals and, crucially, tunes. Olympia, Feel It Break’s follow-up, meets that brief comfortably.
With its luxurious, piano- and woodwind-assisted arrangement, taster track Home suggested that the Canadian act (fronted by the classically-trained Katie Stelmanis) might have packed up their keyboards in favour of traditional instrumentation. As it turns out, Home is something of an anomaly on Olympia, as the rest of the album sticks largely with the shimmering electronic template of its predecessor.
That’s not to say that Austra haven’t improved as a studio band. Feel It Break occasionally felt slightly rudimentary; in contrast, the arrangements on Olympia (overseen by the band along with the returning Damian Taylor and Fucked Up’s Mike Haliechuk) are considerably more nimble and complex. The chamber house music of Home is an obvious example of Austra’s newly-expanded musical pallete; We Become is a shape-shifting slow jam, while the slowburning, gamelan-assisted Fire proves that Austra are no longer reliant on arpeggiators to create drama.
Lyrically, Stelmanis has moved away from the Gothic melodrama of Feel It Break and towards more direct language. On Home, she’s a shunned lover – “You know that it hurts me when / You don’t come home at night” – while You Changed My Life couldn’t be more transparent: over a sparse, two-note piano refrain, she repeats the words “You changed my life for the best”. That’s not to say Stelmanis has completely abandoned metaphor: the title of I Don’t Care (I’m A Man) promises sixth form-standard feminist poetry, but fortunately it’s a brief, opaque track that appears to allude to an undefined form of domestic abuse.
Nothing here quite matches the excitement of Feel It Break highlights The Beat And The Pulse and Lose It (although Home, Forgive Me, Painful Like and Annie (Oh Muse You) all come close). But this doesn’t stop Olympia being a sizeable step up from its predecessor and a fine album in its own right.