When Austra released their 2011 debut Feel It Break, many critics felt they had them pegged. The Toronto outfit was taken to be but the latest in a fashionable wave of dark synthpop revival acts that included artists like Cold Cave, Crystal Castles, and TR/ST, with whom they shared a band member at the time. While an excellent specimen of its genre, it’s true that Feel It Break was never likely to appeal to anyone not already interested in shadowy “witch house” or Goth pop. In 2013, however, Austra defied critical assumptions by releasing their bright, spacious sophomore effort Olympia, which featured a tropical album cover and combined more organic textures with inflections of house music. It was a signal that Austra were not content to mine narrow genres in the shadows, and that the full scope of their ambitions had yet to unfold fully.
“All I ever wanted was to be a gay band,” lead vocalist Katie Stelmanis told AfterEllen shortly before Feel It Break was released. Queerness has indeed been a consistent element of their music, as expressed in songs like “Painful Like” and the music videos for “Habitat” and “Forgive Me”. If you follow the band’s Twitter account, you will also find incendiary tweets raging against capitalism, neoliberalism, and the patriarchy, suggesting that Austra is not interested in mere LGBT visibility but also a broader and more radical social rethinking. Until now Stelmanis’s activist sentiments were mostly relegated either to the Twitterverse or subtle lyrical allusions, but with their third LP, Future Politics, they place such ideas at the very center of their work. The resulting album represents a fuller realization of their self-concept as a queer political band.
The “future” part of the title is important, as Austra set their sights relentlessly on a world that has not yet arrived. The hopeful, sparkling pop of “Utopia” conveys the sort of harmonic euphoria that might characterize a more equitable and free society, but Austra maintain a necessary sense of tension by repeatedly emphasizing that for now such a world remains little more than a dream. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do,” Stelmanis steadfastly asserts, chanting the words like a march. Elsewhere, they touch on some other points on the progressive agenda, from environmental destruction on “Gaia” to neoliberalism on “Future Politics”. On the latter track, Stelmanis rejects the notions of meritocracy and individualism over a swirling, pulsating synth wobble, singing, “I don’t want to hear that it’s all my fault / The system won’t help you when your money runs out.”
As an explicit, politically radical piece of synthpop, Future Politics falls in neatly with recent albums like Anohni’s HOPELESSNESS. It is much less viscerally confrontational and emotionally unforgiving than that work, though, and admittedly is less likely to startle the listener into fresh awareness or genuine discomfort. Laudable though leftists might find Stelmanis’s ideas, if you weren’t already plotting your next anti-capitalist tweetstorm this is unlikely to be the album that makes you start (for better or for worse).
Still, for likeminded folks and fans of electronic music in general, there is quite a lot to enjoy here. Future Politics finds Austra continuing their exploration into various strains of electronica, proving again that they have more versatility up their sleeve than some initially believed. Whereas Olympia was a studied love letter to ’80s and ’90s house music, here they dabble in IDM and minimal techno. There are beeps, boops, clicks, and digitized glitches throughout, mostly just as subtle embellishments. On tracks like “Beyond a Mortal”, though, they dive headlong into the ambient void itself, combining a radial synth ascension with incorporeal soprano coos. The result is a chillier listen than Olympia but one more precise and surgical than Feel It Break, echoing traces of frosty masterpieces like Björk’s Vespertine.
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Cerebral though its bent may be, the album is not without its moments of naked emotionality. The gorgeous standout “We Were Alive” has the dreamlike feel of watching a sunrise from the moon, bathing the listener in a stunning ambient soundscape while heavy, overdriven, yet pleasantly fuzzy beats dot the surface like craters. “I believed in nothing before…I was in a fortress / Those tough walls crumbling / And I think I see / How we’ve been cheated,” Stelmanis sings atop propulsive piano. It amounts to the album’s warmest moment, simultaneously a redemption and a call to action.
“I’m a Monster”, in contrast, explores the darker emotions of self-doubt and numbness, again recalling Anohni’s lyrical self-immolation. The track sounds at first like no more than an interlude but then refuses to subside when one expects it to, veering somewhat unpredictably in and out of dark corners before reaching its surprisingly devastating apex. It does not congeal into a formally legible shape, but neither does it dissipate; taken as a metaphor, its boldness is as strong a political stance as anything else here.
For a band with tendencies as dramatic as Austra’s, they choose to conclude Future Politics on a surprisingly anticlimactic note with the slow lurch of “43”, featuring Stelmanis’s voice crystallized in a cool, unimpressed-sounding hum. It is possible that the band simply didn’t have any epic closers in the vault to tack onto the end of the album, and thought this was their next best bet. Then again, perhaps anticlimax is appropriate given the band’s thesis: that utopia is still far off and resolution nowhere in sight. It would be satisfying, but false, to end things on a conclusive or cathartic note. Activism doesn’t work that way, after all, which is why so few people participate in it. There are very few grand, unmitigated victories and a whole lot of slog in between. Perhaps “43” is that slog, the hard work that is so often overlooked for righteous zingers on social media.
“Queerness is not yet here”, José Esteban Muñoz once wrote in the queer theory classic Cruising Utopia. Queerness, taken not just as non-heterosexuality but also as a utopic rejection of all forms of oppression and hegemony, remains aspirational, always on the horizon. Austra seem to have taken a page out of Muñoz’s book with Future Politics, articulating a vision of collective resistance to neoliberal machinations and pointing us toward alternate possibilities. On a purely musical level, the album is not necessarily the band’s best or most consistent work, with Feel It Break looking like it may always be the fan favorite. Thematically, though, Austra is fulfilling their vision of themselves more than ever and solidifying their identity as a band, making Future Politics an edifying and intriguing listen all the same.