Decades on from its mid-’80s breakthrough, dark electronic music is once again in the ascendant, perhaps as a reaction to the predominance of electronic artists operating at the more glossy and simplistic end of the synth-pop spectrum. One new player in the yard is Katie Stelmanis, whose name may be familiar from the indie-pop excursion of her 2009 solo record, Join Us. When that album failed to gain the degree of critical traction it deserved, Stelmanis teamed up with drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf to form Austra, an obviously more ambitious project that feels very current but, crucially, like a natural progression.
Beat & The Pulse, their debut EP, relies heavily on Stelmanis’s strong vocal figures. A one-time hopeful opera singer (she withdrew in light of the genre’s rigidity and total lack of gay representation), her voice possesses the qualities and colour expected of someone who has completed formal training. Her intonation is assured and exact, her range impressively wide, and she knows how to portray emotions in nuanced and varied ways that occasionally disclose her Italian and Latvian roots.
Vocal exhibitionism aside, Beat & The Pulse gives the impression that Austra have yet to truly find their niche within the dark electro resurgence – a caveat which may be put right on their forthcoming full-length Feel It Break. Though their clean and balanced production, catchy melodies and sharp beats are undoubtedly enjoyable, there’s little that we haven’t heard before from the likes of the astonishingly theatrical Fever Ray, operatic radical Zola Jesus or the inventive, esoteric iamamiwhoami.
The title track sets the tone strictly and resolutely as fierce, almost forceful beats mingle with a wave of cold synthesisers to fulfil the song’s name and work as a preparation for Stelmanis’s powerful entry. At the song’s climax, marked by her cries of “Feel it break”, a ripple of goosebumps is a natural reaction to the emotional tension. The following ‘Energy’ dissolves that tension with an almost singalong catchiness and a synth arrangement reminiscent of The Knife. But any lightness here is purely musical; the lyrics are heavier, dealing with converting disappointment and hurt to a source of new power.
Rather than reinforcing their potential, ‘Young & Gay’ finds Austra retreating somewhat from melody and imagination with a repetitive, beat-led finale that gets rather tiresome beyond the first refrain. Beat & The Pulse brims with promise, but in this brief introduction Austra are very obviously focused on their music as a series of individual songs interconnected by their general mood rather than creating any sort of concept or main idea line. If the album can address this and take their music to the next level, there will be no reasons not to love them and their powerful, synthetic, emotional darkness.
[Domino; February 21, 2011]