After a prolonged layoff the two-men-and-a-drum machine outfit return with what they claim is their definitive record. It better be good, right?
“We’ve written music by following a set of rules that have developed over time. With this record, we’ve done that about as well as we’re going to. The eight songs here really feel like they capture the idea of what we’ve been up to as a band, better than anything prior.”
So said the band when announcing Beyond Calculation on their website. With that kind of all-or-nothing, everything-left-on-the-field talk you’d think they’d better have something pretty exceptional to back that up. And during the false start that is Song 31 (for the uninitiated The Austerity Program have always used such a, well, austere approach to song titling) you’d be forgiven for worrying their typing fingers were writing cheques their riffs can’t cash. A dull hammering of a couple of chords that goes precisely nowhere, it’s amongst the least impressive instrumental curtain openers you’ll ever hear. And with only 8 tracks on the record it seems like they haven’t given themselves much room to live up to that promise.
But then things take a turn for the worse – in the best way possible.
Song 30 is the song you’ll be hoping to hear if you loved the twisted, sardonic humour of Song 27 from TAP’s last release, ep Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn. The tale of Jacob Sinclair (“Pure evil if there ever was…and there is”) is every bit as sarcastic and malevolent as you’d want it to be. Thad Callabrese’s bass is almost elementally low and metallic, clanging away beneath the nasty, feral fuzz of Justin Foley’s guitar. They call themselves a punk band but they’ve got more in common with noise rock oddballs like Big Black, Copshootcop or the more metal influenced end of the industrial scale like Ministry. They’re backed with a drum machine, something which TAP manage to make a secret weapon rather than the weak-point it often is within a rock band set up. Case in point: Song 39, in which the programmed beats lock in brilliantly with the relentless beastly groove, coming across like Lightning Bolt with the wild, flailing drums replaced something altogether more pneumatic and Terminator-esque.
It’s all played low, gnarled and seething. Foley’s nasal vocals almost seem to undercut this on first listen, all churlish whines and mordant yelping, but his scathing lyrics are delivered with a manic nothing-to-lose anti-charm that pull it all together. Over the 6 vocal led tracks he weaves bleak tales of arson, apocalyptic floods and piracy and villainy on the Spanish main. And true to their word these elements all come together to make the best music of TAP’s career – managing to sound both careful and careening, ferocious and focussed. The only criticism I have is that the vocals are sometimes buried in the mix and not allowed to flourish – they’ve always been the icing on the cake for TAP, and it’s poor form to shove the icing into the dough. But it’s a minor quibble – though it makes the second verse of the fantastic closer Song 37 almost inaudible the sentiment comes through clearly – a defiant speech on defending ones home against unstoppable, unseen forces backed by a slow march of beautifully twisted guitar lines and ringing bass notes. It may well be their finest moment yet. “Though I’m told to drop my pride/And leave this fight I’ll never win/They won’t take this place from me/’Cuz I’m not ready to go” he sings in a moment of calm before the bass and guitar coming crashing down upon him life tidal waves. Though the paragraph that opens this review may sound like a band realising they’ve hit their peak and thinking of going out on a high I’d like to think this statement of intransigence refers to their place in the musical landscape and unwillingness to yield from it. They’ve carved out a niche of their own – no one sounds quite like TAP in 2014, and no one can match them for acerbic wit or industrial heft. Let’s hope they aren’t in fact ready to go.