By Zachary Swickey
Few music festivals have the reliability of Austin’s South by Southwest when it comes to bringing in acts. The camaraderie between bands and fans alike is overwhelming (in an awesome way). Not to mention just about every up-and-coming group plays SXSW at least once, if not a half dozen times, in their careers. I thankfully discovered Solid Gold while preparing for my jaunt there earlier this year, but they weren’t the only ones. In a true moment of being at the right place at the right time, I got to emo’s music venue an hour early (knowing the Kills would go on an hour later) and discovered Austra – the Canadian New Wave act responsible for one of my favorite albums so far in 2011.
Austra is a Toronto-based three-piece consisting of vocalist and group-appointed leader, Katie Stelmanis, drummer Maya Postepski, and bassist Dorian Wolf. After listening to the soaring operatic vocals on their debut, it’s no surprise that Stelmanis was a member of the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus when she was a mere 10 years old. She can also boast a guest vocal appearance on F**ked Up’s critically acclaimed sophomore album, The Chemistry of Common Life. Austra derived its moniker from the singer’s middle name, and her solo songs were the beginning stages of what the group would eventually become. She then found her fellow musicians and rearranged many songs to give them the dance-friendly vibe that they now have.
The group is well-trained: as mentioned, Stelmanis has classical opera training, Postepski attended the University of Toronto for classical percussion, and Wolf has been getting to know Apple’s music program, Logic, to increase his personal experimentation. Twin sisters Sari & Romy Lightman along with keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak help round out the group in live performances – providing quite the theatrical spectacle. After the group formed, they sought someone who knew what to do with their brooding, electronic sound. Enter studio engineer Damian Taylor, who worked with some of the biggest digital acts (Bjork, Unkle and Prodigy) when living in London for over a decade before his return home to Montreal in 2010 to set up a music studio. Taylor caught wind of the group through friend Morgan Lebus, the A&R rep that signed Austra. Their collaborative outcome is an acid-soaked, disco dancing delight with the occasional melancholic twist.
Austra’s debut, Feel it Break, came out just a few months ago through Domino Records, but is already on the shortlist of nominees for Canada’s much-coveted Polaris Music Price (they’re facing stiff competition from Arcade Fire). Deservedly so – Break is a front-to-back digital dose of dance hits with no filler to be found. There are many comparisons that could be made – Bjork, Fever Ray, Glasser – but what sets Austra apart is Stelmanis’ unique and brilliant vocal work, as well as the yin-and-yang battle between light and darkness on the record.
The quirky, repetitive piano beat that opens “Shoot the Water” is mind-numbingly catchy, “Lose It” is an album highlight that really captures the vibrance of Stelmanis's voice (can you tell I’m quite taken with the vocals?) and the deep drums and cymbal action on “Hate Crime” make it Postepski’s shining moment (and one the group’s best tracks to catch in a live setting). Without a doubt, the dark disco opera that Austra has created will have you coming back for more.
It’s a crime that Austra isn't more popular than they are, but these things take time. The album is still an infant and the band is nomadic on the touring circuit. We predict big things in the group’s future, as we are unabashedly smitten with the beautiful synth opera that is Austra.