[11 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Less than 10 minutes into the newest album by Today is the Day, we’re already settling into what has become the norm for the great underground extreme metal pioneers: a relentless assault of screeching guitars and huge drums, anguished screams courtesy vocalist/ guitarist Steve Austin, and the usual lyrics that are equally violent, personal, profane, and disturbing. So when the track “Broken Promises and Dead Dreams” rolls along, we think we’re well-prepared for the next diatribe Austin has in store for us. “Got stabbed in the back with a knife by my friend,” he begins, “I should kill you/ beat you black blue/ rip your eye/ cut your face/ hold you down just like you did/ rip me off/ tie me up/ shit on me/ family torn apart/ ripped to shreds.” Um, okay.
Getting a little personal there, not to mention disturbingly vivid, but then again, that’s par for the course for this band. But then just when we think he can’t get any angrier, Austin lowers the boom, airing out all his dirty laundry for his audience and his antagonist, the band’s former label Relapse Records, to see:
Relapse sold my name sold me out let me down
Didn’t care tried to hurt
End my work
Full of shit
You are not underground
Lie to you make you think you’re so cool
Relapse signed me up
Went on tour did my part
Stole the rock sold it out broke up bands
I should kill you beat you black blue
Corporate hit man worse than bush watch you burn life in hell
Ouch. The song now has become like one of those situations where you walk into a store and overhear a sacked employee threatening violence on their former boss. You just want to turn around and get the hell out of there. But the thing with Today is the Day always has been that we sit there riveted by both the feral intensity of the music and the impassioned, blind rage heard in the lyrics. For well over a decade, that’s become Steve Austin’s calling card, and nobody can put it into words and music quite like he can, and heaven help anyone who happens to find themselves on the receiving end of one of his rants. As he says at one point on the new album, “When I get mad, I get really mad.”
Circus Maximus, Isolate (Sensory) Rating: 6 Twiddly progressive metal in the vein of Dream Theater, the Norwegian band’s second album trounces their American counterparts by offering a fresh, spirited take on a tired genre, the labyrinthine arrangements held in check by the engaging, tasteful vocal melodies by singer Michael Eriksen, as heard on such standouts as “Wither” and “A Darkened Mind”.
Coliseum, No Salvation (Relapse) Rating: 7 The Louisville hardcore band serves up equal parts Motörhead-style rock ‘n’ roll, crust, and punk on their Relapse debut, but this workmanlike record is hardly devoid of frills, bursting at the seams with catchy hooks (“Interceptor” and “Believer”, especially), more musical versatility than many hardcore bands are willing to exhibit, and best of all, more than enough contagious energy.
Divine Heresy, Bleed the Fifth (Century Media) Rating: 4 Led by former Fear Factory guitarist Dino Cazares, this debut attempts to give listeners a heavier variation of the Fear Factory sound, but despite good production, comes off sounding mechanical and lacking creativity. Annoyingly aggro “This Threat is Real” and overbearing power ballad “Closure” pander to the Family Values crowd, but discerning listeners will tune this out quickly.
Evile, Enter the Grave (Earache) Rating: 7 Yet another entry in the thrash revival of 2007, these UK boys nail it on their debut, channeling mid-80s Metallica (Flemming Rasmussen even produces) and early Testament astonishingly well, tossing in the odd Destruction influence for good measure. Nothing but formula here, but a total geezer pleaser, best exemplified by the ragers “Man Against Machine” and “We Who Are About to Die”. Fantastic!
Zoroaster, Dog Magic (Battle Kommand) Rating: 7 Epic sludge/doom with a strong psychedelic bent, the first full-length by the Atlanta trio alternates between the deliberate pace and structure of classic doom and the more free-form, swirling departures of Hawkwind. Songs often break down into free-form soloing and droning, but not before drawing us in with some often brilliant takes on classic, blues-inspired stoner rock.
Even though Austin obviously holds one hell of a grudge toward his former label, he has managed to strike out on his own to find a permanent home for Today is the Day, and his new label Supernova Records (so named after the band’s 1994 debut), has kicked things off with a bang this summer with an absolute bevy of material catering to the band’s small but devoted fanbase. Not only is the imprint the home of such promising young bands as Christine and Defcon 4, but Austin has released a veritable feast of Today is the Day-related nuggets, starting with the re-release of the long out of print 1996 classic Willpower, a pair of live performances from the late-‘90s, the 2006 debut by side project Taipan, and the kicker, the oft-delayed, brand-spankin’ new Axis of Eden. So with such a drool-inducing stack of discs to sift through, there’s no time like now, and no better place than here, to sift through them all.
If Supernova and its preceding 1992 EP, How to Win Friends and Influence People announced the arrival of a budding new talent, 1994’s monumental Willpower instantly established Today is the Day as a forerunner in the American extreme underground. Like the New York and Bay Area thrash scenes of the ‘80s, and similar to what Botch, Converge, and the Dillinger Escape Plan would do in the subsequent years, Willpower skillfully and artfully walked the precarious line between modern metal and hardcore punk, but more than any other band at the time, its sound thrived the more diverse the songwriting got.
Searing, insistent riffs reminiscent of Motorhead quickly gives way to tangents akin to King Crimson. Slick rhythm guitar work similar to Slayer is interrupted by the post-rock noise of Slint. And all the while, Austin, who screams and screams as much as he hammers relentlessly on his guitar, projects the an intensity rivaled only by David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, his persona turning out to be as schizophrenic as the music itself.
That walking-in-on-a-fight vibe described earlier also dominates Willpower, whose title track kicks off the disc with a sample of a violent argument from GoodFellas and launches into a series of riffs, basslines, and drum fills jagged enough to warrant the cliché “angular”, the trio of Austin, bassist Mike Herrell, and drummer Brad Elrod stopping and starting to the point where the song’s tetchiness is near unbearable. For all the misery, heartbreak, anger, and betrayal, though, is the sound of Austin’s protagonist (or Austin) willing himself to get through it all, hence the title.
For all its discordant moments and sheer desperation (“I wanna drown, I wanna die”), “My First Knife” is oddly catchy, Austin weaving vocal melodies that sound drawn from the early 90s indie rock of Superchunk, while “Sidewinder” is the band at its most metal-oriented, constructing the song around a grandiose riff before fracturing into moments that predate “mathcore” and also hearkening back to jazz fusion-inspired prog rock, Austin intoning in a hushed voice, “I thought you were the one for me,” before the trio erupts into a devastating, cacophonous climax.
The use of movie dialogue samples is effective throughout Willpower, but nowhere more so than on the riveting “Promised Land”. Opening with Natalie Wood’s classic, angst-ridden, melodramatic speech from Rebel Without a Cause (“He looks at me like I’m the ugliest thing in the world…he called me a dirty tramp. My own father!”), Austin’s ominous guitar notes, which bear a Southern gothic feel, add much more emotional depth than the maudlin score heard in the movie excerpt. As the album closes with a demented interpretation of “Amazing Grace”, we’re emotionally drained, but as with any great “dark night of the soul” album, we can’t help but feel relieved in the end that we’re not in the same mental state as the singer.
Shot in May of 1995 in Memphis, Tennessee, Willpower‘s accompanying live DVD, for all its simplicity, is a fascinating display of raw energy. Videotaped by one hand held camera, the trio is shown playing to an audience that is not only sparse, but all of whom appear to be freaked the hell out by what’s going down on the tiny stage, as if they’re keeping a safe distance from the raging beast that is hammering, flailing, and screaming away in front of them. As a result, there’s what appears to be a 20-30 foot buffer between the punters and the stage.
Our cameraman, though, who does a fantastic job giving us a steady image throughout the set, is thusly afforded a great view of the band, and we get a scintillating glimpse of Today is the Day in its prime, with Herrel, who looks nothing like a member from the most vicious band on the planet, and Elrod, throttling away wonky rhythms on his single-kick kit, providing a robust foundation for Austin’s much more unraveled approach. The disc’s only flaw is that the track listing provided is far from the actual setlist, so neophytes will be thrown for a loop as to what exactly they’re hearing, but aside from that, it’s a perfect companion piece to such a unique album.
The year 1996 saw the band making a significant change to its sound, while setting into motion a revolving door of band members that would continue to the present day. But this band member change was a key one, with Herrel being replaced by keyboardist Scott Wexton, and the resulting album Today is the Day boasted a much more expansive, high-end sound than the more muscular Willpower, melody entering the fray more, not just thanks to the addition of synths, but also with Austin’s periodic singing.
Live, though, it was another story, as the trio cranked up the intensity a hundredfold, something we get a glimpse of on the DVD Today is the Day Live. A much different beast than the Willpower DVD, we see Austin and his mates performing to a packed crowd in New York City in April, 1996. Another one-camera affair, the quality is shoddy, the picture extremely grainy and the sound dicey at best, but Today is the Day is astonishing on this night, performing the album in sequence, avoiding the subtlety of the record and elevating the visceral impact of such songs as “Realization” and the exhilarating “Dot Matrix”.
Starting in 1997, Today is the Day’s stint with Relapse had Austin and his constantly changing backing musicians flexing their musical muscle even more with varying degrees of success, from 1999’s metal-oriented In the Eyes of God (famously featuring future Mastodon members Bill Kelliher and Brann Dailor), to the bloated art-rock experimentation of 2002’s Sadness Will Prevail. By the time Kiss the Pig rolled along in 2004, the focus was more on a strong death/grindcore influence, not to mention a much more lo-fi production style than previous efforts, but while the band’s new disc continues to reflect that raw, brutal style, Austin proves he’s more than capable of playing accessible, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll on 1001: A Rock Odyssey, the loosey-goosey debut by Taipan.
Along with Today is the Day bassist Chris Debari and drummer Pat Kennedy, Taipan filters the classic riff rock of the Stooges, AC/DC, and Motörhead through Austin’s own highly demented personality, and the end result is something not entirely unlike the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, as combustible, highly catchy tunes collide with the frontman’s own angst-ridden delivery. “Don’t Chain My Soul” is a terrific slice of slow-burning garage rock, the riffs in “My Big Dick in Your Mouth” are just as blunt and vulgar as the lyrical content, “Angel Dust” goes for full-on rockabilly, and the bleary-eyed boogie of “Baby Loves Daddy”, featuring a whimsical, slurred duet between Austin and his wife Hanna, is, dare I say, charming as hell.
Especially revelatory is the brooding ballad “Epiphany”, a “House of the Rising Sun” style dirge that teeters precariously between beauty and primal anguish, as we hear screams, way off in the distance, but they never intrude on what is an extremely effective, emotional but never maudlin song. Closing with the Dinosaur Jr. chug of “This is Your Life” and the very appropriate cover of the Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, 1001: A Rock Odyssey is a welcome departure from Austin’s normal oeuvre, the sound of an artist recharging his creative batteries by simplifying and having fun, before getting down to brass tacks and unleashing hell on the fans once more.
Which brings us full circle to Axis of Eden, the band’s ninth full-length. While Debari has brought some stability to the bass position over the past seven years, the drummers always change with every record, but the band’s ninth drummer is a formidable addition, as former Hate Eternal drummer Derek Roddy steps in and provides Today is the Day with the most powerful rhythmic backdrop since Dailor’s mastadonian stomp in 1999. Boasting a similar production style as Kiss the Pig, the new album is low on diversity and high on intensity, Austin trimming the fat off his songs and delivering his most focused music in years, and Roddy’s presence complements this no-frills approach, the drummer providing everything from slow, minimalist, metronomic beats to full-throttle death metal blasting.
Austin is still as schizophrenic as ever, but he reins it in, both stylistically and vocally, singing and growling more than screeching. The menacing “No Lung Baby” is built around a murky riff that would befit a band like Tool, while “Free at Last” echoes the Alice Cooper band at its most theatrical, a piano-driven melody adding a disturbing, ironic quality to Austin’s lovey-dovey lyrics. “Black Steyr Aug” injects the adventurous noise rock sounds of Willpower with a strong grindcore element, his refrain of, “You are fucked forever,” the most contagious vocal hook on the record.
The ornate, slightly distorted “If You Want Peace Prepare For War” ranks right up there with “Broken Promises and Dead Dreams” as one of the album’s standout tracks, featuring Austin at his most philosophical and impassioned, alternating between violent imagery (“Cannon rips through them / Watch them die”) and a father tenderly addressing his son (“When I see you laughing then I feel I’m living/ Then I know I’m giving/ Take these words I give you/ Learn them like a bible”). Better yet, though, is the arrangement, which starts off as a ferocious dose of old school death metal in the same vein as Bolt Thrower, but suddenly segues into a Middle Eastern themed coda, Austin’s chanted vocal melody bearing a strong resemblance to that of the Beatles’ “Within You Without You”.
The closing seven minutes of Axis of Eden is quintessential Today is the Day, as the title tracks opens on a goth-inspired, nihilistic note, shifts into face-melting, guttural death metal, and slows to a molasses-in-January crawl during its final minute, Austin crooning, belching, and chanting over the course of three and a half minutes. The concluding instrumental “Desolation”, meanwhile, is a crazed little foray into electronic music, glitchy IDM beats and an undulating synth bassline underscoring blips, bleeps, and stabs thrown at us seemingly at random. This is one hell of a diverse band, and often it seems that the prolific Austin has to be in perpetual motion, be it performing, recording, producing, writing, or running a label, lest he stagnate creatively. But when his music is as strong and eclectic as this stack of five discs is, we’ll take anything he’s willing to toss our way, masochistically wondering what fresh hell he’ll have in store for us.
Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/many-happy-returns/