As essential as it is for understanding the dangers of sliding into authoritarianism, the dystopian genre rarely offers up much in the way of hope. Whether it’s “a boot stamping on a human face – forever” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or populations being conditioned to “love their servitude” under a highly efficient scientific dictatorship in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the future depicted is often an incredibly bleak one. With Western democracy said to be in retreat, surveillance technology becoming more and more ubiquitous, and the prospect of environmental disaster continuing to hang over us, many people today are predicting that dark times could be just around the corner.
Katie Stelmanis, the classically trained vocalist and producer behind Austra, is well aware that all is not right. But rather than wallow and accept whatever comes next, she hopes to encourage us to come together “to replace the approaching dystopia.” Released on the day Donald Trump officially becomes U.S. President, Future Politics is the third and most ambitious album from Stelmanis’ Canadian quartet to date. Coming three and a half years after the sunnier and more personal Olympia, her latest album takes the dark and icy electro-pop that made Feel It Break one of the debuts of 2011 and adds boundary pushing ideas into the mix.
Taking inspiration from a wide range of sources including politically engaged artists like Massive Attack, the theory of accelerationism, Naomi Klein’s essential 2015 climate change book This Changes Everything and Star Trek: The Next Generation, her message of radical hope is communicated via 11-tracks that feature a selection of dancefloor-ready anthems and more downtempo numbers that are influenced by a mix of Detroit techno, Chicago house, European club culture and cumbia electrónica, a form of Latin American dance music she encountered while living in Mexico City.
Stelmanis poses the album’s fundamental question on the soft but frosty opener ‘We Were Alive’ where she asks: “Doctor, what’s the cure for apathy?” One of her answers can be found on the pulsing title-track which blends accelerationist philosophy with lyrics about leaving our current world behind because “the system won’t help you when the money runs out.” Lead-single ‘Utopia’ also has an anthemic quality to it, the video featuring Stelmanis alone in a room with a device resembling an Amazon Echo. While the five-minute ‘Freepower’ is another of the dancefloor-ready tracks on offer, combining a tight beat with the desire to be free.
Of the other highlights, the chilled, trance-like ‘I’m A Monster’ showcases Stelmanis’ stunning operatic vocals at their finest. ‘Gaia’ is a dreamy, three-minute dedication to Mother Earth which blends the warnings of Naomi Klein with the romantic poetry of E.E. Cummings. The close to six-minute ‘Beyond A Mortal’ is a minimalist and slightly off-beat gem that’s found towards the back end of the album. While the strange and haunting ‘Angel In Your Eye’ is the album’s darkest moment.
Although it wasn’t written with Trump in mind, the release of Future Politics couldn’t have been timed more perfectly and should at least allow Stelmanis’ ideas reach a wider audience. Electronic music isn’t the first genre that comes to mind when people think of artists that are politically engaged, but if ever there was a year where that could change then 2017 may be that year.