A grim smile flickers out from behind many of the songs on Beyond Calculation, the second full-length album from NYC duo The Austerity Program. In the grand tradition of post-punk’s noisier offspring, The Austerity Program approach some of the darkest corners of the human experience with their teeth bared like grinning apes circled by predators they can’t fend off. Tales of mundane cruelty, of neighborhood assholes and cyberbullies, are elevated to mythic stature and set beside images of genuine horror and hardship. The album is littered with the debris of those who have shattered themselves against the malevolent or just plain indifferent forces encroaching upon their world. The South American natives laid waste by the conquistadors in “Song 35” are no different from the societal dropout of “Song 32” who lost his house to the bank. Some of these figures earn a measure of dignity in their resistance, like the narrator from “Song 37” rushing into a fatal standoff with the rich man who would foreclose on his home. Only Carolyn, the single mother of “Song 36,” seems to emerge victorious, escaping the cage of domesticity by burning her life to the ground and disappearing into the night. A more fitting representative, however, would be the nameless witness to the apocalyptic storm of “Song 33” who watches helplessly as the ocean swallows up the shore, unmaking everything it washes over.
The themes present on Beyond Calculation, as well as the mingling of black humor and earnest storytelling, are extensions of the ground covered on the band’s excellent 2010 EP, Backsliders and Apostates Must Burn (for a marvelous encapsulation of all of the above, check out “Song 27”). The band continues building on the same musical ideas, as well. The crisper recordings, captured in frontman Justin Foley’s home studio, showcase his exquisitely crafted riffs, often obscured in their earliest work. Foley and bassist Thad Calabrese borrow liberally from the best aspects of punk and metal, evoking Steve Albini’s work with Big Black and Shellac through their cold, brittle guitar tones, as well as in the strange geometric constructions of their songs. Yet the album is also infused with metal’s operatic bombast, best exemplified by the thundering instrumental introduction to “Song 32” that rages on for exactly four minutes before Foley’s vocals kick in.
Perhaps more than any of their previous work, Beyond Calculation explores the tension between the band’s human and inhuman elements. Rather than feeding the electronic drum tracks directly into the mix, Foley and Calabrese run them through their PA and record them with an intricate mic setup. The technique gives the programmed rhythms a feeling of existing in three-dimensional space often lacking in groups with electronic drumming. But while the recording methods grant the machine a human presence, the band is quick to remind us there’s nothing mortal sitting behind the kit. In an interview between the duo and Russian Circles’ Brian Cook, Foley explains how they try to maximize the drum machine’s possibilities by doing things with it that would be physically impossible for a human drummer. You can hear it in the climactic passages of “Song 36” and “Song 39,” minuscule gasps of choked cymbals clattering like the heart of a wind-up humming bird.
All of this contributes to a sound both massive and engulfing, an aural embodiment of everything cruel, strong, and implacable in Foley’s lyrics. And this is where that twisted sense of humor becomes necessary, because Beyond Calculation reveals that we are never as in control of our fates as we would like to believe. We think that we can ward off the things that are coming for us, when, in truth, our whole lives are lived out already in their jaws. So we crack a joke. We bare our teeth. We wait for the bad things to pass us over and descend upon another victim. Most times, if we’re lucky, they do. The rest of the time, Foley and Calabrese are there to remind us that “You can gather what you will in ragged desperation/ It doesn’t matter when the rain begins to pour.”