In 2008, Toronto singer-songwriter Katie Stelmanis went solo, rebranding herself as an operatic singer-songwriter with an edge – a departure from the punk-rock beginnings of her previous band, Galaxy. Factor in various name changes (Katie Stelmanis, Private Life) and musical tweaks and that brings us to its current incarnation of Austra. A dark, ominous cloud of energetic electro-dance theatrics, ready to knock you over at the turn of a pulsing beat, Austra is the most unique and successful packaging of Stelmanis’ music yet.
But even though all eyes are on Stelmanis, bassist Dorian Wolf, drummer Maya Postepski and company now, it was always clear that she had a devoted hometown audience. That is what makes Thursday night’s CD release party and tour kick-off for the Austra’s debut album Feel it Break extra special.
Packed to the brim, Toronto fans old and new fill Lee’s Palace for the sold-out gig and Stelmanis, though happy to see all the faces, still shows off her modesty and timid nature. “Sorry that it’s packed…” she quips to the audience, scanning the crowd of excited concert-goers, ready to dance on her go.
There will never be a venue big enough for Stelmanis’ voice. On record, her range is itching to break through its restrained production and swarm of heavy bass and glimmering keys but on-stage, the voice is front and center. Believe it or not though, somewhere between hypnosis and awe, your feet will still find the ability to move and dance around.
From the grandeur of opening track ‘Darken Her Horse’ to the breakout beats of ‘Beat and the Pulse’, Austra draws the audience into an atmospheric trance of dark, throbbing rhythms, grabbing hold of your body the entire time. Stelmanis is the epicenter of the action, calmly absorbing every surging beat as if her body is breathing to rhythm of the music. Back-up singers Sari and Romy Lightman (of Tasseomancy) mirror each other’s movements, making the stage not just sonically appealing but visually fascinating.
Whether you leave sweating from the restrictions of the crowded space or through too much dancing, the result is the same: a sweaty, satisfied experience. A friend later tweets that “Austra = sex”, to which I reply – not just sex; great sex.
Photo by Aviva Cohen