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.)





Julie Gentron and the Lady League, Vol. 1, Ep. 1: Birth of the Plastic Demon

15 11 2011

Written by Brandon Arkell and Seth Gordon Little

A bright spotlight fell on a head deformed with a nest of wires which seemed to serve as hair. The figure worked busily on some task at an operating table, which was swathed in shadow. Soon a head rose, slowly turned, and faced its creator, who revealed a sunken, wizen face twisted into a huge, perverse grin of satisfaction. The wire-haired surgeon retreated a few steps from the table, from which a female figure slowly rose and dismounted, standing rigid like a mannequin in the stark interplay of light and shadow. His grin deepened into a grimace. A host of white-clad medical assistants emerged from the dark and stood impassive, awaiting his instructions.

“My eyes defy me”, croaked the surgeon in a frog-like voice. “At last, the labour of decades has granted me one moment—if just one sweet second—of bliss. Can it be? The perfect woman? No—the perfect human! You are my own”.

“To the contrary, hag”, murmered the patient balefully in her shoulder-padded 1980s power-suit and giant shellacked

hairdo.”You are mine. My servant-creator”.

The surgeon’s grin began to dissolve as he surveyed his patient’s face, which remained sheathed in darkness.

“And these, your helpers”, she said, pointing to his assistants with a long, green-nailed finger, “will be my minions! How well that you have so thoroughly plied them with the very substance over which I have dominion—plastic! What will you, hag? Be my proud chief of staff, or my unwilling, whimpering whelp?”

“Bow to my own creation?! Never!”

“Very well, my creator-hag. Have it your way.”

With a whirring sound, a ray of laser beams shot forth from the patient’s eyes and stunned the medical staff. Through some mysterious mental power, she took possession of them, and they suddenly became rigid and mechanical.

“This can’t be! I—I’ve calculated for every possible contingency, considered every possible backfire!”

“Not good enough, whelp! You may not know your own power—but I know mine.”

The medical staff converged on the surgeon. Under the patient’s command, they attacked him, stunning him with laser beams from their eyes and clawing at him until he crumpled to the ground in a sobbing heap.

“Yes, yes, yes, my synthetic beauties”, the plastic monster groaned to her new slaves in a fit of exultation. “Your serpentine precision pleases me well. You are quick as well as pretty”. She turned to her creator. “Though spineless and pathetic, your genius will serve me yet. I have much use for a bio-physicist of your calibre. With your service, soon I shall welcome more wayward sheep into my flock—black, white, and pink—and with such a legion, no one will stop me!” These last words were uttered with an evil cackle which resonated throughout the dark halls of the decrepit old surgeon’s secret medical facility.

Yet there was one woman who would foil the monster’s plans. In the year 2225, the galaxy was plagued with bloodthirsty criminals of every stripe, from the cold-hearted seahorse women of Titan’s methane lakes to the vicious unicorn-dragons of Vega’s great dust clouds. When all seemed lost, out she stepped from the ramshackle streets of Tower Hamlets, a hero of no ordinary stature. But a wisp of a girl, she fixed her mother’s laptop with the twitch of an eye, and neighbours gossipped about a gifted child who controlled machines with her mind.

When a secret shadow government of the United States sought to harness her powers with a vampiric alien entity known only as the Extractor, she turned the tables on them and escaped, only to discover that the radiation caused by this strange being had given her breast cancer. Desperate for a cure, she sought the finest doctors. However, during the procedure to remove the tumour, a mysterious race of benevolent alien beings appeared, placed a sleeping spell on the medical staff, and commandeered the operation, implanting in her an armoury of weapons which she could control with the power of her mind, including the deadliest weapon of all—the dreaded mammary cannon. Upon hearing of her recovery, the MI6 persuaded her to join their ranks as the founding member of a special branch of the agency called The Lady League, and they re-christened her Julie Gentron, first of the gen-trons, cyborg super-women!

Stay tuned for the adventures of Britain’s proud triad of women space-soldiers in the next instalment of Julie Gentron and the Lady League!