Katie Stelmanis, the classically trained vocalist and producer behind Austra, is one of a number of artists who have been trying to push electronic music in a more politically engaged direction over the past 12 months. ANOHNI is certainly the most notable among these, with last year’s Hopelessness generating widespread media attention. Both artists see the capitalist society we live in as being unsustainable. However, in contrast to the former Antony and the Johnsons crooner, who doesn’t hold much hope for the future, Stelmanis is much more optimistic that humanity is capable of coming together “to replace the approaching dystopia.”
Released the same day Donald Trump was inaugurated as U.S. President, Future Politics is the third and most ambitious album from the Canadian electro-pop quartet to date. Following on from 2013’s Olympia, a sunnier and more personal record, their latest album could be considered the natural successor to the dark and icy sounds heard on 2011’s Feel It Break. Finding inspiration from a wide range of sources including the theory of accelerationism, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Naomi Klein’s must-read 2015 climate change book This Changes Everything, and the politically active live shows of Massive Attack, Future Politics aims to communicate a message of radical hope during increasingly darker times.
As part of their European tour in support of the new album, Austra performed in front of a sold out crowd at Manchester’s Deaf Institute, one of the city’s finest small venues. Entering the stage to the electronic harps of the ‘Deep Thought’ instrumental, the first half of their set was heavily focused on songs from Future Politics. Playing the first four tracks in album order, the thumping beat that accompanied ‘We Were Alive’ set the tone for much of what was to come. It was a fitting way to begin the evening given that its lyrics deliver the fundamental question which lie behind the latest album: “Doctor, what’s the cure for apathy?”
There was certainly nothing apathetic about this performance, which apart from one or two downtempo numbers, was infused with an extra dose of energy that isn’t always found on the album versions of these songs. Despite a false start at the beginning of the title track, nothing would stop Stelmanis and her band from making it a memorable performance. Flanked on either side by keyboardists Ryan Wonsiak and Dorian Wolf, who also doubled up as a bassist, drummer Maya Postepski was positioned behind Stelmanis in the shadows. Postepski may have been the least visible of the quartet, even with her shiny gold jacket, but she certainly made her presence known by putting in a superb shift on her part electric, part acoustic kit.
The audience were won over very early, with the anthemic second single ‘Utopia’ directly following the title track. Stelmanis’ operatic vocals were even more impressive in the flesh as they are on record, with the trance-like ‘I’m A Monster’ showcasing them at their most magnificent. Although they were also pretty spectacular on the powerful, piano-led ‘Home’.
Austra played something from all three of their full-length albums, with ‘The Choke’ and ‘Lost It’ from Feel It Break being among the many highlights. Fan favourite and lead single from their debut ‘Beat and the Pulse’ generated perhaps most excitement up until that point. However, it proved to be merely a warm-up for what was to come, with a fantastic re-worked version of the title track from their 2014 EP Habitat more than stealing the show. The three-song encore began where ‘Habitat’ left off with another dancefloor filler in the form of the house-inspired ‘Painful Like’. While set closer ‘The Villain’ ended the evening on a more techno-influenced note.
Whether or not Stelmanis can encourage people to become more politically engaged through her lyrics remains to be seen. On this evidence though, there can be very little doubt that Austra are more than capable of energising an audience with their particular brand of electro-pop. As great as The Deaf Institute is, it’s the sort of sound and performance that deserves to be heard on a much bigger stage.