Austra: Playing on Prefix

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Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week

There’s been no shortage of big-voiced women re-crafting new wave as something new and vital in recent years—Florence & The Machine, Zola Jesus, Fever Ray, et. Al.  Austra, the band led by Toronto’s Katie Stelmanis, are the latest but certainly aren’t the least.

With chops honed in opera classes and in Toronto’s indie scene—where she performed with the late and lamented Galaxy, as a solo artist, and with F*cked UpStelmanis is reshaping a different corner of the sound of the ‘80s, conjuring up John Milius movie scores, mirror-walled coke dens, and art-damaged goths.

They were “discovered” at SXSW by Domino in 2010. Austra release their debut, “Feel It Break,” on May 17, an incongruous date for an album this seeped in black nylon and sinister synths. From, “Beat and the Pulse,” to “Shoot the Water” and “Hate Crime,” it’s clear Stelmanis wasn’t plucking the light-hearted elements of new wave for her new sonic bouquet.

(video is slightly NSFW, just a warning)

Obvious touchstones like The Cure and Depeche Mode, and her penchant for orchestral arrangements come into clear view with tracks like “The Choke.”

As is the case with any act doing this stuff for the millionth time, there’s a slim margin between being a tribute act and something fresh. Austra toe the line throughout “Feel It Break,” but succeed mostly due to Stelmanis, whose malleable voice can deliver knock out moments, and also handle the tender harmonies she layers throughout the album. She may lack the mammoth histrionics of Zola Jesus, and the general weirdness of Fever Ray, but she has a powerful instrument.

After years of fits and starts, Stelmanis finally seems poised for a breakout. She toiled on “Feel It Break” for close to four years, and it shows; it’s a meticulously crafted album, and an assured debut for Austra that will be Playing On Prefix in weeks to come.

by Andrew Winistorfer