Austra - Topic

Olympia Play

During the lengthy Feel It Break tour, Austra expanded from a trio to a six-piece, which allowed for more interplay among the band. This expansiveness helps Katie Stelmanis and crew find more creative and nuanced ways to explore the contrast between their chilly synth-pop and her huge, passionate voice on Olympia. Though the album's much fuller, smoother sound might be the first things listeners notice, Stelmanis' more personal lyrics are a close second; both shine on the single "Home," where she cries "you know that it hurts me when you don't come home at night" over pianos that switch from flowing balladry to rhythmic pop stabs. It's as though having a bigger crew around her allowed Stelmanis to dig deeper into her feelings than she did on Feel It Break. While she'd sound compelling singing almost anything, the tremulousness of her voice, coupled with Olympia's direct pleas and accusations, give Austra a new level of emotional impact. Stelmanis revealed that she listened to early Cat Power while writing these songs, and there's a similar heart-on-sleeve quality to her singing and words; it doesn't get much more naked than song titles like "You Changed My Life" and "Hurt Me Now," and her voice stretches up heartrendingly on "What We Done?" and "Reconcile." As Stelmanis gets more vulnerable and approachable, the rest of Austra becomes more refined and elaborate on Olympia. It's arguably a more sonically beautiful album than the the band's debut, with more organic elements mixed into their dramatic electro-pop, either blending like the marimbas on "Fire" or creating bold juxtapositions like the strings and dubstep-like bass on "Forgive Me." There aren't as many obvious singles like "The Beat and the Pulse" and "Lose It" here, though standouts like "Painful Like" and "Annie (Oh Muse, You)" are among the most danceable tracks here. Instead, Austra opts for a more balanced and poised version of the sound they set forth on Feel It Break; even though that album's rough edges and raw nerves were a large part of what made it so potent, Olympia feels like the beginning of a more sustainable, and versatile, direction for the band. ~ Heather Phares, Rovi

Feel It Break Play

Austra's Katie Stelmanis fits right in with the resurgence of dark electronic songstresses in the late 2000s/early 2010s, sharing the aloof beauty of Glasser, Esben and the Witch, Fever Ray, and Zola Jesus. Unlike some of the band’s peers, however, there’s a humanity to Stelmanis' vocals that, even when distorted, keeps Feel It Break's songs from feeling too remote. Stelmanis is an operatically trained vocalist, though that background reveals itself more in the nuances of her singing than in any showy displays of technique. Her voice is huge when it needs to be, as on “The Choke,” where she wails “lover, don’t do anything!” into the sparkling darkness, and it’s delicate on “Lose It,” where her vibrato blends into the shimmering electronics around her like ripples on a pond. Songs such as the frosty “Darken Her Horse” and the aptly named electro alchemy of “Spellwork” resemble ice castles in their massive yet fragile sounds, but Feel It Break shines brightest when there’s momentum behind its delicacy. The outstanding single “Beat and the Pulse” does exactly what its title suggests, pitting Stelmanis' keening vocals against hard-edged rhythms that speak to her fondness for industrial music, while “Shoot the Water” takes an even sharper turn toward the ominous with lyrics like “I want your blood/I want it in my hand” to match its driving rhythms. At times, Stelmanis' lyrics veer from genuinely disturbing to borderline goth cliché, but when the music is as beautiful as “The Beast” -- which sounds like it was written and performed in some cloistered, shadowy conservatory -- it’s more than forgivable. On this consistently hypnotic debut, Austra carve out a place of their own among their contemporaries. ~ Heather Phares, Rovi
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