Austra's Winning Combo: Stage Drama Meets Dance Music
By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 1, 2011 10:12PM
Austra lead singer Katie Stelmanis (Chicagoist/Kim Bellware)
Feathers, warpaint and dippy headbands might be de rigueur for bands of a certain ilk, but when it comes to what really counts the music weird costumes don't equal a more interesting band. But in the case of Austra, the Canadian septet led by vocalist Katie Stelmanis, their theatrics during Monday's Empty Bottle performance actually made sense.
Taking plenty of cues from artists like Kate Bush and The Knife, the band made tidy drums, dance-ready synth beats and powerful vocals feel like a musical feast. Stelmanis, a classically trained vocalist who spent time in the Canadian Children's Opera, generated the emotional kick, even if at times her voice sounded like it was more power than finesse. To our surprise, backup singer/dancers Sari and Romy Lightman proved to be more than just eccentrically-clothed stage ornaments: their coos, chirps and high-pitch sustained notes were the linchpin for Austra's mix of spacey synthesizer and opera-strength vocals.
"Slightly weird fun" would be a fair way to describe the set that, while plenty exciting, had moody, gothic overtones that typically kill a party rather than amp one up. "Beat and the Pulse," the eerie, almost mystical-sounding opener layered paranoid beats with Stelmanis monotone chants, both echoed by the sisters' haunting voices. Halfway in the set, the relentless drumbeat on "The Villain" helped us understand Austra's dual drummer setup: two drummers in perfect time simply pack more power. The study presence of two kits gave the songs a rigid backbone that kept the music from sounding too lost in space. Vocals, of course, were the key ingredient of the night. "The Future," a song with plenty of synth noodling, was actually tent-poled by the Lightman sisters singing. As much fun as the instruments were, the strength of the singers and the song itself could have stood on their own for a stunning a capella version.
Intentional or not, the band seemed to play with symmetry, space and contrast through their physical presence on stage. Everyone had a match and a contrast (except Stelmanis) with the Lightman twins in their flowing skirt and sharp-shouldered jumpsuit balanced out by the men. Bassist Dorian Wolf, with his lookalike synth playing counterpart, sported weenie-hugging pants and kept a static presence on stage while the women danced with a flourish somewhere between cosmic tripping and a dance-of-seven-veils. The drummers, who shared no physical similarities, kept time with one another so perfectly it was hard to distinguish for a while that they weren't one person.
There was a lot happening on that stage Monday night, but the trappings were fitting and perfectly fun for the mood and drama of the band's dance-friendly electro pop.