Concert review: Cold Cave gets noisy but Austra steals the show at the Firebird, Monday, August 1

Austra by Phil King

Phil King /

When I set out to cover one band only to have my heart stolen by the opening act, it’s hard not to feel a certain measure of guilt. Alas, this is exactly the predicament in which I found myself Monday night as Austra captivated before Cold Cave‘s performance at the Firebird. Is this betrayal or discovery?
“Cult following” is a term I hear applied pretty loosely to the fans of underground or indie bands, but never has it been a more apt designation for the black-clad followers of Cold Cave. The crowd was of slightly non-standard composition for the Firebird on this night as women swelled the ranks of skulking, cross-armed boys to see the two synth-heavy, exceptionally danceable bands. The fashion-consciousness of the audience members seemed a degree higher than usual, and I’d even wager the Firebird held the highest hip haircut per capita of any bar, club or venue in the city Monday night.
Whoops and hollers sounded as Austra took the stage, its triad of female singers casually emerging a full minute after bassist Dorian Wolf and drummer Maya Postepski started in on “Darken Her Horse.” Lead singer Katie Stelmanis was flanked by two gorgeous brunettes, her vocal accompaniment while on tour. A comparison to the three Sirens, those dangerously enchanting mythical women, was not a difficult one to make. Stelmanis’ voice is undoubtedly that of a former opera singer: enormous, clear and finished with an effortless vibrato. The chanteuse combined Florence Welch’s power, Kate Bush’s flair for the dramatic and Fever Ray’s idiosyncrasies to great affect throughout the set. The band’s overall sound recalls the twitchily danceable electronic stylings of the Knife with the gothic air of Zola Jesus.
The show hit fever pitch with “Lose It,” a crowd favorite off the band’s recent debut album, “Feel It Break.” Stelmanis stepped up her theatrics, thrusting her torso towards the crowd and moving her arms in the manner of a show magician attempting to levitate a body. Her backup singers conjure the fluttering operatics of Snow White as she sings into the wishing well, beckoning her prince (or in this case, seducing the audience). The whole of Austra’s set was at once tethered to the low end by bass guitar and copiuous kick-drum dance-beats while Stelmanis’ impeccable range soared high with shimmering synth accompaniment.
Following this tough act were the headliners, Cold Cave. Perhaps hitching their horse to last year’s industrial, occult-tinged “witch house” fad as to the new wave legacy of New Order and others, this is a band that often allowed itself to retread and be subsumed by the sounds of dark predecessors as opposed to covering significant new ground. 

Though Cold Cave is often styled as a “synth-pop” outfit, as is the eminently danceable Austra, the latter half of the label is only accurate for their album productions. Styled in matching leather jackets, black pants and combat boots, the band aesthetically distanced themselves from the accessible, friendly “pop” label as much as possible.
The members’ respective abrasive and experimental roots took over during their live performance as Dominick Fenrow, formerly of Prurient, led the set in with an ear-splitting wall — nay, avalanche — of screeching noise and glitch. Far from letting up when singer Wes Eisold took to the mic, the noise buried his vocals for the duration of the show, rendering them inaudible mumblings unless he strained to yell. This was a stark departure from the Ian Curtis-incarnate recording persona, and one that was visibly off-putting to those who came to dance. Their newfound abrasion was put to good use, however, as the band interrupted the chorus of “Villains of the Moon” with a jarring wallop of sound, abruptly starting in on “I’ve Seen the Future and It’s No Place For Me.”
Fenrow’s job throughout was mostly to create increasingly difficult noise at the start of each song, peppered by catchy synth riffs, and then to abandon his post to dance (/thrash?) enthusiastically (/angrily?) around the stage for several minutes. Though I first assumed Eisold’s glowering angst was simply a by-product of making dark-inflected ’80s dance revival music, it grew apparent that the band was having equipment trouble when some surprisingly unintentional feedback crept into the music. Frustrated, the band departed the stage after only 9 songs, much to the confusion of the crowd.
If anyone is disappointed at my lack of focus of Cold Cave in this review, I’ve included a setlist below. Fun fact — my copy is personally signed with a cross and its occult inversion. I won’t apologize for the offense, however, as the night undoubtedly belonged to the ladies of Austra.
Cold Cave setlist:

Icons of Summer
Youth and Lust
Love Comes Close
Theme From Tommorrowland
Tribute to Atrax Morgue
Villains of the Moon
I’ve Seen the Future and It’s No Place For Me
Burning Sage