Austra hail from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, but chances are you probably already know that. After all, their 2011 debut, Feel It Break, was listed on numerous critics’ best of 2011 lists, following a year of positive reviews. The Toronto Star and New York even named it the best album of the year. Basically, Feel It Break was universally loved, the band’s rich electronic sound and gloomy lyrics appealing to fans of pop, electronic, dark wave, EDM and indie music. Hell, even goth kids liked Austra.
Personally, I loved Feel It Break. I didn’t think it was quite so brilliant as many other critics made it out to be, but I did think it was fantastic and couldn’t wait to hear what they’d do next. And I’m pleased to say that their just-released sophomore album, Olympia, does not disappoint. I do have to admit that I was nervous about listening to it for the first time, fearful that they might have gone off in a more obscure, less accessible direction, turning into an oddity like The Knife. Mind you, I like The Knife. But Feel It Break had a keen pop sensibility and I was hoping that it would remain on their second album. Fortunately, it does.
The first thing you notice about Olympia, like any album, is the cover. That much is a radical departure from Feel It Break’s dark, almost creepy cover. The cover of Olympia displays a photo of singer Katie Stelmanis wearing pink with a mostly blue and green background that shows a body of water, trees and mountains. Oh, and there are some pink flowers, too. Suffice to say it was not what you’d expect an Austra album cover to look like. You might have guessed that Katie would be on the cover, being that she was the primary songwriter of their first album and was often referred to as though she was a solo artist, but you never would have guessed that she’d be wearing pink or that the album cover would have been so bright and colorful. The cover of Olympia is the antithesis of the cover of Feel It Break. My initial reaction was to worry that they’d actually gone too far in the pop direction and lost their edge. I also feared that the cover would put off many of their fans, causing the album to flop. But I also recognized it as a brave choice for them. Surely, they had to have known there was a risk in going with such a pretty album cover. But they did it anyway. I have to admire that kind of nerve, especially when I think about how rarely artists actually make such bold moves. Do I actually like the album cover? I do. It took a few days to really grow on me but I think it’s quite lovely now. That being said, I do find it somewhat at odds with the music on the album, which is almost as dark as the material on their first album.
Olympia was approached differently than Feel It Break. While Katie was running the show — and writing the songs — when they made their first album, two years of almost constant touring turned them into a proper band. This time around, all six members contributed to the writing. They also made it a point to use more live instruments this time around, whereas Feel It Break consisted largely of programming. I think that both of these things were wise choices, considering that the album turned out wonderfully.
It only takes one listen to Olympia to realize that it’s a more expansive set. Where some of the songs on Feel It Break tended to blend together, being rather similar, there’s a lot more diversity between the songs on Olympia, which each have their own unique identity. They mesh perfectly to form a complete body of work, and it’s truly an album that demands to be listened to from start to finish, but it’s much easier to distinguish one song from another. The band managed to try a lot of new things without losing the key elements of their sound: Katie’s haunting voice, dark and poetic lyrics, infectious beats and lots and lots of synth.
Olympia opens with “What We Done?,” which gradually fades in, its throbbing beat and bursts of synth only really becoming audible around the 30 second mark. “So I dance with nothing / so I dance for free / and there is no glamour,” Katie sings as it commences with the chorus, a chill in her voice. “Come back to me / you’re seventeen,” begins the first verse, Katie’s voice full of longing and as sharp and vibrant as ever. If you don’t find the lyrics at all disturbing you’ll still likely get goosebumps from her eerie, siren-like vocals.
The album’s first single, “Home,” simply begins with Katie singing over piercing piano and what sounds like gloomy horns. “My body can’t rest unless you’re sleeping by my side,” she sings during the song about a desperate woman waiting up at night for her seemingly estranged lover to come home. During the chorus, a house beat kicks in and it becomes a hi-hat festival with additional percussive sounds adding depth to the already rich song. Layers and layers of other sounds and instruments are added as it continues, building and building until it’s one monster of a song.
“You’ll never know me / I’ll never know you,” Katie sings during the somewhat eerie “Sleep,” which showcases her classically-trained voice perfectly. The song also allows bassist Dorian Wolf and drummer Maya Postepski to shine as well, his bass groovy and seductive, her beats contagious and insistent.
Another standout is “Annie (Oh Muse, You),” a club-ready tune that packs a mean wallop with drum machines and live drums working together in a most intoxicating manner. It’s the brightest song on the album and almost has a tropical vibe, making it the one song on the record that truly meshes with the album cover.
The album closes with “Hurt Me Now,” during which dark synth and gloomy organ paint an ominous picture, like score from a ghostly horror movie. It might be unusual for a band to close an album with a song that sounds like an omen, but it’s proof pudding that Austra have managed to branch out without losing their edge or their flair for the darker side of pop and electronic music.