Rumpus Sound Takes: Fierce, Feminist Beats

By

Austra
Feel It Break (Domino Records)

Not long ago synthpop was something of a boys’ club. The genre’s early days were dominated by male-fronted bands like Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk and The Pet Shop Boys. With the few exceptions, such as Annie Lennox with the The Eurythmics and Siouxsie Sioux with The Banshees, women were often relegated to less prominent roles. Take for example New Order’s Gillian Gilbert, just one of many women who didn’t front such an act. Yet, who can forget the cocktail waitresses of the Human League?

The past few years, however, have seen a shift in the gender makeup of electropop.  Artists like Little Boots, Zola Jesus and Bat for Lashes have appeared with a vengeance, seemingly from nowhere.  This change has come about perhaps from the recently available technology and independent recording now accessible to female musicians who might have languished before for want of a major label contract. After all, Little Boots was discovered via YouTube.

And now we have Austra (pronounced ow-stra), a Canadian band fronted by Katie Stelmanis. Their fierce debut Feel It Break (Domino Records) pays homage to synthpop’s roots while adding fresh, contemporary sounds. Many of the beats are retro-inflected and channel early New Wave from the likes of Erasure and Tears for Fears.  But the decidedly female eroticism that pulses throughout proves that the harkening back is part homage and part pastiche.

Take, for example, the video for “Beat and the Pulse” that was censored by YouTube. Full of topless dancers, the video showcases a woman in control of her sexuality. One wonders whether the video would have been censored had it been performed by a male-fronted band.  In fact, Stelmanis revealed in an interview for PrefixMag.com that the dancers said they wouldn’t have participated in the video if it had been for a male-driven band. Further, as an openly gay artist, Stelmanis performs the role of the subject and the object of desire, an unusual role for women in music videos.


AUSTRA “Beat and the Pulse” by domino

In a genre that Simon Reynolds once described as featuring “emotional, often operatic singers,” Stelmanis fits the bill perfectly.  A former member of the prestigious Canadian Opera Company, Stelmanis flexes her vocal chords throughout. The result is an album that straddles genres, sounding as at home on the dance floor as it does during hours of studying.

From the opening track, “Darken Her Horse” (whose spaciousness evokes Bat for Lashes’ work on Two Suns), it’s clear that Austra possesses the versatility to thrive in today’s electropop landscape, fully armed with catchy piano riffs, as heard on tracks like “The Future” and “The Beast,” alongside haunting, layered vocals and warm, breathy stylings as showcased in “Beat and the Pulse” and “The Choke.”

All these influences collide for a first album that sounds like anything but a debut.  Rather, Feel It Break is a polished, cohesive effort that finds Stelmanis very much at home with her voice, synths and backing band.  Let’s hope this is a harbinger of things to come for women in the electropop scene.


Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer, music journalist, and artist. Her work has recently appeared in Salon, No Depression, Gigantic Sequins, and Yalobusha Review. More from this author →