Feel It Break
, May 20th, 2011 13:56
It seems a little strange that Latvian-Canadian songstress Katie Stelmanis would choose to use her middle name, Austra, as a front for her latest musical endeavour. Perhaps naming her band after the Latvian goddess of light is a sly reference to her gradual emergence from the shadows of obscurity; the self-confessed children's choir survivor turned teenage Riot Grrrl toiled for years in bands like Galaxy and Bruce Peninsula, and released a largely ignored solo album in 2009 before finally starting to make waves in critical waters at the tail-end of last year. Alternatively, it could just be an acknowledgement of her heritage or a purely ego-driven decision, but whatever the reason it sits at odds with the dark, brooding pop that Stelmanis and her bandmates - drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf - conjure up on their Domino debut Feel It Break.
If, however, words like "dark" and "brooding" are starting to sound a little over-familiar, don't worry. While it may seem like a particularly sinister strain of brown acid has made its way into the musical water supply of late, Feel It Break stands apart from the herd of similarly inspired female artists (Zola Jesus, Maria Minerva et al) by refusing to fit neatly into any kind of pigeonhole. Sure, there is a lot of expressive wailing and atmospheric melodrama, but it is set against a backdrop of shiny synth-pop and instantly anthemic hooks, all tied together with surprisingly upbeat, dancefloor-ready beats. It's a slightly awkward juxtaposition, as if Stelmanis can't decide whether she wants to be Florence Welch or Robyn, but it's one that makes for a consistently fascinating listen.
Like fellow Canadian Owen Pallett, Stelmanis bends her classical training into rather leftfield shapes, manipulating bombastic motifs and building tension with a master's touch. But rather than some pompous artistic statement Austra's music is testament to the powers of rhythm and a good old-fashioned catchy melody. Unlike some of the aforementioned ladies - even at their most accessible - it isn't hard to imagine hearing tracks like 'Lose It' or 'Spellwork' on daytime radio, or 'Beat And The Pulse' causing a stir in the darker corners of a mainstream club; in fact, Feel It Break's only vaguely pretentious moment comes right at the end with 'The Beast', a self-indulgent (albeit well-deserved) opportunity for Stelmanis to show off her considerable piano skills.
With the singer's ethereal Kate Bush-meets-Siouxsie (by way of Nico) vocal style dominating proceedings, it's impossible to deny Feel It Break's gothic undercurrent, but there is no place for tear-streaked mascara in Stelmanis' world. These are powerful, empowering songs, and whilst their place in the lineage of electronic pop music that stretches from Kraftwerk through to the Human League and onto Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails is clear, there is an aggressive energy present – particularly evident in Postepski's muscular drumming – that is almost primal. In a year when female-fronted albums (PJ Harvey, EMA, Tune-Yards, Planningtorock) are looking set to dominate December's Best Of lists, Feel It Break proves Austra can stand, triumphant and proud, alongside the conquering warrior queens.