AUSTRA: FEEL IT BREAK (2011)
1) Darken Her Horse; 2) Lose It; 3) The Future; 4) Beat And The Pulse; 5) Spellwork; 6) The Choke; 7) Hate Crime; 8) The Villain; 9) Shoot The Water; 10) The Noise; 11) The Beast.
Here's even more proof that Canada might truly be taking the lead in the artistic creativity race in the 21st century. You might be a fan of Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen, or you might be more into Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but you're gonna have to serve somebody... actually, there's a good chance that Toronto-based, progressively-oriented Katie Stelmanis and her main musical project, Austra, might appeal, for different reasons, to both audiences. She's into electronics, she's into strong rhythm, she's into darkness and Freudism, she's into Debussy and opera, everybody go take your pick.
Artsy synth-pop with stylistically monotonous arrangements, high-pitched vocalizing, and lyrics that only make sense to the singer and her personal deity of choice can be a real pain in the ass, if all of this is not handled properly and is there only to make a point like «I like music and they told me it only counts if you push forward boundaries, so I'm pushing like crazy, really I am». In the worst case, you get somebody like Zola Jesus, to whom Austra's music has frequently been compared (in fact, Austra's music has frequently been compared to all female-fronted, dark-overtoned synth-pop ensembles, because Big Brother demands instantaneous reference points): lots of pretense, lots of stunning visual images, and no truly interesting music behind it.
But in the best case, you get Austra, or at least, this, dare I say it, genuinely brilliant debut album from Austra, to whose brilliancy Austra, like so many other bands out there, will probably never live up again. The difference? Most people will say Katie Stelmanis' classically-trained voice, with its impressive range, perfectly held vibrato, great capacities of modulation, and a strange aura of nervousness and vulnerability, as if she's either impersonating a human on the verge of being transformed into a robot, or a robot on the verge of being humanized. There's great potential here to sound whiny, obnoxious, and irritating, but I sense a healthy balance between technique, mannerism, and genuine feeling, enough to earn my sympathy even if most of the time I have no idea what she is singing about (and neither might she; we can only hope that lines like "I want your blood, I want it in my hair" and "The morning I saw your face again, I was made into a beast" are not deeply encoded hints at a criminal past).
However, it is not Stelmanis' singing that makes Feel It Break sound really special. All the tracks are credited to Austra as a band, so we also have to mention Katie's old colleague Maya Postepski on drums (yes, there are real drums here, though electronically processed as per regulation) and Dorian Wolf on bass — yet the melodies are probably Katie's general responsibility as well, and as much as I am usually wary of synth-pop, there are some truly stellar parts on here. So many people these days (or any days, actually), when making electronic-based pop, take out the easy way, relying on simple stock phrasing with the idea that music should simply provide the groove, while the main melodic burden will be placed on vocal hooks, that it is nothing less but a tremendous relief to hear a whole album of tracks where this ideology is reversed.
Perhaps the best example of this approach is ʽBeat And The Pulseʼ, a song where the vocals do not even enter in the picture until the groove, with all of its counterpoints, has become fully established at about 1:30 into the song. It does not take more than the opening chords to understand that the author of the track is probably a big fan of Beethoven's 5th, and even though it would take a bit more genius and a tad more equipment to make an electronic tribute to Beethoven's 5th, ʽBeat And The Pulseʼ succeeds at a different task — creating a cold, robotic sonic environment that feels equally influenced by 19th century romanticism and 20th century Kraftwerk. The way those two «waves» of synthesizer chords wash over each other, and are then attenuated further by subtle bell toll and dripping ah-ah vocal harmonies, creates an atmosphere of stern, but soft doom busily spun right before your very eyes — really great texture here.
Elsewhere, the atmosphere is usually more sensual and bitter-romantic, but the base principles of work remain the same. ʽLose Itʼ, the second single, does largely get by on the strength of the vocals — namely, the unforgettable falsetto vocalizing of the chorus, reflecting Katie's former training as an opera singer — but the third single, ʽSpellworkʼ, would have been equally great as a fully instrumental piece: it produces a cool cavernous sound out of the juxtaposition of the deep rumbling neo-disco bassline and the crystal-tinkling, water-dripping lead overdubs. But then there are also such wonderful album-only tracks as ʽThe Futureʼ, which begins with a simple baroque piano flourish and then takes on a kaleidoscopic look with multiple small interlocking keyboard and vocal parts; ʽHate Crimeʼ, where the kaleidoscope turns even more psychedelic by means of adding extra sound effects like phasing; and ʽShoot The Waterʼ which, with its boppy bouncing rhythmic structure and fairy wood vocal harmonies, sounds like it could have easily fit onto Kate Bush's The Dreaming (think ʽThere Goes A Tennerʼ, but with a darker mood).
With this much creativity going on, there's not even a good reason to discuss what it is all about. Stelmanis' words generally feel like they are there simply for allowing her to practice her vocal gymnastics; if you try to invest too much meaning into all these choruses ("don't wanna sympathize with the darkness!", "shoot the water, baby, I've been found!", "arise sweet demon and have your say!"), you might find yourself wondering what the hell you have been doing with your life one day. There may be a bit of politics here, but mostly it's the same old me-and-you, with the singer not afraid of a little provocation every once in a while ("I came so hard in your mouth" is an actual line in ʽThe Futureʼ) — like sort of a dark reflection of Beach House, with the warm magic vibe replaced by a cold sorcery one. And even if all the songs share the same vibe, Katie's diligent attention to the melodic side of the music perfectly justifies this.
Only on the last track, ʽThe Beastʼ, does she switch over to a regular piano, and, strangely but perhaps predictably, the results are not as interesting — the entire piece rests on two chords and, as such, sounds suspiciously similar to Adele's ʽHometown Gloryʼ. I still accept it as a suitable gesture of farewell that slips in a little acoustic warmth next to all the electronic coldness, wrapping things up in style — a style that, to me, sounds derivative, but still not deprived of its own intriguing identity. At the very least, as far as 21st century synth-pop goes, Feel It Break has to qualify as a nice, fresh take on a thirty-year old style; and I'm sure Depeche Mode would love to have added something as juicily doom-laden as ʽBeat And The Pulseʼ to their own catalog. Thumbs up, of course.