Live at the Capitol Hill Block Party, Day 2: Austra

photos by Brittney Bush Bollay

New wave has never felt such gloom as when Katie Stelmanis’ synth-powered goth project Austra took flight. Featuring an array of dance-ready, Knife-like beats and synthesizers, and armed with Stelmanis’ opera-trained voice, Austra took the blogosphere by storm with their debut full-length Feel it Break, which has now been shortlisted for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize (along with other Block Party attendees, Fucked Up). Feel it Break is a multi-faceted synthpop gem, that can be used in night clubs as well as a soundtrack for ritual incantations. Stelmanis’ vocals ricochet along the inside of your skull like a frenzied bat; she croons and enchants before shrieking and wailing in gorgeous precision. The band’s signature electronics call to mind a darker, demon-possessed Eurythmics, exposing a sleazy, depraved side to new wave as yet unexplored. The band’s live performance often finds them in all black, with lights flickering with the thudding drums and ghostly synths, all bowing in submission to Stelmanis’ pitch-perfect voice. There’s no autotune necessary, with pipes this gorgeous.

I’m going out on a limb here, I am opening myself up to vulnerability and I’m going to be frank about this. I lose my aim at semi-objectivity when listening to Austra. Since I saw them at SXSW this March, I’ve been saying it since. I fucking love Austra. After some pre-set stretching, the music began with Katie Stelmanis’ choral-type directing hand-movements. They quickly dedicated the set to the recently passed Amy Winehouse.

Mesmerizing, primitive, dark, tribal, magical. Yes, magical, at times it seemed as if Stelmanis was reaching for energy only to cast spells back on the audience of some unknown effect as twin backing vocalists Sari and Romy Lightman danced with a subtlety and sexiness that fit the aura of the music perfectly. Nearly all of their songs are slow-burning synth-driven gems that grow and grow until one can imagine, as in “The Choke,” Stelmanis conjuring up electricity in her avian-like limbs, leaning over the edge of a perilous mountain face (stay with me here, let your imagination roam!), throwing lightning bolts in sync with the symbol crashes down on the admirers below.

Ok ok, too far. Yet, in all seriousness, Austra are one of those rare bands that have the ability to induce trance-like states where you can feel yourself getting lost in the density and beauty of the soundscapes while containing a sufficiently danceable backdrop, making for an entirely enjoyable experience. Austra are not a band to pass up live – if you get the chance, take full advantage.

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