When is a dance band not a dance band?
For some groups, the answer to that question would reflect a range of musical failures, from flat-footed drumming to an overall lack of groove, but happily, that's not the case with Austra. Instead, the reason these Torontonians don't make it as beat merchants is a matter of focus: Austra isn't a dance band because Austra's songs aren't primarily about the beat.
Not that this was glaringly obvious during the band's homecoming show at the Phoenix Thursday. Playing to a house that was, across most of the main level, wall-to-wall people, Austra kept the woofers thumping as Dorian Wolf's bass and Maya Postepski's kick drum laid down a bottom-heavy stomp that sometimes threatened to overwhelm all else in the band's synth-based sound.
Yet even when the rhythm section's visceral insistence seemed directly tied to the lyric, as with the muscular Beat and the Pulse, Austra somehow managed to distance itself from the sort of physical release usually associated with dance music. There was no exuberance to the music, only the reflexive power of an industrial-strength beat.
It was as if the idea of Dionysian release were more attractive to the band than the thing itself.
Katie Stelmanis's crisp, declamatory vocals added to the chill. Classically trained, she sang with impressive precision, easily managing the octave leaps of Hate Crime and lending a bell-like clarity to the soaring "oh-oh-ohs" in Lose It.
But she never used her voice to push the beat or invest herself in the music; the only time her voice revealed emotion was when she was telling the crowd how happy she was to be back in Toronto. Otherwise, she performed with an almost clinical detachment, as if the crushing insistence of the kick drum and bass were mere structural elements to the music and not an attempt to move the crowd, physically or emotionally.
Austra's over-intellectualism is not without its benefits, mind you. Where a more beat-obsessed band would simply surrender to groove and fill its songs with endless iterations of the same infectious four-beat pattern, as the happily derivative Young Gods did earlier that evening, Austra actively avoids monotony, spicing its arrangements with ambitious harmonies, ear-catching textures and dramatically varied dynamics.
Spellwork, for instance, pulled its floor-shaking pulse back in order to showcase a slyly melodic turn by bassist Wolf, and there were moments in the throbbingly insistent Darken Her Horse where the carefully intertwined synth lines verged on the symphonic.
Better yet, the concert versions generally outshone the arrangements offered on the band's Polaris short-listed debut, Feel It Break. Some of the added touches, such as the alto saxophone that brightened the ominous harmonies of The Beast, took advantage of the touring band's expanded lineup, while others, like the deep, droning synth rumble that set the stage for Darken Her Horse, played off the physicality only a club-sized sound system can deliver.
It was, in other words, everything a fan of Feel It Break could have wanted, not merely celebrating the band's sound but expanding upon it. And yet, it was hard to come away from the show without feeling let down somehow. It wasn't just that all those big beats rarely inspired dancing, or that Stelmanis's vocals didn't inspire sing-alongs; there was something inherently distancing about Austra's aesthetic.
Where other pop bands try to foster a sense of community through their music, be it through a sense of cultural identity or the insinuating power of a catchy beat and chorus, Austra seems content to keep its audience as spectators, impressed but uninvolved. And while I may applaud them for the skill they bring to that task, I'm suitably unmoved by their achievement.
- At the Phoenix Concert Theatre
- in Toronto on Thursday