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all words: William Alberque
all photos: Katherine Gaines

Austra put in another perfect performance of their gorgeous, chilly darkwave, while Grimes proved she is the real deal – having grown immensely in confidence since opening for Lykke Li in May.

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Austra returned to the Rock n Roll Hotel after opening for Cold Cave in August. Knowing what to expect didn’t take the gild and glimmer off this nearly perfect band.  They look amazing on stage, with Katie Stelmanis at the center, twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman on backup vocals, Dorian Wolf on bass, Ryan Wosniak on keyboards, and Maya Postepski on drums.

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It’s an amazing lineup –  charismatic and weird, with a lot of spare talent. Stelmanis, resplendent in a red velvet dress and beaded cape, is mesmerizing as her voice trills and swoops.  The twins move in a synchronized dance (they also record under the name Tasseomancy) and the drummer sits with an oddly absorbing air of boredom (and records under the name Princess Century).  Wolf and Wosniak are less compelling, but no less important to the sound.

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Austra kicks off with “the Beast” from their debut album, Feel It Break, the vocals and keyboards building a feeling of enchantment that doesn’t let up for the duration.  The set is fantastic (set list down below), featuring most of the album and two new songs – “Habitat,” and “Identity” (which will be the b-side of the upcoming digital single, “Spellwork”).

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My personal favorite is “Lose It,” which is amazing live.  The soaring, sad desperation of Stelmanis’ lead vocals with the perfect madrigal singing of the Lightman sisters; Postepski’s metronomic drumming mixing with the drum machine, the softly burbling bass and the icy keyboard lines. Fantastic. I had a quick chat with Stelmanis afterwards – they’re traveling across Canada before heading off to Paris in December and Berlin for New Years.  That might be worth the trip…

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Grimes (Claire Boucher) is very proud of being Canadian – from Vancouver to be exact.  I admire that, even though, you know, Canada. BYT has been a big supporter in the past, and, as I said before, I quite enjoyed her live earlier in the year.  She seems more assured – playing a massive sold out North American tour with Lykke Li will do that for you.  She reminds me a bit of local artist Painted Face, though with an extra element of artiness.

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She kicks off with “Oblivion,”  combining loops of Boucher’s vocals with a beautiful keyboard melody.  “Genesis” starts off with a gentle keyboard melody before crashing in with a full electro pop song before all the music drops out and Boucher’s high, beautiful voice cuts through the noise.  It sounds beautiful, but she stops singing and complains briefly that she’s burping.  The song ends with a looped wall of noise like This Mortal Coil which she manipulates and warps with big bass beats.

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Boucher is all alone on stage – with two keyboards and pedals for her voice, and tons of looped beats and programmed beats. Boucher is fun to watch – her songs have a degree of complexity about them that means she’s always triggering a sequencer or playing a melody, or looping her vocals. At times, she has to tuck the mike between her cheek and her shoulder so she can keep manipulating her equipment.  I can’t help but think she could use a little bit of help up there.  Oh, and, in the meantime, she’s got a male dancer in a kimono…interpreting the songs in the front, center of the audience.

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I would suggest Boucher should teach him to play the keyboards.  I think it would work out for everyone.  I’m shocked she doesn’t just go straight for the pop jugular with her releases.  That’s Canada for you.

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Next, the arresting urban pop of “Vanessa” pours out of the speakers with looped handclaps and live piano and a thumping big beat covered with massive vocal pop hooks.  This is assured pop music, and Boucher is a commanding presence on the stage.  The song comes to an abrupt shock of an end, and I’m so awe-struck by how great the song is that I forgot to clap.  “Be a Body” is next, with Boucher singing her heart out, looping big acid beats and backing vocals on tape. The song tapers towards an end but blends right into the next song, “Nighttime,” with whip-smart beats covered in huge swathes of OMD-esque keyboards and gorgeous chorused vocals.  The song ends with a massive wall of TMC-like noise, ending again with a bump.  Extraordinary.

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Austra setlist:

  • The Beast
  • Young and Gay
  • Hate Crime
  • Lose It
  • The Choice
  • The Villain
  • Darken Her Horse
  • Habitat
  • Beat and the Pulse
  • Spellwork
  • Identity
  • The Future

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