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Austra – 'Olympia'

Austra – 'Olympia' album review

Heavy lyrical themes and unlikely musical twists make the Canadian band's second album a triumph over adversity

By Jonny Ensall

Here's a story with a happy ending: in 2011 Canadian darkwave synth-pop band, Austra, released 'Feel It Break', their debut album of uniquely haunting songs, with operatic vocals by Katie Stelmanis. Touring off the back of its success became too much for Stelmanis, and her relationship. Pushed to the brink, she retreated to a friend's house in Seattle to regroup and write the first of the songs for second album, 'Olympia'. Now a stronger, more straightforward person, she lives with her girlfriend, tries not to drink too much, and puts any negative feelings into her music. The happiest part? The album she's made as a result is among the year's best.

'Olympia' is a richer, more varied record than 'Feel It Break'. Austra have advanced beyond DIY dance-pop, but slickness hasn't worn away the jagged edges of Stelmanis's songwriting ideas. 'Home' – the stand-out – begins as a ferociously passionate piano ballad about abandonment, before seguing into a disco track… with woodwind. In fact, unlikely musical twists are a feature of 'Olympia', with the sound of Scandinavian pop – especially Ace Of Base – mixing with the Toronto band's grungy, countercultural roots.
Stelmanis's cut-glass vocals afford everything she sings over a spooky sense of importance, but the basis of 'Olympia' is upbeat disco – the hiss of hi-hats, the clopping of cowbells and the bubble of synth basslines. It means lyrical topics as heavy as prescribed gender roles ('I Don't Care I'm a Man') can resonate, without dragging things down too much. The emotional pitch is feverish throughout – mildly exhausting even. But, then, these songs clearly come from the heart.

In many ways, 'Olympia' is a triumph over adversity. It makes good music of bad times, with only minimal wallowing. It also elevates synth-pop above the hollow and hooky to be something deeper and more rewarding. And they lived happily ever after…

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