Austra is a band that will always be important to me. I discovered them on YouTube on Qtv 2011 performing “Beat and the Pulse” and I was instantly electrified. The video signalled a renaissance in my taste in music that was long overdue and induced a shift away from the gloomy European metals bands that I had been enjoying all through my teenage years. That video, which I feel confident I must account for at least a quarter of the views of, started me down a rabbit hole that I continue to descend upon even today. It is hard to believe that I have been enjoying this band for almost a decade. They have consistently been one of my top played artists every year since then, and I suspect that trend will continue.
Austra’s fourth album HiRUDiN does not disappoint in the forward trajectory that Stelmanis has been forging for the band’s sound. This is a record full of addictive melodies, beautiful and at times dissonant vocals, vast textures, and it feels a lot more emotionally involved than its predecessors. Austra’s tried and true melancholy atmosphere, vocal harmonies, and classical elements are front and center on this record, but it also takes chances and deviates away from what I have come to expect–like new vocal effects, a children’s choir, and brighter sounding instrumentation. Making for new sounds from the band that are rooted in the foundations of their past work.
The highlight of the record, for me, is the feeling that it is imbued with. While I do not know if it actually is, this record feels a lot more personal and vulnerable than Austra’s previous releases. Songs like “All I Wanted,” “Your Family,” and “Messiah,” have intense moments that are beautiful and harrowing. These moments are emphasised by music that is pulsing and swells and diminishes with feeling, and that is a perfect compliment to Stelmanis’s fraught vocal performances. There is also an interesting contrast at play in many of these tracks where the music presents moments that feel like genuine joy and the vocals sound fragile and dark. All of this together not only makes for tracks that are catchy, and, at times, very danceable (“Anywayz” and “I Am Not Waiting”), but beyond that, they are extremely interesting and have sonic and emotional textures that make each track worth listening to over and over again.
Another aspect of this record that I appreciate is that it takes risks. Stelmanis has a very unique voice that has always been central to Austra’s sound, not only through her singing the lyrics, but also the way she uses vocalization to compliment the music. Without any altering she has a very distinct sound, and to me, it was a risk to alter the vocals the way that they are in some tracks. Largely, however, those risks pay off and add emotional textures to a record that already has a lot of feelings. At the same time, I do not love all of the altered vocals on this record. I saw Stelmanis explain that she thought that they added vulnerability to some of the tracks, and on songs like “Your Family” I think that that is true. But, for me, it had the opposite effect on the chorus of the lead single “Risk It.”
It wasn’t until my third or fourth listen through of this record that I started thinking of it as the band’s greatest triumph. I think that it is a record for the die hard fans in that it stays true to sound central to Austra’s identity to this point. That is not to say, however, that this album rests on its laurels. It takes chances and tries to open up in ways that previous Austra records have not. I can’t help but think that this might be the first Austra record that turned out exactly how Katie Stelmanis wanted it to. As a fan, I am proud to see the musical evolution that occurs here, and while I look forward to spending countless hours with HiRUDiN, it has me even more excited to hear what the next Austra record will sound like.
If you’re looking for a record that is true to the emotional landscape of relationships in the age of the internet, this record is for you. If you like Kate Bush-like dissonance in your vocal lines, this record is for you. If you’re a fan of vocal harmonies and minor keys, this record is for you. If you’re looking for an introduction to Austra, this record is for you.
Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado with this post.