The story of TODAY IS THE DAY is largely the story of one man: Steve Austin. No, not Stone Cold Steve Austin, Steve Austin from Nashville, Tennessee. Across 27 years, Steve has led the band through 10 studio albums, and at this stage about 30 band members. I’d been thinking since I started writing for Blessed Altar Zine, that I’d like to write some kind of history of an underground metal band close to my heart. When I found out that Steve and Co. had a new release in the pipeline, I knew this was the perfect band to choose. Album No. 11 will be the band’s first in 5 years.
The music of TODAY IS THE DAY has been described as noise rock, doom metal, avant-garde metal, math rock, math metal, death metal, extreme metal, post-metal, grindcore and space rock (and more). To be frank, I don’t even know what some of these terms mean. What I can tell you, for those new to the band, is that the music of TODAY IS THE DAY is never the same from one album to the next. A partial explanation is probably the continual lineup changes, but I attribute a large part of this to the creative mind of Steve Austin, a man always looking to explore new ideas.
Too abrasive and odd to ever have wide appeal, TODAY IS THE DAY is a true underground phenomenon in the most unpretentious and unselfconscious sense. The band never tries to be anything other than TODAY IS THE DAY. You can love one album and be completely alienated by the next. Whether you enjoy every face of Steve Austin’s creation or not, you can be sure the music will always be an authentic representation of what he and his musical associates are tapping into at any given time. Deserving of greater recognition, Steve Austin is perhaps loved so passionately by those who follow his career, largely because he will never reach that wider audience and never tries to.
What follows is a musical journey through the albums of Steve Austin and his band TODAY IS THE DAY, from the beginning to the present day. And what a strange trip it is indeed. In the words of the late Hunter S. Thompson, “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
“Supernova”, Amphetamine Reptile Records, 1992
“A storm is rising. Can you sense it?”
Maybe my mind’s been turned by the album cover, displaying a snake’s head over a circuit board, but TODAY IS THE DAY’s debut record sounds reptilian to me. Whatever part of the brain it is that deals in empathy, it is absent here; the experience of “Supernova” is something much more primal and instinctive. Straight out of the gates Steve Austin and co-delivered a listening experience akin to surviving a psychotic episode. And I guess that really set the scene for what was to follow. The band would continually evolve from album to album, but the sense of psychosis would remain a constant. While “Supernova” drags the listener through torturously slow and bleak terrains on “The Goose Is Cooked” and the drawn-out, feedback-laden soundscape of “Self Portrait”, more often the tracks deliver sharp decisive knife attacks to the psyche, that send the listener reeling, before darting off into the shadows, to have their place taken by the next auditory assailant.
From the get-go it’s a whirlwind of overdriven guitars and creepy arpeggios, multi-layered, distorted wails and screams, lurching, off-kilter rhythms and odd time signatures, allusions to King Crimson, delivered in a state of controlled frenzy, and some fantastically demented samples ranging from bleating farm animals to a hilariously incongruous advertising segment for hi-fi systems. The overall effect in a word? Harrowing. “Supernova” makes The Jesus Lizard seem jovial.
Comparisons to other noise-merchants of the time seem fitting, but for each reference point, there’s a twist: Sonic Youth minus the spaced-out jamming; Butthole Surfers without the psychedelics; Unsane, but several steps closer to the precipice. The songs are dynamic, tending to shift through a number of phases, rather than following traditional verse/ chorus patterns, and as a whole, it’s well paced and the album never loses the absolutely terrifying atmosphere.
Seemingly incidental textures, like the shimmering metallic glistening at the intro of “6 Dementia Satyr”, contribute to the overall feeling that this is a different listening experience; strange and unusual, compelling, but equally unnerving. The music isn’t exactly aggressive, not like in a direct physical conflict anyway, but there is a confrontational energy more akin to some fucked-up stranger lying on your living room floor in a pool of fluids looking up at you and laughing, foaming at the mouth, yes fucker, you have to deal with this. I read a piece on Tool once that said the band were never knowingly unpretentious, for TODAY IS THE DAY the enduring epithet is disturbing, and this is “Supernova’s” centre of gravity.
“Willpower”, Amphetamine Reptile Records, 1994
“Freedom, it’s not given, so I’m takin’”
Never a band to tolerate treading the same path twice, TODAY IS THE DAY built on the angular noise-rock foundations of Supernova, and delivered – with follow-up Willpower – an album that is both more personal in tone and at barely over the 30min almost half the length of its predecessor. Given the emotional evisceration that occurs on almost every track, the brief run time may be for the best, for as much as I love this album and wish that there was more of it to feast on, to say that it’s intense is an understatement.
With one of the more memorable openings of any album that comes to mind, the Goodfellas sample of Henry Hill and wife Karen embroiled in a domestic altercation, that builds to the crescendo of I LOOK IN YOUR FACE AND I KNOW THAT YOU’RE LYING!! not only propels the listener into the opening see-saw bass arpeggio of the title track (soon joined by Steve Austin’s furious screams and the bursts of flying guitar fists and drum hammer attacks), but it frames the emotional identity of the whole album. While Supernova was more insidious in its unsettling designs, Willpower the album is like the wild emotional careering of a lover caught up in the midst of all-consuming torment and, oh lucky listener, you, yes YOU are on the other end of this cocktail of appeals, pleas, raging and longing.
Perhaps this is what takes “Willpower” to a higher level of intensity because not only does Steve Austin offer such emotional vulnerability, but having everything dedicated to YOU, really allows for no way out of this; watching from the wings with emotional detachment is inconceivable. To add to the emotional impact of these songs, Steve chooses more frequently to shed the layering of effects-laden vocal tracks down to something approaching a more “clean” vocal delivery (whether hushed tones, or wailing pleas), adding a powerful contrast to the more furious passages; every lull though is a brief period of calm before the returning storm and the tension is palpable throughout.
Only towards the end, on the more contemplative “Simple Touch”, can the listener settle into a full three minutes of relative respite, only to be thrown back into the final dose of brooding emotional assault delivered in “Promised Land” that brings matters to a close with a wailing guitar note, held quivering like an emotional full stop, before the whole thing drifts off into the ether on the guitar refrain of “Amazing Grace”.
“Willpower” as a whole is a statement of melodrama, full of simple and direct lyrics that embed themselves in the mind of the listener like mantras. The guitar, bass and drum unit, twists and turns to mind-warping angles; by turns furious and brooding, but never out of control. As with Supernova, the band uses movie and TV samples to great and even more memorable effect than on their debut. 30minutes in the eye of the storm… now breathe again.
“Today Is The Day”, Amphetamine Reptile Records, 1996
“I stand alone. I stand alone. You don’t know what I face”
1996 saw the release of TODAY IS THE DAY’s self-titled third album and the first of many line-up changes. Mike Herrell vacated the bass position, to be replaced by Scott Wexton… on synths. Given how central the bass, drum and guitar interplay was to the sound that the band had cultivated up to this point, it’s a given that this change in dynamics would have some impact on the band’s sound. Fear not though, as the saying goes: necessity is the mother of invention, and what TODAY IS THE DAY lacks in twisted bass grooves, it substitutes with ominous synth drones, effects, and textures, allowing the band to further evolve their sound. Still fully charged as ever with flourishing drums, Steve Austin’s savage guitar riffs and demented, twisting melodies now career over a backdrop of brooding synths.
Another notable difference here is the absence of any samples of dialogue. These interludes were incorporated to great effect on the first two releases, but this time the album transitions are delivered by more organic means. “A Man Of Science” offers sparse, resonant and eerie layers of guitar; “Black Iron Prison” appears like some disturbing and ritualistic incantation; while the soothing acoustic “I Love My Woman” could almost be taken at face value, were it not for the malevolence of album closer Dot Matrix that follows. In all three cases, these breaks offer some kind of emotional cool down before the band surges into various cacophonous assaults.
While the album still showcases bursts of fury, overall the tone is more sombre and understated than on the band’s previous releases. Drum and synth instrumental “The Tragedy” offer another beguiling counterpoint to the more familiar terrain the band explores throughout the rest of the album. I hesitate to write anything that implies that the band repeats itself; all of the music here is an evolution, but while all albums thus far demonstrate a constant creative urge, there are certain common features to be found: constantly shifting and flourishing drum patterns; sudden time signature changes; looping guitar melodies that by turns squeal, buzz and roar; and Steve Austin’s unmistakable shrieking, screaming, moaning and wailing.
All of these components are brought together to powerful effect on the tremendous “Bugs / Death March”, also showcasing the band’s new droning component, perfectly complementing Steve’s moans and wails, before the track finally drifts off with ethereal, reverberating, childlike chants of “Someday you’ll get it”, layered, offset and overlapping. The track illustrates the broader emotional boundaries that the band chooses to explore on this release; where Supernova seethes and slithers; and “Willpower” rages and despairs; TODAY IS THE DAY feels almost supernatural, adding passages more akin to a hypnotic reverie, or a mind disintegrating in its final moments before death. While overall perhaps the least immediate of the three releases, from this pool it may offer the most emotional depth, along with musical subtleties that continue to reveal themselves upon repeated listens.
Looking back through the band’s history from the present day, these first three albums can now be seen as a notably stable period of incremental evolution. From this point onward, the musical story of TODAY IS THE DAY would be one sharp twist and turn after another. All that however is to be continued in part 2.
By Tom Boatman