Review: Austra – Olympia

autra-olympia
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by JEAN-LUC MARSH

Austra’s debut, Feel It Break, was operatic in scale, but small in scope. Lyrically, it was narrow, and stylistically, it adhered almost religiously to the synthesizer. Feel It Break, was mainly a personal record, and it worked with its focused vision and the perfection of a distinct, singular sound.

At first, Olympia seems like a simple extension of Austra’s unique brand of dark-wave music. On many levels, it is. Katie Stelmanis continues to incorporate her background in opera, wailing melodramatically over electronic soundscapes, resulting in an emotionally dissonant form of dance music that feels at once neurotic and nimble. Where Feel It Break was initially a bedroom project and bore the traces of its origins visibly, Olympia sets its sights on the dance floor, applying the expertise honed over the course of two years on the road to a more expansive arena. Despite the shift in targets, Olympia suffers from much the same problem as its predecessor. Once again, Austra establishes mastery over a single sound, and stops there, eschewing diversity for dominance. The result is an immersive sophomore effort, whisking the listener away to a wonderland perpetually frozen in one color.

Nearly all the tracks on Olympia follow a similar pattern. They begin in some stripped down version, accumulating elements until, as if by magic, they transform into a potpourri of discordant noises that somehow combine into an arresting climax. The tradeoff is that lyrics often get lost in all the synthetic sparkle, rendered unintelligible by drawn-out howls and distorted behind the syncopation. Album opener “What We Done?” serves as a blueprint for the remainder of the songs, contrasting Stelmanis’ heady drawl against gently pounding percussion, short flute notes, and ethereal background vocals, escalating from a stripped siren song into a vortex of iridescent keyboard strokes and crashing cymbals. “Sleep” employs drums, wind chimes and a menagerie of other sounds to simultaneously seem like something vaguely eighties and utterly alien. Early single “Home” evolves from an opening dominated by a pounding piano and a confession of “You know that it hurts me when / You don’t come home at night,” into woodwind-driven dance track with an increasingly addictive pinging that works its way to the forefront in the final moments. On “Reconcile,” Stelmanis whines over glittering synthesizers, horns, and an overt, repetitive chiming, her dusky, contralto moans dissimilar against the buoyant rhythm. “We Become” and the confessional “You Changed My Life,” are notable for being some of the few down-tempo moments on the record, though they too succumb to the accretion of sound.

The majority of Olympia is uniform in terms of polish and composition. The result is a record saturated with tracks that become indistinguishable as time passes, melting into one another with the predictable pattern of sparseness, build-up, and exuberance. The exception is stunning closer “Hurt Me Now” which finds Stelmanis wailing in a sonic dungeon of reverberating percussion and swelling organs. Her voice grasps at the iron bars, pleading with desperation and vulnerability, but it is when the organs fall away, leaving behind a tangled nucleus of strings, that Austra crafts the most poignant, wordless moment on the album.

Olympia inhabits a strange realm of saturnine electronica meant for cathartic swaying rather than choreographed movement. Stelmanis often warbles herself to oblivion, but she always regains control and directs the cinematic typhoon with a cathartic wail just in time to catch the crescendo. A hypnotic mixture of chimes, gorgeous gothic synthesizers, and heavy emotional confessions, it is not a dance record in the conventional sense. Olympia is meant for after the party has ended, and only the specters of unresolved emotion remain. [B+]

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