Austra: Islington Mill, Salford: 10/04/2011


How many kitchens are there out there with no knives in them? I only ask because the logical answer is “very few” which suggests that almost all adults (and many many children) in this country have access to stabby metal death-sticks. But year on year, almost all adults (and many many children) go through their day without using these stabby metal death-sticks to maim their fellow man.

Now replace “stabby metal death-sticks” with “strong and multi-octave singing voice” and you see we have a problem. Sure, strong and multi-octave singing voices are not as common as knives, but their misuse seems to be sadly much more common. Oh for a season of ‘X Factor’ which doesn’t feature some strong voiced, usually female, wannabe trilling their way through every note they can hit, in a bid to show their ‘talent’. Has no one told them less is more? To deploy with subtlety, not with a sledgehammer? That listening to Mariah Carey yodelling glissandos can be as painful as slicing your thumb in half with a stabby metal death-stick (I’ve done both, I speak from experience)?

Thank gawd for Katie Stelmanis!The Austra front women has a strong and multi-octave singing voice. She has classical training. She can hurl it around the place, hitting notes high and low. But does shes hove it in your face? Does she use it like a blunt instrument? Oh no, she doesn’t. Granted, she spent a good portion of Austra’s Sunday night gig, at the arty Islington Mill, not singing at all but curled up double, wafting her hands like a swimmer treading water, like she was channelling the spirit of a swan. It might not be up there with Kate Bush‘s finest dance moves, but Austra occupy a lineage which can be traced back to the queen of quirky pop.

It’s almost impossible to read about them without seeing mention of one or other of The Knife or Fever Ray. The debt to Karin Dreijer Andersson‘s bands is evident, the opening synth stabs of ‘Beat And The Pulse’ wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘Silent Shout’, but it’s not overpowering, there’s no sense of Austra being rip-offs. Instead they take the sinister, gothic synthscapes laid out by those bands and marry them to a powerful and cleanly deployed voice. Stelmanis, shamanic and slightly detached, has an enchanting voice. Playing a set of largely unknown songs, it struck quickly and precisely, thundering forth without overpowering us with vocal pyrotechnics.

Take ‘Lose It’. Its staccato vocal stabs bear a passing resemblance to the tune from those endless Lloyds TSB adverts, but only in the same way that a Thornton’s double chocolate cake bears a passing resemblance to a half-melted Twix. It sounds majestic, and most of the set is similar, the tight rhythm section driving forwards songs which are both fragile and muscular, sometimes at the same time. ‘Young And Gay’ aims straight (ha) for the crowd’s feet with its pummelling bass drum and sinuous bass, complementing a claustrophobic lyric about dark nights calling. The most danceable song ever about being unnerved by your own sexuality? Stelmanis certainly didn’t look too unnerved, although some of the blokes present possibly were if their worried glances towards their girlfriends were anything to go by. What’s up hipster boy, the music rumbled, scared she’s gonna run off with the lesbian goddess in front of you? Captivating the far-too-hip-for-a-Sunday crowd is no mean feat, but the tiny blonde onstage, and her dancefloor shaking mates, managed it. If The Knife and Fever Ray seem like the sorts to take you into a dark forest and abandon you there, Austra are the sort who will at least abandon you in a nice clearing with a view of the stars.

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