In 2008, a pre-Austra Katie Stelmanis was lending her operatic vocals to Fucked Up tracks, so, while it seemed a natural sea-change to highlight her warbling voice with loops and beat on Austra’s 2011 debut Feel It Break, it was yet another extreme. It was less jarring, but still provided a compelling juxtaposition of the classical and the modern. Olympia is more natural. Austra, formerly a three-piece, is now a full sextet, complete with the twins of Tasseomancy and the Fucked Up connection with Mike Haliechuck brought in for production. Or are they all really “in” the band? Austra is essentially a stage on which Stelmanis demonstrates her staggering vocal prowess atop the prettiest of sounds. In this sense, the Toronto group may be heading in the early 2000s direction of other massive Canadian collectives members-wise and a bit sound-wise too.
Where so many electronic outfits either hails the Instagram-filtered romanticized visions of nostalgia (Youth Lagoon, Toro Y Moi), don the garb of the retro-future Metropolis (Daft Punk), Austra is in the now. And the now is actually quite sad, if you live by Stalmanis’s lyrics. Matters of the heart are not taken in stride here; rather, Stelmanis wears her inner feelings like a badge of courage, even so much that Olympia teeters on the disco-downer/sad-clown line, mostly keeping the band grounded within a sinister and stoic monotony.
On “Home,” that album’s first single and also it’s strongest point, Stelmanis directly laments a lover who has physically and emotionally strayed. Her wavering bel canto paired with the song’s gender ambiguity—the brief “I’m A Man” showcases this as well—gives a stong sense of Austra’s identity: mature, open and free. “Painful Like” is a prime example of gloomy dance, but “We Become” is the album’s dancey pseudo-jam, and, while it’s certainly no joyful noise, it’s a nice break from the sea of tears that that floods Olympia. The otherwise captivating funeral dirge “Hurt Me Now” has a bit of a distracting “Midnight City” undertone, but it builds to a powerful, emotionally-draining conclusion.
Lyrically, Olympia is all exposed tension. As a vocalist and as a writer Stelmanis is taking big risks here and reaping the rewards that come from exposing a secret part of yourself. Yet musically it’s bigger and more orchestral—and it’s safe. It doesn’t push boundaries in the same way that Feel It Break busted up notions of genres, but its smooth production stabilizes the lyrics’ emotional bombast.