Album Reviews

Austra – Feel It Break

(Domino) UK release date: 16 May 2011

Katie Stelmanis has clocked up significant music mileage in next to no time at all: a regular singer in the Canadian Opera Company from the age of 10, she’s a classically trained violist and pianist who spurned operatic studies in order to play riot grrrl with Galaxy, guest on Fucked Up‘s sophomore LP and, eventually, release a solo album pigeonholed as goth.

Seemingly mindful that rolling stones gather no moss, Stelmanis is now driving force behind and one-third of Austra, along with fellow former Galaxy drummer May Postepski and former Spiral Beach bassist Dorian Wolf; an outfit named for the goddess of light in Latvian mythology and a band who court considerable buzz since an electrifying SXSW tenure.

It is this heady mix of factors that render Feel It Break such an intriguing proposition before the first notes are even struck – the classical background, the former guises, the pagan reference – and all are born out throughout an album that draws more than one parallel with Grab That Gun, the retro-styled LP of short-lived-yet-thrilling Canadians The Organ; also led by a female powerhouse, as it happens, in the form of Katie Sketch.

While Sketch’s Vancouverites took their New Wave chops from the likes of The Cure and The Smiths, Torontonians Austra delve deeper into New Wave canon: here is the alienated coldness dredged from Soft Cell‘s murkier moments; there is the intimidating intellectuality of Kate Bush in her pomp. Those who cry “goth” can perhaps be forgiven, for Austra’s is a shadowy concoction.

It is Stelmanis’ voice, nevertheless, that captivates first: Darken Her Horse’s minimal synth grows with glottal projections that at once honour and rebuff her chorister heritage. The track then undertakes a heroic transformation into towering harmonies, Stelmanis adopting a convincing Karen Dreijer-type stance.

Austra seem to run a gamut of their own making thereafter, hopping nimbly between the boundaries of their own mode: captivating recent single Lose It is synth-pop at its purest, ostensibly admonishing the shade of its trackmates; The Future spans from concert pianist licks to exemplary Dark Wave; Spellwork funnels bewitched themes into an altogether more industrial sound.

There are also highlights outright. Beat And The Pulse, that of the assuredly NSFW video promo, is nothing short of outstanding – its patient crescendo hinting at The Concretes‘ beautifully maudlin WYWH LP – while Hate Crime reads like early videogame music rendered into glorious Technicolour, Stelmanis growing in stature as Feel It Break builds up a palpable head of steam.

The album’s momentum, indeed, carries through until the end: Shoot The Water switches stance with its stop-start, piano-led constitution; The Noise’s bare, evocative atmospherics cut through the air; The Beast brings proceedings to a close on an terrifically orchestral level not yet ventured.

In the end, then, it’s as if Austra are old hands; Feel It Break could be them overcoming difficult second album syndrome with aplomb. Goodness only knows where they can go from here; such peaks represented the end of the road for The Organ.

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