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Album Review–“Olympia” by Austra

June 18, 2013

Everyone loves to make play on synths and MIDI keyboards. I know I do. I can lose hours just sitting at a MIDI keyboard, messing around with the different sounds. Synths and MIDI have always been popular, but they had their heyday in the music of the 80s, especially the heavily electronic New Wave bands like Depeche Mode.

In recent years, new bands have sprung up that try to copy or update the New Wave sound. One of these is the Toronto, Canada band Austra. Led by classically trained vocalist and songwriter Katie Stelmanis, the band plays a revived New Wave style that sounds like the soundtrack to an 80s gothic cathedral. The group’s new record, Olympia, is made to be comparable to the New Wave classics of the 80s.

     Vocals are, to some degree, a matter of taste. I like many vocalists whom others consider incredibly obnoxious–Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, for instance. Katie Stelmanis’ voice may be music to some ears, and may be an acquired taste to others. I, however, do not care for it. Her enunciation is very bad, slurring some words and overemphasizing others. Her voice also has a strange quality–at the end of a word, she’ll often trail off into a sort of faltering vibrato. Some listeners may like this, but I found it ultimately annoying.

While Olympia is a throwback to the New Wave bands of yore, it lacks what made many New Wave bands famous–a single, sing-able song with a catchy chorus. Some of the songs have a good hook or riff–the bassline to “Annie (Oh, muse you)” sounds like Canada’s answer to “Smooth Criminal,”  and the xylophones or marimbas on “Fire” are suitably creepy. But no song has that extra “it” factor that takes it to the next level, that chorus or lyric line that really makes an impression. As a result, the songs are eminently forgettable, and the album ultimately falls flat.

Synths and MIDI are fun, but that doesn’t entail that any album made with them will, consequently, be enjoyable. Austra’s dark sophomore album may be of interest to  people who are obsessive collectors of indie bands that play retro New Wave music, but most listeners would be best advised to pass this one by and stick to the classics like Depeche Mode.

Overall Rating: 2/5 stars

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