Austra is the brainchild of Katie Stelmanis, a Latvian-Canadian singer with operatic training, who gravitated towards electronic music after opting to remain in Toronto instead of moving to Montreal to complete her classical tuition. After spending time as a solo artist and collaborator, she teamed up with drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf last year and set to work creating the songs that can be heard on this, their debut LP. Considering Stelmanis’ musical pedigree, it’s no surprise that her voice is one of Feel It Break‘s defining features. Comparisons have been drawn with Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife/Fever Ray but, while there are similarities, the newcomer’s vocals are more powerful, more crystalline – and that’s saying something. Yet, while it is at the fore it doesn’t overpower the group’s other distinctive elements. With Damian Taylor finding the perfect balance during the mixing process, it beds in nicely alongside the brooding minor key piano and synthesizer arrangements and minimalist dance beats.
That combination contrives to strike the listener in a pincer movement. On the one hand, tracks such as current single ‘Lose It’ and ‘The Noise’ wield a heavy emotional clout; intensely intimate and coated in melancholy without ever drifting into soppy woe-is-me territory. On the other, there’s a seductive dancefloor draw, as found on the glorious ‘The Beat And The Pulse’, with its throbbing arpeggiated synths, or in the octave-hopping bassline of ‘Spellwork’. The common denominators throughout are the nod to the darker side of ’80s new wave (think Depeche Mode, Japan and Visage), drama of Kate Bush proportions and the deceptively simple lyrical content – deceptive because the manner of their delivery is like a slap to the face, providing what Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction would describe as “a moment of clarity.” The latter feature elevates even lesser tracks such as ‘Shoot The Water’ to a level well above just being plain old filler material.
To be cynical for a moment, each year seems to throw up a new female-fronted act that garners unending praise from the critics until the Next Big Thing comes along. While earlier arrivals like Florence And The Machine, Marina And The Diamonds and Best Coast may ultimately find it easier to maintain momentum, the danger for Austra is that they end up being sucked into the vortex along with a plethora of other projects unfairly lumped together and branded with the same stamp. At the very least, wrenching back the spotlight for album two after the initial hubbub has fizzed out will be an unenviable task. It would be a cruel injustice, though, for a band who offer something a little bit different from their contemporaries and who, with Feel It Break, have undoubtedly delivered one of the finest albums of 2011.