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Austra – HiRUDiN (Domino)

Stuck in a cycle and wishing to break free. Can it be done or do you end up recontextualizing the same situations and habits? Katie Stelmanis (who performs under her middle name Austra) has been stuck in various cycles over the past few years. A cycle of toxic relationships (she has experienced 2 break-ups in the last three years) and a bout of writer’s block caused by a repetitive cycle of the same music methodologies have exhausted the Canadian’s mind. HiRUDiN, Austra’s fourth record, is the Toronto-resident’s most introspective release, as she attempts to both express her cyclical nature and finally break down it’s barriers.

Musically, Katie Stelmanis previously preferred to work independently on Austra albums. Although live concerts involve a regular set of helping hands (from drummer Maya Postepski and bass player Dorian Wolf), Austra is essentially the 34-year-old’s baby. However, the new LP HiRUDiN sees Stelmanis freely involve other musicians and producers with a free-spirited mindset. For the first time, the musician works alongside two co-producers Rodaidh McDonald (The xx’s debut record, Savages, Daughter) and Joseph Shabason (fellow Canadian composer and saxophonist). The result is a record that expands the Latvia Canadian’s skewed electronica into shades of art-pop. It may not please all of her loyal followers and it takes a few listens to really appreciate it, but there’s no denying that Stelmanis takes admirable risks.

How Did You Know?’ and ‘It’s Amazing’ might be too poppy for some fans. The former has a touch of Florence Welch in its expressiveness and has a lyric that represents the Austra project leader’s mentality right now: “I’ve moved six times in the last five years. I need to rest.” While the similar-in-mood ‘It’s Amazing’ wonderfully brings lots of instruments together that are otherwise performed solely on other tracks (such as the harp of ‘All I Wanted’ and the saxophone on ‘Interlude ii”).

The best example of a positive change is on the genre-defying ‘Mountain Baby’. It sounds like a Dirty Projectors’ idea. The song is interestingly split into 3 sections; the verse (sung by Katie Stelmanis herself), the chorus (sung and written by Sophie-collaborator Cecile Believe) and an intro/outro performed by a children’s choir, who attend Toronto’s Wilkinson Public School. The song is also split this way for lyrical purposes to document three stages of a break-up 1) an unknown sense to move forward 2) a relationship flashback showcasing uncertainty and resistance 3) pure uncontrolled joy.

‘Your Family’ is an all-too-short but nonetheless effective track. Katie Stelmanis identifies as a lesbian and the song subtlety describes the apprehension a gay person feels when meeting their partner’s family for the first time. “And when your family comes back to town. Do you know what you’ll say when they ask about me?” Experimental shivering vocals that encompass nervousness at different corners of the sonic sphere work really well.

However, ‘Risk It’ takes the voice alteration perhaps a bit too far. Like the song’s name implies, it’s a risky addition in Austra’s discography because in the song’s chorus Katie Stelmanis alters her wonderfully classically-trained vocals to a surprisingly and perhaps irritatingly high pitch. It’s reminiscent of that period in hip hop music when chipmunk-ish samples were used for some unknown reason (remember Akon’s ‘Lonely’). Although Stelmanis has stated that its usage is to add a feeling of anxiety and tension in the song, it ruins the otherwise good Björk’s Volta vibe created by the horns.

The title in HiRUDiN noticeably features two standout i’s, perhaps as a symbol that this will be an album in which Stelmanis will focus inward on herself – as oppose to the previous record Future Politics which spoke about post-captialism and left wing diplomacy. The opening track ‘Anywayz’ – which springs to mind Marina and the Diamonds‘ third album Froot – philosophically explores the truism that when one experiences a break up, the world will carry on unaffected. “We’ll figure it out but what if we don’t. And the world keeps turning anyways. The flowers come up anyways. The mountains rise up anyways.”

Austra recorded HiRUDiN in a few countries but one notable place was in a small town on top of a Spanish mountain. This fact and perhaps that mountains symbolize uphill struggle could be the reasoning why it’s mentioned frequently on the record. Besides the aforementioned ‘Anywayz’ and ‘Mountain Baby’, she uses the word on ‘I Am Not Waiting’ a song that resembles the Todd Terry remix of Everything But The Girl’sMissing’ and a song that you can imagine crowds singing at a future Austra concert. Furthermore it’s name-checked on ‘Messiah’, a stunning prog-pop closer that fuses harmonica, piano and magical synthesizer oscillation. Katie Stelmanis confesses what her perfect relationship would be like; a balance of independence and companionship, as well as a mutual understanding of imperfections. Although Stelmanis’s recent break-up in January puts her back into the merciless cycle.

The title HiRUDiN is an entomological term referring to a substance in the saliva of blood-sucking leeches that makes it’s easy for the insects to consume and digest blood. It seems that the dazed Katie Stelmanis is using this Austra album to digest and process her romantic experiences and music decisions. As a consequence the Canadian has postively matured as a person and as a music artist.

 

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