all words: William Alberque
all photos: Farrah Skeiky
Austra’s icy grip on the Hotel outclassed the sweaty endeavor of Cold Cave in a contest that, frankly, was utterly unfair from the start. Austra (or Katie Stelmanis, as she’s known at home)’s exquisite lead vocals, backed by a twin sister-chorus (Sari and Romy Lightman), muscular bass (Dorian Wolf), icy keyboards (didn’t get his name) and metronomic drumming (an emotionally detached Maya Postepski) were always going to sound a thousand miles ahead of the yelping, off-key, and frantic antics of Cold Cave.
Where both are marvelous on record (Cold Cave’s first record, anyway), the Cave seemed like an amusingly amateurish Big Pink cover act, while Austra fused Chris and Cosey, the Knife, and Dead Can Dance together into a sound that was nothing short of remarkable.
When I heard that Austra were playing DC for the first time, I was very, very pleased. I’ve been following their development since February when I first heard rumblings about them in the usual places – the NME Radar, the Guardian Band of the Day, Pitchfork Forecast – those kinds of things. I downloaded “the Beat and the Pulse” and was instantly hooked (even before I watched the NSFW and sexily creepy video). I raced to order their debut EP on One Big Silence (since reprinted on Domino) and thrilled to the gorgeous combination of icy synths, minor-key melodies, and soaring, near-operatic vocals. The next single, “Lose It,” put me over the top. Four minutes and thirty seconds of emotional, intricately-structured pop of the highest order – I was in love.
They took the stage at the Rock n Roll Hotel to a palpable thrill from the crowded, but not quite sold-out audience. They kick off with the goth majesty of “Darken Her Horse,” kicking off in proper Love Is Colder than Death style. The song builds and then breaks into the most heartbreakingly beautiful chorus. The table is set. Next up is “Young and Gay,” with the intensely driving beat on record supplemented by the real drumming.
Postepski is excellent, and with her look – oversized white plastic glasses, long hair, and an hair of complete disaffection – she makes for a strange counterpoint for the goth Lightman sisters and the 80s-looking boys on bass and keys. Next is (I think) “Hate Crime,” and Stelmanis’ vocal performance is breathtaking, and the twins are just dazzling. The high notes are carried by the near-perfect sound at RnR to dizzying heights, and I’m intoxicated when the song soars to the highest near the end. The familiar strains of “Lose It” set the audience into a dancing frenzy, with the emotional urgency palpable in the exquisite chorus.
I lost track of the songs at this point – I know there are another three – one with storming drums and propulsive vocals, going silent in the middle before coming back in walloping second climax. The next starts with tribal drums and low bass with beautiful keyboard swells before exploding into light, with Stelmanis’ high, gorgeous, trembling voice, before breaking down into a Horrors-esque ending.
Exquisite. The third sounds like a beautiful reimagining of Eurhythmics’ “Jennifer” – upon review, it might have been “Habitat,” an unreleased song. Another familiar song starts next, “the Beat and the Pulse” with its dead-cool night-drenched keyboard intro and entrancing electro coolness. They end with “The Choke,” all Kraftwerk pings and stately, beautiful chord progressions before ending with New Order-esque keyboard melodies straight out of “Touched by the Hand of God,” and it’s all over.
To be fair, it would take a band of extraordinary skill, integrity and emotion to follow Austra onto the stage. Unfortunately, we have Cold Cave up next. On record, the band sounds quite good. I actually like a number of their songs – though they do sound (on reflection) very studio – keyboards, drum machines, guitar, bass, male and female vocals, synthpads and drum machines. Perfect, one would think, for the full-throated, full-throttle band approach live. The addition of live drums, as we just saw with Austra, added a nice touch.
However, the lack of guitar and bass means that the band is completely dependent on their keyboards/sequencers, triggering, rather than playing the heart of every song. In addition, their look – black outfits with black leather jackets – is both punishingly weather-inappropriate (it’s sweltering inside), and faintly ridiculous.
As they start off with a withering industrial noise attack to introduce themselves on stage, I’m immediately reminded of bad industrial shows from the late 80s, with the amount of noise and movement on stage substituting for quality. This is no different. Like Nitzer Ebb without the…gravitas (and I say that tongue-in-cheek), Wesley Eisold flails about on stage, remembering to hit the keyboard at the right time as he throws himself left and right and yelps his way through the setlist. The vocals are…impassioned…but really, it’s Eisold’s hardcore (bands, that is) past that shows through, where emotion trumps challenge. The problem, of course, is there’s no discernible single emotion being expressed, though there is a lot of it.
The best I can say is that they didn’t make me wait for my favorite of their songs, “Confetti,” although, live, it doesn’t stand up to the record. None of it does. And, frankly, that’s the point, isn’t it? Austra deepened and expanded on the record, making palpable an extraordinary feeling of longing, love, and loss. Cold Cave jumped and bounced and danced their way through their set gamely, but as the audience dissipated and the sweat on stage collected, it was all for naught.
I listened gamely, noted dutifully when they would make a Skinny Puppy reference (“I’ve Seen the Future”) or largely copied a New Order song (“Love Comes Close” is pretty much “Leave Me Alone” with worse lyrics). Bizarrely Eisold introduces “Theme from Tomorrowland” to how much he hates David Byrne. Or maybe he said “being burned”? I don’t know, and don’t much care. There’s an encore, but I’ve heard enough. I escape upstairs to the welcoming sounds of DJ Stereofaith and transport myself to the excellent songs upstairs and get my copy of the Austra album signed. Job done. Sorry, guys, better luck next time.