Toronto and Ontario Trip (Part 3)

7 12 2013

Have you ever seen a sunset so brilliant it looked like it was Photoshopped? A mansion so regal it looked like a Hollywood horror set? A farm so bucolic it looked like an Andrew Wyeth painting? These are the kinds of images you see in Ontario, the most populous province of Canada and home to its largest city, the vibrant and multicultural Toronto, as well as its seat of government, the stately and civilised Ottawa.

In Part One of this series I looked at Toronto, and in Part Two I focussed on the Royal Ontario Museum of Art. In this part, I’ve decided to look at the countryside of the St Lawrence Lowlands which surrounds Canada’s southeastern megalopolis. The region is much like the Midwestern United States, with farmland, lakes, fields, and old towns surrounding major cities like Chicago. Where southeastern Ontario has not been converted into farmland or built up into cities, it remains a primeval temperate woodland called the Carolinian Forest.

My mother’s cottage lies nestled in the midst of this forest.

So without further ado, I bring you my snapshots of the vast, fabled landscape of southeastern Canada. Heading east on the 401 past the high-rise suburbs of Toronto… IMG_1667 IMG_1664 …you pass a few exurban mega-malls and housing developments until you finally reach the pastoral, strangely English countryside of southeastern Ontario’s St Lawrence Lowlands:

IMG_1704

And then you move into deeper country…

IMG_1705

…and even deeper country (God, this reminds me of the Madonna song) until you reach full-fledged Carolinian countryside (aren’t the clouds stupendous?)

IMG_1712

Then you reach Madoc, a village on the Trans-Canada Highway between Toronto and Ottawa. The village where my mother was raised: IMG_1751

Isn’t it quaint? It has a post office, a couple of banks, a few restaurants, a supermarket and hardware store, a bowling alley, a quaint pub, and a smattering of other local establishments. That is where my mother owns property.

Then there is Stirling, which is a little bit larger than Madoc because it has more industries based there. It has some amazing buildings:

IMG_2320IMG_2305IMG_2316

The architectural style of the houses you see is called Second Empire. Remember when I mentioned how some buildings looked like a Hollywood set? It is the Second Empire style you see here that I was thinking of. It was common throughout North America in the 1860s and 1870s, and it has inspired numerous horror movies and television shows, like The Munsters, The Addams Family, and Psycho, as well as American Horror Story. Yay, Jessica Lange!

But then we move outside the towns into real wilderness, which is largely wooded. We move north to Lake Jarvis, near the edge of the Canadian Shield:

IMG_1781

It is about a half-hour meandering drive from the Trans-Canada Highway, but imagine this being your destination: IMG_2041

A secluded cottage on a lake graced every night with the mournful call of the loon. And imagine this being your sunset: IMG_2030

Or this: IMG_2692

Or this: IMG_2701

Or this: IMG_1819

Or this: IMG_1820

Or this: IMG_1827

Is it not spectacular? In Ontario the land is so flat that clouds take the place of mountains. Here we see mountains of the sky.

But Ontario’s brilliant landscape takes on a more earthy hue when we look at her rough, summery farmland nature:

IMG_2343

Isn’t that a portrait worthy of Andrew Wyeth?

And this? IMG_2350

And of course the typical roadside barn: IMG_2361

Is this not eerie? It kind of screams Stephen King novel to me.

Anyway, that was just a slice of the photos I took while in Hastings County, Ontario. The sky is amazingly huge because of the flat land. That is something I’m not used to, being from Seattle, where there are mountains or hills everywhere you look. Everyone in Ontario should be thankful for their amazingly broad, cloud-filled skies, their bucolic farmland, their absolutely vast hinterland of forest, and the hauntingly beautiful call of the loon. Especially the call of the loon. It is otherworldly in its beauty, and it is one of my earliest memories as a child. That is how much it stands out to me.





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.)