Quirky pop moments…
When we last left Austra, the album Future Politics was gracing our musical choices back in 2017. As an album, that effort was evolving away from the baroque pop elements that had been part of Austra’s DNA since their 2011 debut album Feel It Break, but Katie Stelmanis’ distinctive vocals were always front and centre, tying the whole thing together.
Future Politics (see Wavegirl review previously) was also an album that knew how to work with space, as compositions such as ‘Utopia’ can testify, but still retained a solid grip on strong hooks and percussive fills that drew the listener in. It was also an album born out of a turbulent time in global politics, which was a common theme for a lot of music emerging in 2017, which cast a more downbeat mood on proceedings.
Following the release of that album and the subsequent tour, Stelmanis took a slower approach to considering its successor. That long gestation period has delivered the curiously-titled HiRUDiN, an album that Stelmanis has described as “an experiment in vulnerability and collaboration”. It’s also an album that, lyrically, delves into toxic relationships as a theme.
That concept is embodied in the album’s title, which refers to a peptide that leeches secrete into your body while they suck your blood (considered the most powerful anti-coagulant in the world, and the reason leeches have been used in medicine for centuries). “A leech” suggests Stelmanis in reference to the album, “a creature who is both parasitic and medicinal, felt like the perfect metaphor.”
As a result, HiRUDiN doesn’t tread along the same path as Future Politics, eschewing the broader canvas that its predecessor took in favour of an album that seems to be more intimate in nature.
The album kicks off with one of its strongest moments in the bittersweet form of ‘Anywayz’. The gentle trills of the opening bars opens up into a song that somehow manages to be both wistful and also a bold pop number at the same time. Much of its strength is pulled from the use of engaging melodies and evocative vocals bolstered by a strong percussive drive.
“‘Anywayz’ is the terrifying realisation that when you lose someone you love the world doesn’t stop” suggests Stelmanis, “Time persists, seemingly unscathed! And yet somehow, despite your resistance, you’ll find a way to be without them.” That sentiment is reflected in the lyrics, which offer a matter-of-factness about them (“The flowers come up anyways/The mountains rise up anyways”) while also delivering an oddly effective emotional punch.
Elsewhere, ‘All I Wanted’, is a more plaintive effort with its plucked strings and more stripped-down arrangement. It offers a more reflective moment, albeit with a surprisingly acidic lyrical turn which delves into jealousy and possessiveness.
The throbbing rhythms of ‘Your Family’ offers a showcase for the (not inconsiderable) vocal abilities of Stelmanis. It’s a raw and fragile moment, encapsulated in some eerie layered vocal effects.
Equally, ‘Risk It’ keeps things quirky with the high pitched delivery of the song’s title. Lyrically, Stelmanis describes the composition as “When you know the one you’re with is bad for you but you’re too scared to quit.”
Some brass elements give it an earthy, grounded foundation, despite the songs flirting with themes of anxiety – which the odd chorus emphasises. “I recorded the vocals and pitched them up because I wanted to hear the song in a different key, but became addicted to the way they sounded with processing. I like how you can still hear the vibrato, the tone of the voice and most of all, the emotion. To me, pitching the voice adds an element of tension to the vocal line and this song is all about anxiety and tension.”
The strange verse vocals, meanwhile, were ones that Stelmanis apparently recorded “123 times” because she couldn’t get them to sound better than the “non-lyrical mumbles” used on the demo version. “Coming from a classical background it’s so ingrained in me to sing a certain way, but when I demo I’m usually just being lazy (or even more likely trying to be quiet so no one hears me) and I sometimes like the “poorly sung” vocals better than anything I do with intention.”
The album reveals warmer colours on the lilting melodies of ‘It’s Amazing’. The pastoral composition is offset with more boisterous elements, augmented by some impressive live drum work from Kieran Adams.
Meanwhile, ‘Mountain Baby’ takes the album back into quirkier territory with its effective children’s choir and off-kilter rhythms. A co-write with Cecile Believe (who also shared writing duties on ‘Anywayz’), it’s another engaging moment with an oddly hypnotic charm.
The album closes out with the wistful piano moods that open ‘Messiah’, but later goes big with another layered delight where multi-tracked vocals seem to intersect with one another. It’s a beautiful moment which bookends the album perfectly.
HiRUDiN delivers an album that’s intensely personal and open, yet throws in some curveballs in its arrangements and flair for engaging melodies. It’s proof that Katie Stelmanis is still a powerful songwriter – and that Austra’s ever-evolving musical journey is not over yet.
HiRUDiN is out now on the Domino label.