Austra just released a second album after a very successful debut album in 2011. This Toronto band straddles a few genres, and I really like that they’re not very definable. I would categorize them as a mix of indie, electronic, and synth-pop, with a touch of darkness. Lead singer Katie Stelmanis is classically trained and you can really hear a subtle influence of opera in the way she sings. If you like The Knife, Florence and the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and/or Metric, I think you’ll really like Austra.
Olympia has definitely been largely influenced by early house music. Where Feel it Break was more personal and dramatic, Olympia has taken a more electronic and upbeat approach, without losing its intensity or intimacy.
What really sets Olympia apart from Feel it Break is the incorporation of a lot of new sounds. Feel it Break was a great album and each song was unique in its own way; however, it seems like the album used a lot of the same sounds and just re-arranged them into separate narratives. The difference in sound can be attributed to the amount of collaboration in Olympia; whereas Feel it Break was very much a Katie Stelmanis production, Olympia is the product of various band members who have toured with Stelmanis becoming involved in the writing and recording process (Sari and Romy Lightman, Dorian Wolf, Maya Postepski, and Ryan Wonsiak).
What’s definitely new is the use of background vocalists. In Feel it Break, what really made the sound so powerful and unique was the use of Stelmanis’ vocals as both the forefront and background. In Olympia, Austra continues its use of harmony but with distinct backup vocalists. Several times throughout the album, the echoes that follow Stelmanis’ voice come to the forefront and create a much more diverse and interesting atmosphere. For example, “Hurt Me Now” incorporates some The Knife-esque vocal distortion.
The collaboration has given Olympia songs that tell more of a story through more diverse sounds and lyrics. I really love the use of more worldly sounds including brass instruments, woodwinds, harpsichords, and marimba. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s synth, and that’s awesome. They also contribute to complete atmosphere and mood changes.
The album starts with “What We Done,” which builds up a really great house beat accompanied by some cool synths, including some sort of horn (which is pretty new for Austra). It’s a really powerful song and a strong start to the album.
“Sleep” is one of my favourite songs; I just really love its use of wind chimes and Stelmanis’ lower, more drawn out vocals. The melody sounds like it would be a part of Studio Ghibli anime and feels whimsical and dream-like.
“Fire” is also another favourite. It has a lot going on, and the prominent use of marimba makes it a very distinct song on the record.
“We Become” starts with some kitchen percussion which makes brief appearances throughout the song. The melody is a slow, sweet, and innocent synth that gives the song a nostalgic atmosphere.
“Reconcile” blends in very well with the previous song, building off of the nostalgic atmosphere and adding a more upbeat sound with synths that sound like twinkling stars and optimistic appearances of the triangle. Stelmanis’ vocals are commanding in this song; every word is spoken carefully and it often seems like she is singing through her teeth.
Every album has at least one really unimpressive song in my opinion — and for me, that was “Annie (Oh, muse you).” It’s an okay song to listen to, but it’s boring in comparison to the rest. I think it’s also too 80s for my liking. There are occasional 80s influences on the record, but this song just has too much of that feel for me.
“Hurt Me Now” definitely gives the album closure, as the beat and tempo take measured steps towards the conclusion of the album. It’s a really powerful song from start to finish, with the delicate harp contrasting the powerful beat and commanding presence of organs and church-choir-like vocals. The song comes undone at the end, as each sound is stripped away and the song fades off. It’s another one of my favourite songs off of the record.
Overall, the album is more upbeat and intricate, and has several interesting layers of sound. The collaboration within the band has led to lyrics that tell more of a concrete story, new and distinct sounds, and an album that sounds much more put together. I’d recommend that you pick it up immediately and support this great Canadian artist.
Olympia was released on Paper Bag Records on June 18.