Album Review of Future Politics by Austra.
Release Date: Jan 20, 2017
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Following a sudden change of heart while living in Montreal and after five years of extensive touring, Austra’s front-woman Katie Stelmanis sought warmer grounds in order to escape the Canadian winter. She ended up moving to Mexico City where she re-encountered her creative harmony, and took interest in science-fiction manifestos and novels while living under the Mexican sun. Now, Future Politics is set to become a shared product of her transition towards a happier state of mind, providing suggestions and solutions, and persuading us to take action against the current political downward spiral.
There has always been something slightly otherworldly about Austra, the synthpop persona of Canada’s Katie Stelmanis. Her previous records conjured up vast, icy soundscapes shot through with desire, foreboding and occasional rays of tropical warmth. On her third album, Stelmanis reflects on the possibilities of the future through the lens of a troubled present – song titles include Utopia, Gaia and Beyond a Mortal – and the sound, accordingly, has become even more glossy and crystalline, as though generated entirely by machine.
Vancouver-based electronic outfit Austra have been critical darlings since the release of Polaris Music Prize-nominated debut ‘Feel It Break’ in 2011. Third effort ‘Future Politics’ may very well be their strongest full-length to date. The instrumentation, which mostly consists of dense, melancholy electronic beats, could perhaps be deemed a little limited in scope.
One of last year’s biggest signifiers of how far humanity hasn’t come was the election of a proudly racist, misogynistic, billionaire celebrity, flanked by a cabinet of far right horrors, as President of the most powerful country in the world. And, as we all know, he is but one face of the snarling, brutal, multi-headed Cerberus that is contemporary global politics. Imagine being a musician who is able to escape from the ghastly reality of modern times into music? To flee from scenes of the world burning on your screen and use music to create some kind of alternate reality, to hide in it? No, me neither.
For the most part, both of Austra's first two records, 2011's Feel It Break and 2013's Olympia, were concerned with the past and present, but there was an outlier: "The Future," a song from their debut, on which the time to come cast a dark shadow of unknowing over the present. That song presaged Future Politics, Austra's third album, on which the band set their sights firmly ahead of them, ready to plumb the depths of that darkness in both subject matter and sound. It's a significant departure for the band, but also a logical next step.
What’s to be done when the future seems like a terrifying dystopia in which the only possible reaction is to scream in an increasingly unhinged fashion? It’s a pretty bleak time if you’re of the more progressive bent, and just seeing that Austra‘s third album is entitled Future Politics makes you wonder whether this is the first reaction to our new Trumpian age. It’s not, of course – these songs were all written and recorded before the election result in November – but Katie Stelmanis’s band have certainly created a suitably chilly and eerie soundtrack to the years ahead. Future Politics is another impressive step in the evolution of Austra: while the band’s second album was a move towards shiny, commercial pop, the follow up sees a more sparse, fragile collection of songs.
The past year has seen a wider move towards the genre of “tiny utopias”: small, invented idylls that, unlike the colossal world reconfigurations common in speculative fiction, are built to human scale. Whether polemic or meditative, they share a vision: a world better than our own and also within reach. It is, of course, obvious why one might want this now, might long to crawl out of this orange apocalypse and into a utopia.
It’s an odd sensation, beginning a new calendar year with the unshakeable and creeping expectation that Things Can Only Get Worse. What happens when history appears not as a progressive trajectory of reason and enlightenment, but a drunkenly undulating misadventure led by greed, power, and exploitation? What do you do when the future turns out to be pretty shit? Austra have decided that there's only one way: Future Politics. It’s their third studio album following debut Feel It Break – which grew on us back in 2011 – and 2013’s Olympia.
When Austra released their 2011 debut Feel It Break, many critics felt they had them pegged. The Toronto outfit was taken to be but the latest in a fashionable wave of dark synthpop revival acts that included artists like Cold Cave, Crystal Castles, and TR/ST, with whom they shared a band member at the time. While an excellent specimen of its genre, it’s true that Feel It Break was never likely to appeal to anyone not already interested in shadowy “witch house” or Goth pop.
Toronto-based Austra's third album, Future Politics, pushes their modus of uptempo mystic darkwave permeated by airy goth song. At home in the frosty confines continuing to surround her, lead singer, keyboardist, and producer Katie Stelmanis soars over a bolstered field of production and through spirited themes addressing the forces that prompt reaction. What commands attention, as ever, are the farther reaches found by Stelmanis' voice, with a resonance not shared by many of her wave-tronica contemporaries.
In Katie Stelmanis’s dystopia, we are an anxious species. The Canadian songwriter and producer’s third album describes a world in which technology alienates us. Its title track – about greed, the “system” and a need to fight evil with empathy – acquires a pointed sense of prophecy through being released on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Draw the curtains, light a candle and polish your crystal ball. It sounds as if Katie Stelmanis’ darkwave electro-pop outfit has been reading plenty of Huxley for her reimagining of our future, but there’s an eerie drip of supernaturalism tangled within the science fiction. Writing on Facebook about album namesake track Future Politics, she asserts: “It’s time to build visions that are radically different from anything we’ve known before.
UK indie labels continue to mine Canadian alt pop (see also Bella Union’s Doomsquad and Tasseomancy). Indeed, the latter have previously worked with Austra – named after vocalist, keyboard player and visual artist Katie Austra Stelmanis – who are now onto their third album. Future Politics avoids the dizzier vocal excesses of Tasseomancy but similar Kate Bush-like Earth mother overtones are present, as well as Doomsquad’s stadium reverb, a hint of opera and Björk worship.
But the promise of ‘Future Politics’ is more than just today’s hard work; on the glorious synthpop of ‘Utopia’, glistening like a factory crafting new tomorrows, it imagines a radical future beyond labour, tired structures and old assumptions: “I can picture a place where everybody sees it too / It might be fiction but I see it ahead”. Hope is hard, though, and ‘I’m A Monster’ faces the stultifying weight of despair, Stelmanis sorrowing, “I don’t feel nothing any more” over darkly throbbing synths. The title track’s fat, womping space disco hammers out a way forward: “I don’t want to hear that it’s all my fault / I’m looking for something to rise up above”.
When Austra frontwoman Katie Stelmanis began working on Future Politics, she had no idea that, upon its release, the album’s dystopian landscape would pan over so seamlessly to the world outside. “When I was writing it, I was feeling like some of these ideas were a little bit left-field,” she told The Guardian. “I didn’t know people would connect with them, but now, people are starting to talk.” During time spent traveling, much of it alone in Montreal and Mexico City, Stelmanis says a feeling of collective depression inspired her to start reading up on what would become themes of the album—capitalism, technology, climate change—and specifically radical and futurist perspectives on these issues.