Release Date: Jun 18, 2013
Record label: Paper Bag Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Austra's sophomore effort, Olympia, is everything its predecessor, Feel It Break, was poised to become; it's the best version of the band we've seen yet. The three-piece, who still fluctuate in numbers, have taken their once two-dimensional sound of chilling midi-synths and added myriad colours of electro-dance fanfare, highlighting improved pop lyrics, as aided by co-songwriter Sari Lightman. Singer Katie Stelmanis still shines as the album's star, with her operatic voice soaring high above the foundation of live instruments — pulsating, house-influenced beats, haunting harmonies and flourishes of strings and flutes.
The lead single, “Home,” from Toronto-based Austra’s sophomore album Olympia is an aching and concentrated piano-driven piece of pop music melodrama, with lead vocalist Katie Stelmanis lamenting, “You know that it hurts me when you don’t come home at night.” It’s both rare and refreshing to hear such a direct and bullshit-free lyric, and this record is loaded with them, like on the pulsating “Forgive Me,” where Stelmanis repeats, “What do I have to do to make you forgive me?” Olympia quite successfully fuses layers and layers of snips, snaps and electro slaps with Stelmanis’ bizarre and beautiful vocals. It’s distinctive. It’s avant-garde.
Austra are an electro-pop band from Toronto whose music, though beset by hot emotions, often sounds as if it was recorded in an Arctic cave. Sub-zero synths and crashing drums resound through this fine second album, while the powerful, tremulous voice of frontwoman Katie Stelmanis instils even minor sentiments with a sense of operatic foreboding. This works well on tracks such as Sleep, on which mutual incomprehension in a relationship is lamented against a background of icily tingling chimes.
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.
Sad dance music is an art, and few do it well, but Austra's debut album, Feel It Break, with its operatic flair for doomy synths and high drama, suggested they knew their way around a minor chord. The Toronto band take a step forward with Olympia, sweeping up that debut's more introspective, bedroomy inclinations and dumping them in the middle of the dancefloor. Opener What We Done sets the tone, tentatively creeping into life before emerging wide-eyed into strident four-to-the-floor territory, while Annie (Oh Muse You) is smooth, ambitious and house-heavy, right down to the handclaps.
Toronto electroni-pop act Austra has seen some significant changes since their 2011 release of Feel It Break, namely making the transition from trio to collaborative sextet, but more recently, making their way all the way to the dance floor with their new LP, Olympia. Rather than sitting on the sidelines in the shimmering darkness of their first full-length, Austra break through the fifth dimension to otherworldly realms with 12 multi-faceted tracks that are fused together with Chicago house and their accessible dance-pop hooks. Don’t let that alarm you though — artful variations on two or three distinct themes prevent things from getting repetitive or too detached.
AustraOlympia[Domino; 2013]By Rob Hakimian; July 10, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGAustra’s debut album Feel It Break was chock full of catchy electro-pop, but often felt like the songs were built around singer Katie Stelmanis’ operatically trained voice, rather than in conjunction with it. In the time they spent touring that album, the Canadian band grew into much more of a unit, and the press surrounding their second album Olympia has focused on how they’ve taken this into the studio with them for recording. It’s evident from the first track that there is much more of a live band at work here; “What We Done?” starts fairly stripped down (though with lovely flecks of newly added instruments) and Stelmanis’ vocals are as strong and central as ever, but when the band dashes in behind her suddenly on the second chorus there is a moment of giddy excitement as the whole song is swept up in this tide, taking the listener along with it.
Olympia has been tipped as Austra's "dance album," though the Toronto band's debut, Feel It Break, contained enough club-worthy material: the arpeggiating likes of "Beat and the Pulse", and B-sides "Energy" and "Young and Gay" much more so. Its remixes came off less like mandatory singles life extensions than a glimpse into what these gothy tracks got up to after the witching hour. On Olympia, the main change from Feel It Break isn't adding beats but adding more in general: the core trio doubled to a six-piece, bringing more layers to Katie Stelmanis' songwriting, and pushing it in a more house-inspired synth-pop direction.
Feel It Break, Austra’s debut was, for all its charms, a fairly tricky work. While there’s nothing difficult in itself about an album of bedroom dance music (even if the artist behind it was prodigiously gifted, classically trained and something of a pop virgin), the album’s simultaneous chilly distancing and heartfelt urging was an odd, yet heady combination; there was almost something charmingly camp about the borderline-teenage tantrums of Katie Stelmanis’ directionless angst, being rendered in such a stunning, yet spendthrift, fashion. That’s not to say that, despite the aspirations of maturity – as the slightly overwrought domestic drama of first single Home, or the cover image of a suited Stelmanis, suggest - that Olympia is really in any way a grown up record (if it were, then there might be something a bit dodgy about the pleading "Come back to me / you’re seventeen’ on grammatically puzzling opener What We Done?").
Katie Stelmanis still sings like a drama queen, but now she’s also learned how to raise the emotional stakes in her music to match the formidable figure she cuts as Austra’s frontwoman. While the foreboding electro-pop of Austra’s 2011 debut Feel It Break overdid its dramatics to the point they lost some of their effect, Olympia is a more engrossing work because it’s subtle and diverse, making full use of a varied sonic palette and Stelmanis’ more developed songwriting to evoke a broader range of feeling. So if the synthetic pleasures of Feel It Break sometimes felt too slick to stick, there’s a more organic appeal to Olympia that allows for a stronger connection to the woman behind the machine—just judge this album by its cover and contrast the vivid, pastoral artwork for Olympia to the abstracted mostly black-and-white image of Feel It Break to get a sense of the more inviting mood Austra sets this time around.
Many note Katie Stelmanis’ voice when talking about Austra, and rightfully so, but to say it is “classically trained” is an undersell-and-a-half. Stelmanis’ classical training means opera, like fat-lady-singing, champagne-flute-shattering, bored-husband-snoring, generally-not-in-English opera. And because opera apparently is not a world that you just fall into, the Toronto-based singer began her path at a very young age, only to wind up in an electronic-based indie band.
The propulsive doom-disco of album opener ‘What We Done’; the ’80s electro funk of ‘Painful Like’; the ’90s Chicago house jam of ‘Annie (Oh Muse, You)’: yup, Canadian six-piece Austra’s second album ‘Olympia’ is a tender love letter to any music that’s crammed sweaty bodies onto heaving dancefloors over the years. It’s a much more complicated affair than their 2011 album ‘Feel It Break’, both emotionally and instrumentally. Katie Stelmanis’ macabre Enya operatics are bolstered by deft, intricate production worthy of The Knife on ‘We Become’ and the Warpaint-evoking ‘Fire’.
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.
So, er, me aside I’m always a bit vague of who exactly it is that is ‘in’ to the band Austra. Katie Stelmanis’s electropop troopers seem to be generally approved of by the general mishmash that passes for the modern indie community, and they’re signed to a not insignificant record label. But while their star is clearly on the rise – a gig at Koko beckons!!! – the Canadians have never really seemed buzzy in the full on sense, and without their sizeable queer fanbase I’m not sure they’d have made even the inroads they have done.
Austra's 2011 debut, Feel It Break, created a distinct, arresting aesthetic: Katie Stelmanis's classically trained vocals were the perfect counterpoint to an icy electronic throb. With the band's sound now fully established, the new record broadens the palette, finding new complexity within similar parameters. Olympia is simultaneously more collaborative and more personal than its predecessor.
byJEAN-LUC MARSH Austra’s debut, Feel It Break, was operatic in scale, but small in scope. Lyrically, it was narrow, and stylistically, it adhered almost religiously to the synthesizer. Feel It Break, was mainly a personal record, and it worked with its focused vision and the perfection of a distinct, singular sound. At first, Olympia seems like a simple extension of Austra’s unique brand of dark-wave music.
One listen to Austra’s 2011 debut, “Feel It Break,” and it was clear that frontwoman Katie Stelmanis was not like the other girls. She’s a classically trained singer with a pedigree honed from performing with a children’s opera chorus. It made sense, then, that her Toronto band’s first album was an electro-pop confection fraught with brooding drama and tension, a direction that continues on Austra’s new sophomore release.
In 2008, a pre-Austra Katie Stelmanis was lending her operatic vocals to Fucked Up tracks, so, while it seemed a natural sea-change to highlight her warbling voice with loops and beat on Austra’s 2011 debut Feel It Break, it was yet another extreme. It was less jarring, but still provided a compelling juxtaposition of the classical and the modern. Olympia is more natural.
It’s hard to get away from the fact that Austra’s Katie Stelmanis has something of a voice. It sits at the centre of a lot of their songs, acting as a big, attention sucking black hole from which which many of the other elements of their music struggle to escape. To criticise it would be a like asking when Hendrix’s bandmates didn’t attempt to play their instruments with an unexpected body part, but it does makes listening somewhat of a singular experience.