Austra’s debut album Feel It Break was chock full of catchy electro-pop, but often felt like the songs were built around singer Katie Stelmanis’ operatically trained voice, rather than in conjunction with it. In the time they spent touring that album, the Canadian band grew into much more of a unit, and the press surrounding their second album Olympia has focused on how they’ve taken this into the studio with them for recording.
It’s evident from the first track that there is much more of a live band at work here; “What We Done?” starts fairly stripped down (though with lovely flecks of newly added instruments) and Stelmanis’ vocals are as strong and central as ever, but when the band dashes in behind her suddenly on the second chorus there is a moment of giddy excitement as the whole song is swept up in this tide, taking the listener along with it. Moments like this where the force of the band takes you by surprise aren’t all that common on Olympia, but the way songs are fleshed out certainly makes them more engrossing than the merely catchy songs from the debut. “Painful Like” is their most danceable song to date, riding a galloping bass synth, combined with atmospheric clicks and scrapes, the song is a triumphant anthem with divine harmonized vocals that empower Stelmanis’ always precise vocals even further. The punchier tracks like “Painful Like,” “Fire,” and “Reconcile” are the biggest successes here, as they truly show the power that Austra possesses when they go all out and match their singer’s prowess. That’s not at all to say that the slower, more heartfelt and emotional tracks like “Home” and “Sleep” are not strong, especially when Stelmanis can squeeze so much emotion out of her lungs. Almost every chorus on Olympia feels like a real moment, as band and singer often crest and crash together in perfect unison.
The dark and magicky overtones of Feel It Break are largely done away with here (something evident just from comparing the two albums’ covers). Instead the subject seems to revolve more around love and sexuality. Stelmanis begs to her partner in “Forgive Me,” feels heartbroken when left to sleep alone in “Home” and even takes the time to matter-of-factly address her sexual persuasion in the brief “I Don’t Care (I’m A Man).” There’s happiness and playfulness coursing through some tracks too, from the summery “We Become” to the sensual and sonically surprising “You Changed My Life.”
The growth in Austra from Feel It Break to Olympia is palpable throughout. You’re fully conscious that this is the work of many minds building the tracks together, which was certainly not the case previously. The band is now a sextet, and it’s when they’re making you fully aware of this that they’re at their strongest. There’s plenty here to suggest that Austra will be continuing to make interesting music in the coming years, and undoubtedly they have become a must-see live band.