Austra

18 01 2012

I think I may have discovered my new favourite band. That is hard for me to say, since Erasure have occupied the most prominent setting in my crown of musical gems since 1995. That may soon change. Their competitor is Austra, a synthpop/darkwave/indie electronica band from Toronto who just released their debut album, Feel It Break, last year. (Yes, I know, as usual I am late to the game.) However I am not yet ready to give the number one position to Austra, simply because Erasure have produced fourteen studio albums, and I have only heard one by Austra, but if they keep up the amazing work, they very well could earn that place. Besides, a tie between the two bands isn’t entirely out of the question.

OK, so you want to know what the hype is all about, don’t you? It’s about their coherent, well-developed style, their professional-sounding technical wizardry, their eerily fun dance sensibility, lead singer Katie Stelmanis’s chillingly pure, cold voice, their artistically spooky themes, their rich harmonies, their otherworldly melodies. All of these in combination produce a lush, full, satisfying sonic experience. Listening to their debut album, Feel It Break, one imagines opening up a book of occult lore and exploring the hidden mysteries within. I would liken them to a cross between Florence and the Machine, Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, and Karin Dreijer of The Knife and Fever Ray. But at least as creepy as Karin Dreijer. Finally, an album that sounds weirdly Scandinavian without getting mired in slow, dissonant, undanceable experimentalism. It’s musically exploratory, thematically fascinating, and fun to dance to.

Check out the video for their single Spellwork, taken from the debut album. In my opinion is encapsulates the overall deliciously spooky theme of the work:

This song gives me goosebumps. One thing that stands out is the strong verse-chorus structure characteristic of pop songs—but it’s all done in such a beautifully strange and ethereal way that it doesn’t sound commercial or formulaic. Stelmanis’s eerily quavering vocals are spot-on, the melody soars like some dark-winged bird over bare tree branches, and those rich harmonies complete the vocal arrangements. And those layers upon layers of tinkling synthesisers just sweep you away into a glittering fairy world of yore. I can’t get enough of the cryptic occult references, either. Lots of Youtube commenters have said that the video is “weird”, but it’s supposed to be. The song is about pagan rituals (or so I think), so obviously the video reflects that. It’s so enticing because it’s so arcane.

Then there is the light, bright, beautiful synthpop gem Lose It. This is probably as pure, pretty, and pristine as synthpop can get, and Austra have distilled the essence of the genre in this song, and yet we haven’t quite heard synthpop done in such a fresh, clever way before. At least I don’t think so. Just have a listen:

Isn’t that just delightful? It makes me pee my pants. And it makes me pregnant. With twins. The most remarkable thing about this song, I think, is the perfect harmony between Stelmanis and the background singers in the chorus. Together, they create this plaintive, crystal-clear, birdlike song of hope and sorrow. It almost sounds like Enya in a strange way, but a cool, synthpoppy Enya. Delish.

OK, on to our last video. Showing their ability to master a range of synthpop sub-genres, Austra reveal their goth goth side in this video for their single Beat and the Pulse, and boy is it sexy. Be forewarned: I don’t do censorship, so this video is not safe for work! (That means it’s NSFW):

So what did ya think?? In my opinion, This is the difference between pornography and erotica. The models are portrayed in a seductive, tasteful manner, and they exude a mysterious power. It’s not crass and exploitative; it’s subtle and stylish. Besides, listen to the pulsating bassline that suddenly creeps into your ears when the beat kicks in. And, again, that rich texture of harmonies fills out the song and sends chills down one’s spine. This is dark, sinister synthpop at its finest.

Speaking of weird Scandinavian-sounding dance music, compare Austra to Karin Dreijer when Dreijer accepted the award for best dance artist on behalf of her band Fever Ray at this Swedish music awards ceremony:

Kooky! And fabulous. Now that we’ve established that both Austra and Fever Ray are cool, creative bands with a statement to make, it’s time to ask the question: which one is weirder? All that matters is that they are weird, and there’s a rhyme and reason to it, even if the typical Beyonce-glamoured American can’t see past his milquetoast Top 40 music collection. Consider this Youtube commenter’s post about the above Fever Ray video: “Its unfortunate most people cannot understand the statement of the absurdity of award shows, come up, make a stupid speech and say thank you within 20 seconds and walk off stage for the next commercial, absolutely meaningless. If viewers can only see the surface level and think ‘Man that lady is weird, whats with the face?’, they need to start digging deeper past the surface [sic]”. So true. So, so true. I cannot improve upon that observation, except to say that the average American isn’t into the musical creativity of artists like Fever Ray and Austra, because they’re only exposed to the commercially successful acts.

Anyway, I haven’t written about a cool band in a while, so when I discovered Austra I just knew I had to say something about them and spread the word. I entreat you to do the same. Spread the word. As you would your seed. No, just kidding. Sort of. I can’t wait to hear their next album! I’m thinking of writing about new releases by a few other bands who make me want to diddle myself, like Glass Candy and Chromatics, so keep visiting this blog. (Oh, and I’m posting another instalment of the fabulous lady-comic Julie Gentron and the Lady League very soon, so look for that too.) So go out and buy Austra’s debut album Feel It Break—make sure it’s the deluxe version—and support one of Canada’s most talented and interesting musical products of recent times. (The album was released by Domino or Paper Bag—can’t remember which—and it’s on iTunes, of course.)

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Jiz! Is Not Safe for Work!

30 12 2011

OK now that we’ve established that it’s not safe to watch this post at work, let’s talk about Jiz!

Jiz is a video parody of that slutty ’80s cartoon show Jem, which used to air every Saturday morning at 9:30. (Yes, my memory is that good. I watched Jem devoutly in my boyhood. Just like I watched She-Ra: Princess of Power. Shut the fuck up.) In the original Jem series, this cool, big-hearted chick called Jerrica Benton, voiced by British-American singer and voice actress Samantha Newark, forms this cool girl group called The Holograms. Jem uses her rock stardom for selfless purposes—to help local troubled youth. (By the way—Samantha Newark has just released her debut album, Somethin’ Good, which has this really cool, fresh electro-pop sound. I’m impressed! See the above link.) So, Jem had this fucking bad-ass super-computer/synthesiser called Synergy, and when Jerrica rubs her magic star-shaped earrings (which have micro-projectors in them), she can command Synergy to create a hologram around Jerrica which disguises her clothing and enables her to assume the image of Jem! I know, totally fucking trippy, eh? With her earrings, Jem can also create holograms in her environment which trick her enemies. One time she created a hologram of elephants to scare her enemies away! And Jem and the Holograms’s nemesis is the Misfits, this cool, trashy-looking group of bad-ass rocker chicks who want to steal Jem’s career!

Anyway, the Jiz parody totally turns everything around—except somehow Jiz still has this sort of well-meaning “I’ll take you under my wing” kind of persona. Which makes it creepy. So, Jiz runs this sex trafficking operation and illegal abortion clinic where she pimps under-age prostitutes and then gives them abortions when they get pregnant. That’s how she makes her income. Oh, and she loves shitty panties. Whenever anybody shits their panties, Jiz, she comes a-runnin’. In addition, Jem’s super-computer/synthesiser Synergy becomes Jiz’s “Electronic Drug Dealer”. All Jiz has to do is rub her magic star-shaped earrings, and Electronic Drug Dealer zaps her with her cools lights and gets Jiz high. Oh, and Jem’s mansion becomes Jiz’s brothel, where she peddles her jiz-whores (some of whom are kidnapped), and the Misfits become the Shitfits! And they talk like unintelligible apes and monkeys and stuff.

I know! It’s totally tasteless! But fucking funny! “I could’ve been the toilet of your dreams!”

Normally I would say this kind of thing is sexist and racist, but I actually don’t think it is. I think that Sienna D’Enema (the anonymous artist who acts as the deus ex machina behind the Jiz series) takes very disturbing topics and makes light of them in order to take away some of their power over us, which I think serves as a coping mechanism. The less seriously we treat these things (in a comedic context), the less we are enthralled by them. Some of the things that happen in Jiz are so outrageous that they can’t be taken seriously. Besides, I have a strong hunch that Sienna D’Enema is a drag queen, and, well, drag queens are known for their cynical, irreverent, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, and she makes fun of everybody anyway, without discriminating. Like Lisa Lampanelli. It’s understandable why some people would be incensed by such material, but I think that if we understand the creator’s intent, we must accept that it is supposed to be ironic. And that is when the absurdity of all of these horrible things becomes exposed.

That’s my take on Jiz, anyway. But, seriously, seriously! It’s just too fucking funny not to watch. So I implore you, as a newly-ordained Jiz fan, watch this wonderfully crass, tasteless parody and judge for yourself. Or I’ll kiiilllll you.

(Oh, by the way, you should visit Jiz’s Twitter page!)