Austra, ‘Olympia’ – Album Review
Toronto has proven a reliable source of goth-tinged electronic exports in recent years. The electro-punk-turned-dance-pop duo Crystal Castles is the most shining example. Last year’s Trust debut was an exercise in zero-frills gothic rave. And then there’s Austra. On their 2011 record 'Feel It Break,' they combined post-punk rhythms with ornate dark-wave electronics and Katie Stelmanis’ operatic vocals, sounding like a shadowy New Order performing at the Met. The record showed Austra's knack for hooks, built atop surprisingly sophisticated drama-laden song structures and production. And in an already-crowded field of dark, synth-based music to have emerged since the Knife's influential 'Silent Shout,' Austra stood out.
Two years later, Austra have returned with 'Olympia,' which sees the group adding some welcome color and levity to their sound without skimping on the elements that made them so compelling in the first place. The album cover alone, which depicts Stelmanis in a pale pink pantsuit (instead of blonde-tinted lolita gear), is enough to indicate a few things might have changed since 'Feel It Break.' Aside from a lighter tonal hue, the production skews closer to more traditional dance music, and some of the arrangements are more ornate. Still, 'Olympia'’s aesthetic -- heavily arpeggiated synths, Maya Potepski’s sharpened drum work and Stelmanis weighty vocals and piano -- is much the same on 'Feel It Break.' There's just a bit of overt experimentation thrown in for good measure.
In a lot of ways, 'Olympia' suggests Austra is trying to actively head off criticisms that their first album failed to separate itself from the pack (read: Zola Jesus). Here, the songwriting is a little more exploratory and unpredictable. Opener 'What We Done?' settles on a muted kick drum and a writhing synth with some staccato woodwinds hovering around the track’s edges. The drums don't kick in until such a point in the song that you've started to wonder whether they ever will. When they do arrive, though, the cut becomes a bursting collage of synths.
'Home' is another standout, building from a pounding piano refrain into a lilting dance rhythm. The track continues climbing for its entire run, hanging back for the first half before the piano hook switches up, letting a chorus of voices, trumpets and flutes pour in. 'You Changed My Life' opens with a harsh, stripped-down piano arrangement before getting downright psychedelic with a bleary wash of synth textures. Closer 'Hurt Me Now' finishes out the record with a slowed, marching pace, jumping from heaving organ to intricate harp plucks and back again.
'Olympia' is a step forward for Austra in many areas: more detailed instrumentation, a more diverse tonal pallet, riskier songwriting. But it lacks some of the emotional heft and directness present on their previous record. There’s no 'The Beast' ('Feel It Break'’s astonishing and devastating closer) on 'Olympia' -- perhaps unfair to hold against the new album -- but this group has at least shown they’re capable of higher highs. Still, there’s a lot to like about 'Olympia,' and Austra have once again proven they’re a band that deserves attention.