Austra - Olympia


A great misconception about electro-pop is that its sound is intently sweet; splotches of ray-shot light and positive emotion enshrouding the listener for x minutes, its vast attempts being to mask the uncompromisable depth of its lyricism with mounds of bliss and optimism. Of all the countries in the World to break that habit and rule out that trope, the least likely sovereignty I would call up to make a claim to electro's more darker, interjected variety, would be Canada. But then again, hasn't there been an impressive string of electronic-related artists with surprising, but cherished, levels of talent coming from the North America territory? Not that this hasn't been the case in past years with fellow genres (lying away from the synthesized regions) being shown as anything but pop-happy delicacy. But in an age where vast offerings of electronic pop emerge from every corner of the globe, Canada's Austra made a bold statement in 2011 with debut, Feel It Break - its title a very nod to the notion that electro-pop needed its own riotous revolution. And with female vocalist Katie Stelmanis leading the band's darkly march into 2013, Olympia may not have the sleeve or the imagery to lead its listener suspecting it's any darker or emotive. But if the band are as adamant to leave hints in the title, could this record be a kind of monumental moment in the band's existence about such a many electro/synth-pop revivalists?

It's with enormous relief, but equally a sense of unexpectedness that this album finds Austra - or more specifically, Stelamanis herself - seeping into a more personal melancholy, but not one that begs for sympathy or even attempts to off-load its following subject matter, onto anybody else. Opening track What We Done? is quick off the bat to address Stelamanis apparent, revelatory state of regret. 'So I dance with nothing, so I dance for free/And there is no glamour, stumbling down queen.' Despite the fairly robust and colossally grandiose tone of synthesizers and the looping, straining vibe of its execution, I tend to get a very strong Björk vibe in Stelmanis' split-decision vocals in how she goes about expressing herself. At times, she's content in simply coming to terms with the situation, and in others feels as if she's launching herself at whoever she's attempting to convince to come back to her. And it's interesting given how the track lifts off from what is a fairly hollow, empty void of beats into this perhaps calamitous visage of emotion in the more thorough percussion and swelling leads of synthesizers that follow suit.

And once more, it takes little more than the first line of lyrics on Forgive Me for Stelmanis to spell out her dejected parry of thought: 'What do I have to do to make you forgive me?...What do I say to make it so you stay around me?' The music itself seems to emphasize the girl's objective-run adamancy in making this seemingly broken relationship work. There's a more consecutive, sequential flow in the drum beats and the shuffle of bass in-between certainly maintains a dignified measure of rhythm and groove. But the best thing about this track is the way Stelmanis shifts her expression from this spelling-of-questions to what becomes this two-layer (perhaps two-voice) expression of lyrics. In one part she maintains her fairly adamant composure. But on the other - thus creating a more bold and perplexed contrast - she offers her lyrics/thoughts in a much less withheld and composed manner; the emotional strain and sheer desperation, possibly, in fixing this relationship coming through for us to understand - perhaps not for the individual in this scenario to recognize or understand, but certainly for us a third-party (a witness/spectator maybe) to at least know of. Stelmanis' use, and respectful execution, of these alternating methods of delivery come up trumps as we delve deeper into the narrative later on in the album. Painful Like's answer-and-response shift of monologue definitely binds well to the track's slightly higher field of momentum and use of instrumentation. There's a slightly more house-influenced vibe coming up for the first time, yet Austra still find the will and the ability to draw emphasis more towards the more melodic sounds a la the sailing keyboards and skyline synths that give Stelmanis gorgeous parameter of tone and scale that well-deserved boost.

It's obvious then that Austra seem not to want to deceive or even trick their listener into perceiving a track to mean something that contradicts perhaps the track title and what we, the listener, may take from that. Referencing the first three tracks then, it's pretty clear that the band adamantly want to present us with a more darker, harder-hitting shuffle of synth-pop. But I don't necessarily feel that this is a/the album that stands to contradict what too self-identifies itself as the norm for modern synth/electro-pop albums. And in going back to track titles, Austra tend to excell further, both lyrically and musically, when their intended choice of title is a little less obvious and more intriguing contextually. Sleep, for example, sparks many a possible meaning (dreams, fatigue, fantasy?). What we get instead, is a track a lot less direct in its emotion; managing instead to take hold of its higher mount of ambiguity, and use that to create some interesting visuals about the sounds offered. The track, for the most part, has this intriguing synth pattern that conjures (for me at least) a visage of forestry after dark - perhaps deciduous, maybe tropical, but either way still painted in the dark of night - but doesn't wholeheartedly immerse the listener in the full detail of such a surrounding. The fact that I feel sustained to think of such natural scenery and nothing more creates a kind of requited mystery that plays well into the music's accompanying sprinkle of chimes and energetic use of drums. Stelmanis' presence too carries with it a certain level of ambiguity. And collectively, the music does well at reflecting the track's title as this half-daze of semi-existence...but at the same time doesn't overly clarify or confirm that there's any real solid or undisputed theme running through.

Likewise with the track Home, even if the lyrical detailing suggests Austra returning to that urgent intensity of previous, 'You know that it hurts me when you don't come home at night', the semantic of feelings that appear to run through this track, is hopefulness. Stelmanis still offers her rich strain of vocals throughout, but that fortunately doesn't end up dictating the music into an equally desperate spring of rhythm and pacing. The piano which is offered here is actually more joyous, playful even and the way, again, it continues throughout the piece suggests that it's placement is there to reflect the music's more positive state of affairs. Admittedly, I do feel this comes at the cost of the band's interplay between vocals and instrumentation slightly, and there's an auspicious vibe appearing where I feel things don't exactly seem as balanced or as adjusted compared to previous tracks. Following that, the track Fire - despite some variety in percussion and toning of said instruments - doesn't seem as well matched or thoroughly explained in its musical choices, given how frontal and ascended Stelmanis' vocal presence remains; sounds at times feeling too blanketed or too much shrouded by her voice's undeniable scale.

Things do get a lot more conspicuous and translucent in regards to the solidarity of the tracks' executions. But what I think aids Austra greatly, and thus stops this album becoming a top-heavy delivery, is the fact that this album holds with it some very interesting juxtaposes of synth delivery and the way it integrates into Stelmanis' presence as both a narrator and a spectator. We Become comes off a lot less surveying; almost lazily relaxed in its slower, care-free usage of drumbeats and lack of any real strong atmospheric sound. But it's the percussion that's offered - some giving off a fairly mechanical lead, but others conjuring some more lavish, textural qualities that make me perceive the track as having a kind of sub-tropic or Caribbean vibe - that helps the track lift off from its static perch. Reconcile too doesn't feel as objective-run or outright focused on ensuring its voice/message is heard, but doesn't necessarily falter because of it. Stelmanis delivery feels analytical but, appearing almost as if to conflict her original state, comes off in a much more sterner and confident mode of expression. The music too seems to support that inverted change of perspective. Here it's more acceptive or content about the environment and such state of affairs - synths glittering and flickering about the surroundings in a kind of careless, loftier flow, while the more blurred conjures appear to simply reinstate that more blissful, waking period.

But just when you think the album's leading, perhaps dangerously, into too sensually-vacant territory, the track Annie (Oh Muse, You) pops up and not only do we vacate from the joyous blur of previous, but we find ourselves in completely new territory altogether. There's a kind of neutral middle-ground in this track this time, and that's in majority thanks to how lavish and serene Stelmanis' voice is, yet because of the way the beats and the flow of the piece are, suggests this can go either way on the emotional spectrum. The way the bass synths and hits of keyboards swing back-and-forth and bob up-and-down, not only emphasizes that two-way split-decision it holds on an emotive level, but honestly, the sounds offered make me do the exact same motions; it's possibly one of Austra's most catchiest and rhythmically captivating tracks to date. And despite the obscurity and lack-of-clarity regarding its context and its emotional lenience, the fact that the band push these sounds forward so confidently - and without any real strain on its repetition - actually makes up for such this lesser charisma. Hurt Me Now, as mentioned earlier, may generate some initial insinuation or beliefs as to the coming subject matter, but it's the melodic arrangements and the relation at which it has with Stelmanis' position that deserves the most attention here. Her vocals, while a lot more mid-field and stable, make the most of the track's more rich chord progression. And while the vocal accompaniment doesn't necessarily deliver that same gut-wrenching delivery of emotion, the music's own intriguing mix of floating keyboards and these breezy synth bellows, I feel at least makes up in parts for a track not necessarily progressing as far on intensity and thoroughness.

I can definitely conclude however, that Austra have not only landed with a record that defines their more darkly emotive edge, but too goes a way to suggest the Canadian outfit are deservedly well-suited to such a sound. Olympia, for a sophomore, is understandable and quite predictably a step up from their debut and that I suppose to be expected, and perhaps doesn't necessarily entice the listener straight off on first inspection. But once you get past the initial predictability and take light of the more buried, close-to-heart focal point the band's music reflects, you'll find that Stelmanis' resulting less-blissful approach to context and subject matter is not only pleasing, further to that, it's deserving of its desired intensity. And while the latter half of this album, musically, may not exactly follow on in the same lofty height of strength and diverse integrity of composition that the former does so well at presenting, this by no means relegates the album to being that of a top-heavy lack-of-judgement. Taking note of the album's clean and crisp production, the listener is never too withdrawn or lost in the mannerisms of the music. When things are succumbed to sorrow or distress, or even sheer desperation, we certainly know about it. And it's thanks to Stelmanis' direct, untainted living/breathing of these scenarios, that gives the album that believability and soul without having to drown the piece in cake layers of effect. For a genre heavily influenced by emotion, charisma and the modesty of the human voice, Austra are one of the few bands that admit such a cocktail can be audibly pleasurable...just far from overly positive.


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Discovery: Austra - Olympia
Austra - Olympia
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