Classical, goth and underground house music don’t come together often; in fact, the combination is virtually unprecedented. But here they all are, on the second album from this rapidly evolving Toronto act. What’s odder still is that the three genres actually cohere and mutually flatter one other. Fronted by classically-trained singer/keyboardist/composer Katie Stelmanis, Austra have created the rare kind of record that’s equal parts unsettling and inviting, austere and yet deeply emotional.
Lead single “Home” provides a way in. It starts with stiff piano chords, mournful bass, and Stelmanis’s plaintive cry; a 4/4 bass drum enters and the piano part flips into the kind of restless, anxious riff that animated deep house jams of the late ’80s. The vibrato in Stelmanis’s warble widens as her words to an absent lover move from resentment to longing and back again. Percussion tracks multiply, voices swell, and woodwinds, bass and violin all weave together to create tightly-organized patterns of harmony and counterpoint. It’s as tense and as torchy as hell, as if Stelmanis could wave her hand and put an instant 100-year hex on her should-be ex.
Nothing else is quite as immediately startling, but the rest slowly insinuates. There’s a lot of bass, but also plenty of space as the arrangements shift from stark and minimal to thick and throbbing. Lyrics that mention forbidden rendezvous and clandestine arrangements accumulate, building an enticing landscape of ambiguity, insinuation, queer whispers: It’s the music of shadows brought into the light.