“I spent the 12 best years of my life / Behind a desk.“
Justin Foley yells those lines at the beginning of Polonium’s “Tuberculosis”, a second-half highlight on debut full-length Seraphim. That said, you don’t hear Foley, you hear the character he’s inhabiting. On the verge of snapping, the character laments a life, one most likely steered in good conscience, that has amounted to little. And, tick tick tick, time can’t be reclaimed.
Over the next five-and-a-half minutes, Foley’s guitar, Thad Calabrese’s bass, and a drum machine churn, generating a thick rhythmic chop. The tension doesn’t dip, it only rises, pounding, pounding, POUNDING away. There’s no relief. Why would there be? Those enslaved by existential dread are rarely released. Either the dread stops, callused over by resignation, or the afflicted stops; stops trying, stops remembering, stops living.
“And now my youth is gone.”
Foley and Calabrese wrote “Tuberculosis” 20 years ago. At the time, they were New York noise rockers looking for a scene. Stuck in a city then uninterested in their exploits, they wouldn’t find it. But, luckily, a copy of Bolt Thrower’s The IVth Crusade found them. The war-obsessed English death metallers were in the process of slowing down, choosing weighty grooves over speedy shredding. “We needed more music like this but didn’t know where to find it,” Foley writes in Polonium’s bio. “So we decided we were the ones to make it. And so we did.”
In 1997, Foley and Calabrese settled under the name the Austerity Program, soon collecting a small but fervent fan base. Still, they were doomed to see “Big Black” in the first paragraph of any write-up, as if years of hard work could be neatly compacted into a single comparison. Of course, there are worse fates, but, as the Austerity Program bridged wave after wave of noise rock with the real thing, it felt like Foley and Calabrese were trying harder than their one-and-done, come-and-go peers. And they just kept getting better. Albums, like 2014’s Beyond Calculation in particular, were leaps forward, notable for Foley’s increasing knack at conveying depth.
In between Austerity Program records, Foley decided to re-record 10 Polonium songs. Not the strangest thing; a lot of artists revisit old material. But the commonality of that track of artistic inspiration hasn’t helped answering this reoccurring question: How the hell do you have a conversation with you from 20 years ago? A lot of artists don’t, forgetting that time has turned them into different people. Instead of digging up old desires, they overwrite everything with new needs and skill sets. Granted, it’s hard to unsolve the problems that produced the creative solutions fundamental to your current makeup. Yet, deep down, the memory must remain, right?
“The goal of Polonium was always simpler than the band that followed it and you can hear it here,” Foley writes, “it’s music that conveys power.” So, spoiler alert, Foley and Calabrese haven’t forgotten: the isolation, the find, the feel. But they don’t regress, either. Seraphim is as much the product of Polonium as it is the Austerity Program. It’s powerful. It’s nuanced. Sure, it took 20 years. Time wasn’t wasted, though.
Polonium’s Seraphim is out 4/8 via Controlled Burn Recordings.