In discussing his and Thad Calabrese’s discovery of Bolt Thrower in 1992, Justin Foley stated matter-of-factly, “We needed more music like this but didn’t know where to find it. So we decided we were the ones to make it.” If there’s ever been a better reason to form a band, I have yet to hear it.
Fans of experimental metal, post-hardcore, and noise rock may be more familiar with Foley and Calabrese as powerhouse duo The Austerity Program (and if you’re not familiar, consider this your wake-up call to get educated). Polonium was their earliest incarnation, and Seraphim comprises new recordings of about half the band’s output. The recentness of the recordings helps to flatten the distance between the AP and their antecedent, but Polonium does on the whole feel like a simpler beast. The programmed drum beats lean a little heavier on the double-bass assault. The shifts in tempo and time signature take their cues from death metal more than math rock. And, in Foley’s own words, “When we saw a riff we usually just went for it.” The result is an album more crushing than much of what followed, but also perhaps a little more accessible to the general metal crowd.
Opening track “Bastard” shows off Polonium at its most dynamic. The song’s main riff is introduced about 30 seconds in, and the band spends the remaining four and a half minutes playing with its tempo, phrasing, and emphasis until it’s mutated into a slow, crushing groove. “Kitchen” and “Nebbish,” by contrast, are a little more static, their crawling pace a strong indicator of the duo’s Melvins fixation. Sporting an actual verse-chorus structure and coming in at a tight three minutes, “Kids on Top” is probably the closest these guys have come to writing a pop song (and it doesn’t hurt that it also boasts a monster hook that would make Paige Hamilton burn with envy). The set is rounded out by an almost equal number of instrumentals, where the Bolt Thrower influence can be most keenly felt. “Paleface,” “Angry,” and “Homesteader” weave passages of intense repetition together with seamless dynamic shifts. “Mean” sticks out as the oddball for not only being the shortest, but also for the peculiar moodiness of Foley’s guitar tone.
Of course, Foley’s unique lyrical P.O.V. remains one of the most consistent uniting factors between the two projects. Themes of frenzied introspection and cataclysm connect these early efforts with the band’s later output, so much so that some of the songs can be seen as sister-pieces. The self-destructive contemplation of the sea on “Bastard” feels like the flipside of the numb disbelief experienced by the narrator of “Song 33” as he witnesses the ocean swallowing the world. The vengeful generational war depicted in “Kids on Top” makes use of the same fiery imagery as the conquistadors in “Song 35.” And speaking of “fiery,” the lyrics of “Bali Hai” could almost serve as an inner monologue for Carolyn from “Song 36,” as she sets flame to the vestiges of her old life. Most fascinating is the character study of “Tuberculosis.” Equal parts Kafka and Dostoevsky, the central figure reeks of booze and frustrated potential, and his desperate account of his last stand against the “arrestors” at his door recalls that of the dispossessed figure in “Song 37.”
More than just a curiosity, Seraphim can hold its own against even the best entries in The Austerity Program’s catalog. Long-time fans will find it a welcome addition to the band’s slender discography, and with luck, it can also serve as an entry point for the uninitiated looking for something new to bludgeon their eardrums.