Led by the charismatic Katie Stelmani, Canadian trio Austra come to fill the sky with dark clouds, making a kind of music completely opposed to the brightness that dominates big part of the sounds exported from their home country by artists like Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers and Owen Pallett. They’re lovers of the dark side of eighties synth-pop, often referred to as dark-wave. But the influences of the band start at early Depeche Mode, and make a short stop-over at Cocteau Twins, to get to more modern combos like The Knife and their appendix, Fever Ray. Karin Dreijer is, without a doubt, the most obvious one, although Katie’s magnetic personality has been compared to Kate Bush who, one of those things of life, has come out of the cave where she had been hiding since 2005 with a collection of new versions of some of her classics, in the same week the Canadians’ debut album “Feel It Break” came out.
Stelmanis, many years before starting this band alongside bassist Dorian Wolf and drummer Maya Postepski, started her musical education joining the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, where she learned to play the viola and piano, apart from shaping her particular voice. So what was it that made her go from classical sounds to industrial? Nine Inch Nails. Upon hearing them, everything changed and, over time, this ode to darkness started. The album starts with “Darken Her Horse”, offering keyboards that seem to invoke forgotten deities. Likewise on “The Noise”, where you can hear echoes of Zola Jesus’ icy electronica. The tempo goes up on “Lose It” (with the brilliant chorus “Don’t wanna lose you / I never knew you”). A song that could have easily been included on one of the many eighties compilations featuring tracks by Japan, Ultravox and Yazoo. The disco counterpoint “The Future” is surprising. Like Hercules & Love Affair with their hair combed back and an overdose of black eye shadow. The first single, “Beat And The Pulse”, a minimalist track, is where Trent Reznor’s stamp is felt the most in Austra’s music.
“The Choke” is reminiscent of mid-eighties Depeche Mode and in the midst of this return to the past, the singer turns into Siouxsie Sioux. Following that same path, with the hackneyed “Ouuhooo”, “Hate Crime”, you’re left behind with your jaw on the floor, with those changes in rhythm and some brighter melodies than usual, taking you to the dancefloor while you realise that the voice you’re hearing is that of a privileged artist. Sharing the stage with the singer are some MIDI keys that never sound out of phase. “Feel It Break” wants to connect the classical with the contemporary, and achieves its goal on the overwhelming closing track, “The Beast”, on which Stelmani sits down at the piano to show her musical formation has not been in vain. Antony Hegarty’s dark reverse side appears on the song.
Maybe Austra are guilty of sounding too much like their influences and of not going as far as we might have hoped beforehand. They become somewhat repetitive with the darkness as the central theme of their lyrics. But Katie Selmani’s seductive powers are undeniable (palpable in their video clips, promotional images and the songs themselves); she’s a new night diva. If Nika Roza Danilova (Zola Jesus), Tamaryn and company aren’t careful, she’ll take over the baton soon enough.
Álvaro García Montoliu