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Austra’s latest album feels like a cultural collision

Austra releases their second album, Olympia. From left, members include Dorian Wolf, Katie Stelmanis and Maya Postepsky.

Norman Wong

4 out of 4 stars

Title
Olympia
Artist
Austra
Label
Paper Bag
Genre
Electronic
Year
2013

Mention synthesizers and dance beats in the same breath these days, and pop fans automatically assume you're talking about electronic dance music, the insistent pulse of the current Top 40. It's brash, it's physical, it's irrepressibly upbeat, and it has nothing to do with the sound Austra presents on its second album, Olympia.

And yet, synthesizers and dance beats are at the heart of the album's aesthetic, and not just because they provide the perfect counterpoint for lead singer Katie Stelmanis's plangent, emotionally freighted singing.

Olympia is an album concerned with both surrender and release, with accepting the pain that comes with romantic failure while at the same time yearning for the transcendence that comes from dancing through that pain.

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As such, the songs often feel like a sort of cultural collision. Fire, for example, opens with synthesized strings in a slow, two-chord drone as the vocals rise in choirboy innocence. But whatever goth gloom that might seem to portend is undercut by a thrumming, marimba-like, that goads the beat along until the song erupts in a surge of voices and rhythm, as if a dance party had broken out in the middle of morning prayers.

It's an impressive step forward from the band's Polaris-nominated debut, Feel It Break, which relied mostly on Stelmanis's demos for its overall retro-electro feel.

This time around, the writing and arranging was more collaborative, and the strength of the band really shows.

The club-style pulse of Painful Like is not only convincingly propulsive but perfectly attuned to the arching vocal line, while We Become undergirds its melancholic melody with a deft blend of dub-style low end and cumbia-inflected percussion. It's a fully integrated approach to songwriting.

That won't entirely keep the spotlight off Stelmanis, nor should it. When she sings, at the beginning of Forgive Me, "What do I have to do to make you forgive me?" what we hear is less a plea than a rhetorical question. Where some singers emotionalize to make an audience believe that they're living their lives out on the stage, Stelmanis's mannered precision ensures that even her most confessional lyrics have an aura of artifice about them, reminding the listener that this is a performance, not an admission. And that, in turn, invests a certain authority in her voice, allowing her to take control of the events she's describing by making them into art.

But that's only one part of the show now. Because her band mates – particularly drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf – are equally assertive in their roles, Austra has ingeniously bridged the mind/body gap that too often stymies alt-rock attempts at dance floor abandon.

The 12 songs on Olympia provide food for thought, fuel for dancing, and more than a dozen reasons to hit replay.

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