For anyone who has ever tried to dramatize Bible stories, especially for movies, the first and often most important challenge is how to fill in gaps from the text so it makes sense to modern audiences. Usually these are narrative gaps, but certainly as ancient bits of myth making, the psychologies of its characters are rarely, if ever explored. This practice of using, as Wil Gafney calls it, “sanctified imagination” goes back more than a thousand years to the rabbinic tradition of midrash. But what happens when the stories we explore are violent, unstable and predatory? Well, you get Bible Songs 1 from The Austerity Program.
Austerity Program formed in 1997 with Justin Foley on guitar and vocals, Thad Calabrese on bass, and a drum machine. After a handful of releases on Hydra Head Records, they struck out on their own for 2014’s Beyond Calculation. Bible Songs 1 is their second release on their own label Controlled Burn Records.
Foley and Calabrese operate in a punk, noise rock and metal space that finds comparisons to bands like Ken Mode, especially on songs “Ezekiel 39:17-20” and “Samuel 6:12-13” (yes, the songs here are named after Bible references but we’ll get to that). Tracks like the opener “Isaiah 63:2-6” are content to simmer and build tension, which pair well with songs that pay that off. The inclusion of the drum machine, in addition to giving them an industrial tinge ala Big Black, allows them to turn up the intensity past their peers on songs “2 Kings 25:1-7” and “Ezekiel 23:31–35,” which blasts by at breathtaking speed. The whole album plays through these paranoid cycles of building and releasing.
Foley’s vocals compliment the musical turns nicely. Maybe it’s the biblical and occasional fairy tale imagery, but when he’s not bellowing about being soaked in his enemies blood, his singing actually recalls Aaron Weiss from mewithoutYou. There’s a fragility to the performance that really helps sell the unsettling nature of the project.
Speaking of which, those lyrics are hard to read and also the whole point of the album. The Austerity Program’s song naming convention has mostly been to number them as in Song 30 or Song 17B but for Bible Songs 1, all the songs are named after specific Bible references in the lyrics. And those references contain stories of bloodthirsty slaughter of boys, vengeance, violent feasting to make George R.R. Martin jealous, David being a real asshole (as all David stories should be), and authoritarian threats of punishment. And its not trying to pervert the text. It’s a creative, but still recognizable and valid interpretation of those stories. There is one song “Ezekiel 23:31–35” wherein the protagonist is the victim of torture instead of the perpetrator, but it is so graphic that the tragedy almost gets subsumed by the graphic-ness.
Given the overall darkness of Bible Songs 1, I think its lean 22 minute runtime is a good choice. Combined with a larger range of tempos than most noise rock bands, the album accomplishes its goals quite efficiently. Additionally, by underlining the violent religious rhetoric found in the Bible, The Austerity Program reminds its modern listeners that this is not a new thing.