Feel It Break. Austra, a trio from Toronto headed by opera singer Katie Stelmanis, seems to so fully embrace the darkness in rumbling electronics and hollow (if driving, plodding) drums that their debut crosses the lines repeatedly, bounding from dance-fuel to sad self-evaluation to powerful battle chants. What's great is that they find time to experiment frequently, adding twinkling, astral accents to more traditional, oft recognizable, synth beats. And what's better is that Stelmanis' vocals are so purely beautiful and consistently haunting that sets itself away from the aforementioned pack that now includes such artists as Fever Ray, Florence and the Machine, La Roux, and School of Seven Bells. It's a tough task to differentiate oneself, or bandself perhaps, when so many great musicians trend the same direction. Austra's dance leanings are full and sincere, but so is their lyrical darkness. The anthems that appear on Feel It Break are not club rockers, nor are they pop-settlings down, instead these songs tend to talk themselves through terrible situations, much in the way done so well by St. Vincent, but on a much larger sonic scale.
Beginning with "Darken Her Horse" and its echoing electronic bass line, the album feels initially slow, methodical and dramatic. Stelmanis' operatic voice is on full display, carrying the opening track beautifully, but it's not long before "Darken Her Horse" picks up in energy and the truer feel of the album reveals itself. The bouncier "Lose It" comes with the haunting refrain "Don't wanna lose ya" and "I never knew ya" sung in such a sincere way that it reminds me of the cathartic work of Stars on Set Yourself On Fire. The frolicking, but unsettling "The Future" lives on a repeated piano riff and chunky electronic bass beats that breaks down in a twinkling, starry scape. The awesome "Beat And The Pulse" follows by providing exactly what it should: heavy beats and heart-racing rumble. The vocals here are especially enjoyable as Stelmanis manages to stick with numerous pace changes seamlessly. "Spellwork" opens with a slightly too precious magical riff reminiscent of when Wayne and Garth travel magically into fantasy, but once the drums and more spare tones take over it turns into an excellent dance track. It is maybe the lowest register track vocally, but it still works incredibly well, a testament to Stelmanis' range. It's also the track that presents the beginning of the album's late peak, where rattling dance music and mysterious, haunting poetry converge.
"The Choke" is about as perfect as the album gets. Brilliantly set up and cavernous, both aurally and lyrically, it has a very M83 feel. And "Hate Crime" flutters into pop perfection, increasing the pace and utilizing more ornate instrumentation. Interestingly, it feels a lot like Tegan and Sara. "The Villian," too is amazing, so loaded with energy and spirit, so beautiful sung and so very nearly rocking that the second half of the album begins to compel movement. You will want to dance, or foot-tappers, you will want to tap. It's a lot like that first jolt of coffee in the morning, you're tired and slow and then suddenly bursting with desire to get moving. "Shoot The Water" with its opening lyrics "Silence speaks for you" carries on with a very metered bounding design. "The Noise" is epically haunting and repetitive, a treatise on all the overwhelming sound and bullshit we must sift through to form our identities. And "The Beast" closes the album out with delicate piano and some natural sound, starkly contrasting the rest of the album, but doing so in a way that seems to indicate the war is over and something more delicate, if still powerful and dark, is coming.
You can listen to Austra's new album Feel It Break via the streaming player below, or through NPR's First Listen for a limited time.
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