AUSTRA return with a topical third outing…
Offering a statement on the themes and approach of Austra’s latest album Future Politics, Katie Stelmanis suggests “a commitment to replace the approaching dystopia. Not just hope in the future, but the idea that everyone is required to help write it, and the boundaries of what it can look like are both fascinating and endless. It’s not about ‘being political,’ it’s about reaching beyond boundaries, in every single field.”
It’s a timely concept with last year marking a particularly turbulent year in politics in the US (Future Politics is released the same day that Trump takes office) and other assorted political turmoil springing up around the globe. But Austra’s new album encompasses not just the politics of the title but also touches on themes of the environment, the human condition and the idea that a Utopian ideal is achievable.
So how do these weighty topics stack up against the composition of the album’s songs themselves? At this stage, many bands and artists could be forgiven for exhausting their individual creative wells. Austra are now on album No. 3 which ramps up the pressure to deliver a worthy successor to both Feel It Break and Olympia.
Opening track ‘We Were Alive’ has a dreamlike fugue to it and also a curious sadness that sets the tone for the album proper. There’s an intimacy here in Stelmanis’ queries on whether there’s “a cure for apathy” while sweeping strings underpin the composition as a whole.
Meanwhile, title track ‘Future Politics’ has a throbbing disco beat accompanying ruminations on a dystopic world. “I’m never coming back here” suggests the lyrics, which also offer some hope in later lines such as “I’m looking for something to rise up above”. Meanwhile, the song title is hammered out in a repetitive manner against the slightly disconcerting rhythms.
The familiar bassy synth tones that Stelmanis has crafted as part of the classic Austra sound provide the foundations for ‘Utopia’. This rumination on the “collective depression”, that Stelmanis suggests is a result of city living, has strong hooks and melodies as some smart percussive frills keep the song moving along.
Stelmanis’ operatic background really gets a workout on ‘I’m A Monster’ which opens with a minimal arrangement focusing on mesmerising vocals. An ethereal refrain is ladled out: “I don’t feel nothing anymore” as subtle electronic washes weave in and out of the song.
Similarly, there’s a simplicity to the arrangement of ‘I Love You More Than You Love Yourself’ which is augmented by some well executed melodic lifts.
The writing and recording of Austra’s 2013 album Olympia saw Stelmanis and the expanded Austra team assemble in the studio for a group effort. For Future Politics, Katie opted to write the album as a solo endeavour. As she described at her recent London showcase performance: “It was something that I wanted to do it all myself because I wanted to be in control of all parts of it and I also just wanted to be able to get really deep with it”.
It was an approach that Stelmanis had also adopted after having to deal with both the pressures of time and money in working in a studio (as well as the pressures of third parties in the studio trying to foist their own concepts onto the recordings).
As a result, there’s more of a personal touch to the songs on Future Politics, as evidenced in the hypnotic tones of songs such as ‘Gaia’. “The physical world is the only world” becomes something of a mantra throughout the composition, echoing environmental concerns.
‘Freepower’ has a casual, languid aspect to it. Elsewhere, ‘Beyond A Mortal’ dips back into a deep dreamscape while ‘Deep Thought’ offers an interlude of sorts (it’s the brief piece that’s heard on the start of the ‘Utopia’ video) with its electronic glissandos.
Closing track ’43’ has a slightly more ominous feel to it, inspired by a particularly harrowing event in Mexico in which 43 students were abducted. This incident had a particular effect on Stelmanis when she visited the country during the writing of the album. “…I wrote this song from the perspective of a mother singing about her lost son. And I felt it was also relevant in terms of the lot of the police brutality stuff that we’re dealing with in the US and Canada and I think here too”.
Casual Austra fans might be a bit glum that the baroque pop elements that the previous albums held so strong are less evident here. Electronic music enthusiasts will perhaps find Austra adding further colours to the particular musical palette that the Canadian outfit have carefully crafted since 2011’s Feel It Break. Certainly Future Politics offers up a more intimate and personal approach than previous outings, but as an album it still offers up rewards from patient listening.
Future Politics is released 20th January 2017 on the Domino label. The album is available to pre-order on Amazon.
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.