1. Polaris Countdown #2 - Austra

    Monday, August 22, 2011


    If you like church hymns and Depeche Mode, you will almost certainly love Austra. If you don't know or care about either of those, there's still a chance you will really like Austra. There's a lot of good reasons to like Austra.

    The 80's seem to be strong in Canadian music this year. Miracle Fortress, Diamond Rings and now Austra have strong ties to at least the sonic palette of that decade. Fortunately, all three of these bands mine 80s Electronica in a way that feels very natural to my ears. Rather than paying homage to New Order and Pet Shop Boys, these bands - particularly Austra - sound as though they could have been contemporaries of those classic acts.

    I believe the strongest weapon in Austra's arsenal is subtlety. Lead singer Katie Stelmanis comes from a classical vocal background, but spares listeners the onslaught that often accompanies dark-sounding bands with a powerful female vocalist. Nowhere on 'Feel It Break' do the vocals over-embellish the gorgeous melodies or give way to melodrama, and the rest of the band follows suit. Drums chug along in simple, but perfectly formed grooves, and synthesizers are more about sound and texture than virtuosity. Every sound on this disc is expertly chosen. At times shimmering and bright ('Hate Crime', 'Lose It'), at times dark and booming ('The Beat and the Pulse') and often a combination of both. When a distorted guitar appears on 'The Noise', it's perfect.

    My choice of Church hymns as a reference point for Austra is two-fold. First, the lead vocals are frequently blended with two-part backing harmonies in often medieval-sounding combinations. Fourths, Sixths, and wonderful tone clusters are all over this album, and greatly contribute to a second church-like quality: The subject matter. 'Feel It Break' sounds positively Old Testament. Lyrics speak of beasts, demons, looming and apocalyptic futures, and dark visions thereof.

    What's so exciting about Austra is that they seem to understand (on their first album no less) exactly what Depeche Mode and New Order did before them. Darkness at it's best isn't scary or off-putting. It's completely seductive. I'm sold.

    Review score: 4/4


    Austra was an early favorite of mine on this list, and they're only growing on me.

    As mentioned above, Diamond Rings and Miracle Fortress (both of whom made the long-list, but not the short) are mining similar territory, and to great effect. At a time when mainstream pop music is quite synth-dominated, a handful of Canadian electronic acts are propelling a very throwback sound to exciting places. Junior Boys have been doing this for years (including this year's excellent 'It's all True'), and Owen Pallett has taken his own fantasy-pop in a more electronic direction lately.

    In short, I think Canada is on board, and 'Feel It Break' is as good as any to reward with the Polaris. It's daring, intelligent, groovy as hell, and it takes terrific source material to an original place. My hopes are high, and I think chances are good for Austra. A serious contender.

    Likelihood Score: 4/4

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