For Olympia, Austra shifted away from the computer-generated sounds of their debut album to give much greater prominence to live instruments. The change is reflected in their live performances.
At the Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver on October 11, keyboards took a back seat to bass, drums and, on occasions, a trombone. Towering above it all were the vocals of Austra’s front woman, Katie Stelmanis.
The resulting sound was of a band seeking to build on its electronic roots but yet to find the ideal balance between synthesised beats and live notes.
The emphasis on live instruments worked well on Olympia. The album was not as immediately infectious as Feel It Break, but gave up its delights the more it was played. Live was a different story.
The pop sensibility of songs gave way to a fuller and deeper sound which produced mixed results. Tracks from Olympia were weighed by the emphasis on live instrumentation, with computer beeps and beats fading into the background.
One of the exceptions was on The Beat and The Pulse. Its pulsating pace morphed into a foreboding beat as bassist Dorian Wolf plucked away. It added a new dimension to one of Austra’s best songs, transforming it from a Human League style pop ditty to a growling mantra.
For another track from the first album, Lose It, Austra skilfully built up the song to a crescendo, as the crowd waited for the beats to drop. Release came as the drums broke in and the audience welcomed it with roar.
The centre of attention was Katie Stelmanis. She owned the stage with magnetic presence as she shimmered from side to side in a white gown that looked like it was made of satin or silk. The dress was offset by black platform shoes and thick striped tights. Stelmanis has described her style as industrial psychedelic.
Her remarkable classically trained voice was the star of the show. It soared above everything else. Lacking, though, were the vocal harmonies of Tasseomancy. The band made up of twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman are no longer touring with Austra as backup singers and dancers. Their vocal melodies added a layer of charm to Austra’s live sound that is now missing.
A fan jumped up on stage as Austra were wrapping up with show with the second song of their encore. Security appeared in the wings, ready to eject the stage invader.
With a shake of her head, Katie signalled that is was fine. Other fans followed suit and swayed to the deliberate rhythms of Hurt Me Now from Olympia. A fitting end to a show.
A special mention to one of the supports, Moon King. The duo of Daniel Benjamin and Maddy Wilde is a band to watch. Imagine the dreamlike harmonies of M83 with a punk edge.
Live, Benjamin is an electrifying frontman. So far Moon King have two patchy EPs to their name but the potential is there.