Shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize with their 2011 debut, Feel It Break, Canadian synth-pop outfit Austra have since recruited Tasseomancy twins Sari and Romy Lightman and Ze & The Boyfriends’ keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak in order to give their crying-at-the-discotheque sound a bit more bite.
But despite expanding from a trio to a sextet, it’s still frontwoman Katie Stelmanis, a classically-trained singer who began performing in the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus aged ten, who commands all of the attention on Austra’s self-produced sophomore, Olympia.
Indeed, if the likes of Calvin Harris collaborations “Spectrum (Say My Name)” and “Sweet Nothing” left you wishing that Florence Welch would commit herself entirely to dance music, then these twelve tracks are perhaps the next best thing, as the 28-year-old Stelmanis’ similarly wailing vocals glide over everything from ghostly trip-hop (“Hurt Me Now”) to chilly electro-funk (“Sleep”) to playful Chicago house (“Annie, Oh Muse, You”).
Other than the pulsing climax of doom-laden opener “What We Done?,” the latter is the only time that Austra really resort to four-to-the-floor tactics as Olympia certainly fits in more with the icy electro of the early 80s than the current EDM scene, particularly the slinky Eurythmics-esque “Painful Like” and the other-worldly Kate Bush-inspired “Home.”
However, their biggest asset also turns out to be their biggest hindrance; while Stelmanis’ operatics feel entirely appropriate for the likes of melancholic piano-led ballad “You Changed My Life,” they also tend to overwhelm the oddball numbers which best utilise Austra’s new additions. None more so than on “We Become,” a surprisingly bouncy slice of reggae-pop which echoes The Knife before they became completely self-indulgent; and “Fire,” an exquisite foray into dream-pop filled with windchimes, woodwind and echo-laden choral backing vocals.
Ultimately, Olympia is still too much of an acquired taste to elevate Austra from the fringes of the Toronto “queercore” scene into the mainstream, but it should still strike a chord with those who like their electronica drenched in theatrical doom.