The Claire Edmondson video accompanying “Beat and the Pulse” excels and fails in similar fashion to Feel It Break, the debut LP from Austra and singer Katie Stelmanis. It features a barrage of female dancers, dressed in subtly erotic, (supposedly) everyday underwear, interpreting the music. At first, there are hints of abnormalities in some of the girls: a webbed hand, a reptile-like wing, a blotted nipple. The initial glimpses are enticing: wait, what did I just see? Edmondson then repeatedly shows the mutated girls in lingering shots with each successive one sapping the oddness of it. If left minimal, it could have been quite an effective idea, creepy in the cover up. Spotlighted, the oddities become mundane.
The music of Feel It Break is similarly stylized. The rhythms bump at a relaxed dancing tempo; the mood is melancholy, but with a dance-to-forget your troubles shadow; and the synthesizers have a reflective polish around the edges. It sounds much more Berlinian than Canadian. At first, the superimposition of Stelmanis, who pursued a career in opera as a teenager, on top of the clubby soundtrack makes for an attractive and odd listen. Stelmanis immediately sucks you in with her cresting vocals during “Lose It,” for example, but it’s the nearly 140 bpms that keep you glued to the dancefloor. As the album thumps on, though, listeners who prefer dynamics over beat matching will lose patience. There are only so many paint-by-number choruses (repeat lyrical theme, accentuate the synthesizer melody, add rhythmic vocal coos of assorting shapes) one can endure. Like the music video, the intrigue becomes wearisome.
The appeal of Austra is obvious. The rhythms have the elasticity of springs. The synths alternate between fairy-like pings and electronic violin plucks. The interaction between the two is simple and gimmick-free, think Junior Boys circa 2006 minus the make-out potential. It exists somewhere between Italo-disco, synthpop and the New Romantics, all through the lens of the Garage Band Generation. Stelmanis’s voice is obviously trained, which she uses to her advantage. She utilizes her full range with a strategic use of vibrato that shrugs off any notion of amateurishness. They may dress like they still troll Toronto basements for gigs, but the music is that of a well-oiled machine.
There is certainly an audience for this brand of pitch-perfect synthpop (especially in today’s embrace the ’80s, dance to forget subculture), but is it an enduring one? If a band slips into this particular outfit and they wear it well, such as Austra has with Feel It Break, a support system will easily manifest. How does one pursue artistic maturity though without discouraging an audience that likes one particular sound design? The kids of Austra definitely have the musical talent to take the band in any number of directions. Will they use it to define an idiosyncratic oddness and enticingly unveil it? Or will this already established superimposition be milked to depletion?