Review Summary: Stronger songwriting, weaker execution. A faintly disappointing sophomore.2 of 2 thought this review was well written
Canadian synthpop outfit Austra emerged in 2011 with a bang, their first album Feel It Break among the finest debuts in recent memory. It wove gothic electronica around Katie Stelmanis' operatic vocals to stunning effect; picture Kate Bush collaborating with The Knife and you won't be far off. Though a skeptic could write Feel It Break off as unvaried, it was hypnotic in its homogeneity. For that reason, nods from the band to a more diverse and exotic follow-up this year dampened my excitement rather than stoked it.
My fears proved accurate, as Olympia's broader sonic palette comes at a price. Where Feel It Break was a seamless and organic record, Olympia is by comparison loose and unfocused. Its jarring switches in genre don't just occur between songs, but frequently within songs; after forty seconds trembling piano ballad “Home” morphs into an Ibiza club tune, never really making the return trip. This mercurial approach makes Olympia frequently feel less like an album than a collection of remixes.
Though both albums' influences are rooted in 80s dance music, Olympia pays homage to nerdier ancestors and in less subtle fashion. Where Feel It Break elegantly incorporated the arpeggiating synths of Depeche Mode and New Order, the dorky house piano on “Annie, Oh Muse You” and Men at Work-style flutes on the aforementioned “Home” jut out of their songs awkwardly.
Having said that, Olympia does have some gorgeous qualities. Austra's melodies are stronger this time around (see “Forgive Me”), and for the most part Olympia hits harder emotionally. Like before, the production is nothing short of stunning. “Fire” and opener “What We Done?” stand out as the finest tracks here, the latter a not-so-distant relative of Feel It Break's opener “Darken Her Horse.” Though it doesn't match that song in intensity, neither does anything in Austra's catalogue.
After careful consideration, Feel It Break stands as the superior album. Listening to it continues to be a dreamlike experience, as if the songs begin long before you get there and will continue long after you leave. Olympia fails to replicate that ethereality, feeling much more rehearsed and manmade. This was likely a too-many-cooks affair, the six minds behind Olympia producing a weaker dish than its predecessor (which Katie Stelmanis wrote and recorded almost singlehandedly). Maybe it's time to lay off some staff.