Published Jan 18, 2017For the most part, both of Austra's first two records, 2011's Feel It Break and 2013's Olympia, were concerned with the past and present, but there was an outlier: "The Future," a song from their debut, on which the time to come cast a dark shadow of unknowing over the present.
That song presaged Future Politics, Austra's third album, on which the band set their sights firmly ahead of them, ready to plumb the depths of that darkness in both subject matter and sound. It's a significant departure for the band, but also a logical next step. Darkness has long been a recurring theme in the band's work, representing the future but also the night, and nightlife; Austra marry these themes on Future Politics, finding the sounds of the future on the dance floor.
Percussionist Maya Postepski's ventures into minimal techno as Princess Century really inform Future Politics' beat-forward compositions. Where Olympia was marked with colour, live instrumentation and a kind of maximalism, here we find Austra at their most spare. What hasn't changed is vocalist Katie Stelmanis' gorgeous voice and the group's penchant for striking melodies, which is best distilled in the album's second half. From the fixated funk of "Angel in Your Eye" to the dreamy, Donna Summer-channelling "Freepower" and the cavernous arpeggios of "Beyond a Mortal," it's their best, most consistent work yet.
Rather than plainly defining a set of specific "future politics" to abide by like a fiery polemic, Austra are more interested in making the concept of the future desirable again, even if it's still just as vague and uncertain as it was on Feel It Break. Future Politics' final two songs, "Deep Thought" and "43," make this intention clear, playfully referencing Douglas Adams' book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The songs reinforce the idea that there's more value in looking for the right questions than direct answers, while also reminding listeners of science fiction's capacity for arriving at essential truths.
If Austra's Instagram account is any indication, works of science fiction like Adams' book played an important role in the development of Future Politics. Stelmanis kept followers up to date on her "research materials," and one work of nonfiction in particular, Inventing The Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, speaks to both the vital importance of the imagined futures in science fiction and the politics to which they're bound.
The two singles that announced the album's arrival make this connection between science fiction and politics explicit. "Utopia" hopes for a world where people are free to do what they please, unbound from work that obscures their ability to envision possibilities outside that experience, while title track "Future Politics" champions the very act of looking forward itself.
Although it's an intertextual and oftentimes challenging listen, Future Politics is also a compelling call to action to collectively conceive of the future and its manifold possibilities — especially in a time when it's easier to imagine how the world ends than how it's supposed to thrive. (Domino / Pink Fizz Records)