Synth Pop Politics:
by Dan Joseph
Austra at Warsaw
On a windy and cold January night in Greenpoint, the Toronto-based synth pop quartet Austra appeared at Warsaw, “where pierogies meet punk,” in support of their new album Future Politics. The album’s official release date was January 20—in what was apparently a blind coincidence with the presidential inauguration—the first week of the band’s twelve-week world tour coinciding directly with that of our new political regime, making an odd but somehow fitting juxtaposition. While Austra is not an overtly political band, its leader Katie Stelmanis regularly speaks her mind on all things political via social media. In a Facebook post, also on January 20, she wrote: “Two years ago, I started writing Future Politics in response to what I saw as a fast approaching dystopia. I meant it as a call to imagine something different, a better future.” With this vision as a guide, Austra took to the stage amidst an angelic-sounding backing track of harp arpeggios, plus a generous dose of fog machine and cosmic floodlights. The new age can’t be that far off, this opening seemed to suggest, and the band proceeded to spend the first hour working through most of their new album, rendering their synth-heavy, techno-rhythmic dance pop with precision and energy.
Blending aspects of new wave, dark wave, goth, and house, their live presentation relies somewhat on
pre-recorded beats and sequences, with supporting musicians Ryan Wonsiak and Dorian Wolf adding keyboards, bass, and backing vocals, and drummer Maya Postepski playing along on a minimal, mixed kit of electronic percussion, cymbals, and snare. But Stelmanis is the focal point: she composes all the material, and her powerful and compelling voice makes the band immediately recognizable. Trained as an opera singer, Stelmanis possesses a voice rarely found outside of classical music, projecting strongly and enunciating clearly with rich emotional depth. With good range, brilliant high notes, and the occasional dramatic vibrato, her voice calls to mind other crossover vocalists such as Shara Nova (formerly Shara Worden), Lisa Gerrard, or Diamanda Galas.
Beginning with the album’s first three tracks, “We Were Alive,” “Future Politics,” and “Utopia,” Austra got right to business, setting a serious and urgent tone, and conveying a feeling that tonight was about more than just a good time. The audience responded in kind, giving the title track in particular a roaring response. Entering into the evening, I wasn’t sure what kind of following the band had here in the U.S., but while the show was far from sold out, it was clear that, in New York City at least, Austra has a devoted fan base. Progressing through more new songs, the set reached a respite as Stelmanis delivered a solo keyboard and voice rendition of “Forgive Me,” from 2013’s Olympia, revealing the singer-songwriter roots of much of Austra’s material. The set reached a turning point when the band reached back to its earliest material. “Beat and the Pulse” and “Lose It,” from their 2011 debut Feel It Break, drew far and away the biggest cheers. Feeding off that surge of crowd energy, the set continued to grow in intensity, hitting its peak just as it concluded in a near frenzy of rave-like propulsion with a wild and thumping rendition of “The Villain.” A three-song encore would follow, but by then it was already clear that Austra had conquered Brooklyn.
Politics and music do not have a clear and easy relationship, and on Future Politics Austra mostly just alludes to a political agenda—“I’m never coming back here, there’s only one way, future politics,” goes the chorus on the title track. It’s not a literal call to action or a direct political critique—not in the way that, for example, Fugazi, Bikini Kill, or Phil Ochs make political music. But there is nonetheless, something activating, in the band’s presentation and in the music itself, that feels affirming and galvanizing, and in our crass and increasingly commercialized culture, that can be political. Austra is also female-driven, even feminist. Both Stelmanis and drummer Postepski, the band’s principal members identify as queer, and the band as a whole cultivates a sophisticated and subversive sense of style, all of which can have political implications.
But apart from music as politics, musicians can also take political action, and Austra is publicly taking such actions. On the day of its record release, for example, the band offered the album for free/pay what you want and donated all proceeds to Planned Parenthood. And two days after its Brooklyn appearance, while in Washington, D.C., Stelmanis tweeted her own version of Ai Weiwei’s brazen photograph White House, making a powerful political statement in the process. It will be interesting to follow Austra’s progress across America in the coming weeks as the Future Politics tour unfolds amidst our emerging dystopia.