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.)





Support Gay Youth! And Love!

16 12 2010

For me, the musical highlight of the year is the recent re-release of Erasure‘s “A Little Respect“, not only because the song is sublime musically, but also because every purchase of this track (on iTunes) is a donation to an organization devoted to the protection of rejected youth. This release is a re-recording of the original 1988 soul-pop anthem; this time around, though, it features the choir of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a New York non-profit foundation dedicated to the nurturance and uplifting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning youth. The Hetrick-Martin Institute is also the home of Harvey Milk High School, a high-school in Manhattan named after the gay San Francisco politician who was assassinated, and designed specifically for youth who have been rejected by their families because of which sex they are attracted to.

The Hetrick-Martin session of “A Little Respect” was motivated largely by the recent spate of gay teenage suicides attributed to bullying in the United States. The suicides have affected multiple races and genders–victims have been black and white, female and male. And, certainly, they have affected the poor as well, since so many distraught and runaway urban youth have few financial resources to depend on. And who cares whether they are gay? Straight people are oppressed for supposedly being gay, too. Consequently, the bullying epidemic has affected almost every class of society within the United States. Shouldn’t everybody be concerned?

The Huffington Post, an aggregated blog based in the United States, posted the original video for this re-recording, but it’s already on YouTube. I adore Andy Bell’s fluorescent make-up:


The song is unnerving. With its kaleidoscopic tapestry of guitar strings, adroit, gradual melodies, insistent bass-drums, and poignant, yearning lyrics, it is truly a hymn to the woes of the inner self, and the turmoil that lurks within. All of this is supplemented by a brand-new arrangement of elegant, sweeping synthesisers courtesy of veteran synthpop genius Vince Clarke, who forms a part of the band. (It does not hurt that the Hetrick-Martin choir assists lead vocalist Andy Bell in building a soul-based vocal ensemble.) Ultimately, it is a message of love and compassion. It always has been about love and compassion, hasn’t it?  That selflessly unfamiliar yet resounding source of pleasure and knowledge one has in the wellness of others? And not just love toward kin, but also love toward the alien. That kind of love is most constructive, most forgiving, most pure.

So while we should fight tenaciously for equality, we should also shed love and compassion on those we deem our “enemies”. Indeed, rather than describe them as “enemies”, we might try to describe them as neophytes to the art of liberalism. That is more diplomatic. This doesn’t mean they don’t do wrong–it only means that we should love them nonetheless, simply because love is good for people, and it makes them better. That is a hard feat to perform. But isn’t it good for all of us in the end?

But that is another blog entry.

Before I bore you to death–dance music! Andy Bell (the lead singer of Erasure) has been quite active in his solo career. Following up with his shamelessly beat-laden (and, oh, I  love it) album Non-Stop, Bell has released a double CD featuring the three singles “Running Out”, “Will You Be There”, and “Non-Stop”, off the same album. Those who adore the quasi-italo-disco sound of Vega or Neon Indian will most likely quiver with delight over this release, given the “Vega Italo Dub Mix” of “Running Out”, which was released under Bell’s club-friendly pseudonym “Mimó”. So we have a very active Andy Bell who enjoys the nightlife. So he should. I do.

And if that weren’t enough, Erasure are planning to release an all-analogue album in 2010. Don’t quote me on that. I remember it from the fan-page discussion threads, but the fan-site doesn’t have a search engine, so I can’t confirm. All I remember is hearing Vince Clarke saying that it would consist of a home-grown, original, analogue synthesiser sound, which is fantastic, since I’m so tired of that cheap, shitty, sampled digital crap which most dance/pop/rap artists use nowadays.

To top things off, these exponents of the pro-gay youth movement are planning to tour the British forests next year. Yes. That’s right. As part of the British Forestry Commission’s annual Live Music series (Britain still has forests, apparently, and its Forestry Commission entertains cutting-edge synthpop acts like Goldfrapp) Erasure will be playing their famed hits in places like Thetford Forest, near Brandon, in Suffolk. (The irony.) I didn’t think Britain had any more forests–I thought they were all mowed down in the Iron Age. I suppose they re-grow them where they seem to be dwindling. Being from Seattle, I am surrounded by a swathe of green, wet, oceanic moss-forests, so it seems odd to me. Well, they visited Seattle in 2007 on their “Light at the End of the World” tour, so let’s hope that they can trudge their way through the moss-forests for a 2011, or, more likely, 2012 tour. If one is lucky enough to live in Britain, one can buy Erasure Forest Tour tickets here.

Basically, love gay people, and be jealous of puny British forests for the tolerant people that inhabit them.

Over and out.