EVERY DAY IS TODAY IS THE DAY: A HISTORY OF TODAY IS THE DAY (PART 2: THE RELAPSE YEARS)

After the relative stability of 5 years with Amphetamine Reptile Records, and the 3 albums this era of the band produced, Today Is The Day moved to Relapse Records and so what I am framing as the 2nd era of the band began. This period of the band’s history saw the release of 4 albums and a procession of half a dozen or so different band members.

Although the band’s first 3 albums demonstrated an evolution from one release to the next, it was with the band’s 4th album Temple of the Morning Star, that the first really dramatic change in sound occurred. This then became the norm, with every subsequent release not only involving some kind of personnel change, but also totally different production and varying stylistic choices, with the band all the while remaining unmistakably Today Is The Day and nothing else.

So, if you’re sitting comfortably, let’s begin…

Temple of the Morning Star, Relapse Records, 1997

                  “I’m not the problem, you’re not my friend; I’m all out of money, all you could spend”

New year, new record label, new album and new rhythm section, as Steve Austin resets the clocks. As well as a new drummer, in the shape of Mike Hyde, this new Today Is The Day machine includes both bass and keyboards, provided by Chris Reeser. In addition to the new sounds to be expected from 2/3 of a new band, Steve also frequently layers his guitars here, often holding a rhythm underneath a piercing melody, or thickening up the melody with two parts. On top of all this, the songs are heavier, often more chugging, down-tuned; and with richer, fuller production than past releases, the band’s sound is altogether more easily identifiable as “metal” of some sort. Not only that, but Steve Austin has discovered a neat little trick: the chorus; if you’re going to have a song called Kill Yourself well why not make it a sing-along!

Perhaps as surprising as anything else, the album opener and title track is genuinely elegant, not a description so often fitting the band. A sombre combination of acoustic guitar, understated vocals and percussion that might be djembe or bongos, with a circular melody that rolls around and around, here Steve sets a scene of emotional desolation. Certainly it’s one of the most beautiful songs the band has recorded. Of course as this is Today Is The Day, it’s the fire-breathing juggernaut of the following track The Man Who Loves To Hurt Himself that really shows what to expect from the next 50minutes or so.

Deserving of mention is the amazing production job. It’s a bass heavy mix, but not in a way that comes out muddy. Listened to on headphones and turned up loud, the music envelops you, with the bass becoming a reverberating drone that keeps the listener locked in position while the vocals, guitars and drums all carve out their own distinct space (beware of the squealing Satan Is Alive though, you may suffer a perforated eardrum). The band incorporates more metal elements, like on the viciously propulsive Miracle, where Steve shouts and wails, while his guitar lines whiplash over insistent bass and aggressive drum fills, and the sludgy, rumbling Hermaphrodite, that stalks and drags the listener through the gutter for over 8 minutes. The songs here are also emotionally raw, harrowing, melancholic, depressing and savage, an ideal companion for those who really want to wallow in emotional depths. If you thought Korn’s Daddy was bleak, then have a listen to the musical landscape of despair the band paints on Mankind. 

Temple of the Morning Star is a heavy listening experience, both sonically and emotionally. There are plenty of memorable melodies, riff and hooks, often extremely bleak, but as catchy and energising as anything by the band at this point, like the distorted savagery of Blindspot; the sparse, bass-hook driven misanthropy of Pinnacle (complete with lyrics that may make you want to take a bath after); and the explosive, chugging storm of High As The Sky. TV and movie samples are back and weirder than ever and along with these transitions, are several more delicate guitar pieces to break up the savage attacks and brooding chuggers.

The final heavier reprise of the title track, leading into the band’s cover of Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath gives a nod to the overall change in landscape. It’s hard to imagine the band reproducing the awesome, hypnotic, furious, but equally vulnerable landscape of this album, without the result being an inferior replica, so I think it’s probably for the best that they’ve never tried. Temple of the Morning Star is a one of a kind.

In the Eyes of God, Relapse Records, 1999

                  “Don’t be so desperate, it shows in your smile”

Today Is The Day: never ones to provide an easily digested listening experience. Put on any of their records and you will invariably be screamed at by multiple Steve Austins swirling around your head, while a whirlwind of drums and buzz-saw guitars wrench you to and fro. Sometimes the bass is more prominent, the Jesus Lizard, King Crimson or Slayer influences are more or less apparent, or the tempo is slower. One way or another though, you can be sure that the music will be intense, extreme, and overall the sentiment will be grim. In the Eyes of God comes to the listener as a vitriolic and unrelenting cacophony, although from an emotional point of view, I personally find it less harrowing than it’s predecessor.

Having already played with the possibilities of pummelling brutality with Crutch on Temple of the Morning Star, In the Eyes of God follows this path at length for an overall explosive battery of an album. Once again it’s time for new blood and this time future Mastodon players Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher handle the drums and bass respectively. While the bass slots in just fine, it’s lower in the mix than on Temple of the Morning Star, and for the most part not a focal point; the drumming does play a big part in the overall sound and is more prominent in the mix (there really is no escape from the rat-a-tat of the snare drum). For better or for worse (or just for different) this is the band’s most instrumentally flashy release. That’s largely because of the prominence of the percussion though, and Brann’s inclination to squeeze a drum roll into every nook and cranny available.

The ferocious Going to Hell with its thrashy elements shows the first overt influence of Slayer that Steve Austin has mentioned in the past, while the track also explores aspects of Doom Metal and some locked in grooves, not seen so often from the band, who usually keep the listener off balance one way or another. Having already mastered a careering, off-kilter noise-rock juggernaut, here the band places the musical train running at full tilt that always sounds like it might fly off the rails but never does, firmly on a metal track.

While once again using film and TV samples to great disturbing effect, the sparse acoustic tracks or passages of previous releases are absent, with the album offering less relief from the pummelling assault. From the opening title track to other cuts such as Spotting a Unicorn, Mayari and Afterlife, furious percussive batteries include what you might call blast beats, but there are so many snare and tom rolls that the drums are always more inventive than what you might expect on a typical grindcore release for example. Tracks like Argali and Martial Law, with its Slayer reminiscent guitar intro, do reign in the tempo, and Steve employs his more mournful vocal stylings during the stripped back passages of the title track and Going to Hell, but overall there is little respite from the sense of being trapped in a blast furnace. Look towards bands such as The Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge to see this template applied and refined over the course of multiple album careers; being as this is Steve Austin at the helm, you can be quite sure that Today Is The Day would be carving out a wholly new path by the time of their next release.

Sadness Will Prevail, Relapse Records, 2002

                  “At night I wrap myself in pain, and I’ll never see again”

When approaching Today Is The Day’s 6th album for the first time, it is worth keeping a few things in mind. First of all, Steve Austin has made it very clear in interviews that one of the greatest musical sins he could commit would be to rehash the music from one of his recording to the next. Following on from this, if you go through the band’s catalogue up to this release, you will see that after their debut, every subsequent album had something to alienate fans: from Willpower’s aggressive intimacy, to Today Is The Day’s droning ambience, to Temple of the Morning Star’s sonic intensity, to In The Eyes of God’s metallic frenzy. Add to this that Sadness Will Prevail is a double album, which clocking in at 2hrs 25min is equal in length to the band’s first three albums combined (plus about the first 9 tracks of Temple of the Morning Star thrown in), the listener should be prepared to find on first exposure that this album is not what they expected, and quite possibly not at all what they were hoping for. Today Is The Day though are not ones to give up the riches of their music without the listener undergoing some acclimatisation. My appreciation of the band’s music continues to change over time, and these changes are always in a positive direction. While I can recognise this now I’m still surprised to find myself today (after 12 years of owning this album and being partly positive, partly curious and partly baffled by it) to find myself writing that I don’t think a single moment of this record is wasted.  

From the opening Maggots & Riots it’s apparent that one of the new musical focus points this time around is doom metal. While In The Eyes of God was a screaming, racing, flurry of fists and fury, Sadness Will Prevail brings the tempo back for the most part. That’s not to say that the album is necessarily less intense, but the delivery is much more varied from track to track (and often within track), and while it’s fashionable to say that In The Eyes of God was the greatest era of the band in terms of musical talent, because the rhythm section went on to form Mastodon, nobody should ever consider Chris Debari (bass) and Marshall Kilpatric (drums) to be a step down for the band. Those seeking out crushingly heavy passages, can find them on tracks like Criminal, as it thunders along with slicing guitars and pummelling drums, before opening out into a brutal, crawling doom outro; while the screaming, lurching Invincible with it’s piercing guitar melody and tremendous piano-driven mid track transition is reminiscent of Neurosis and early Rollins Band.

Alongside the heavy doom elements there are all sorts of sonic terrains the band explores for the first time here. The cacophonous Butterflies introduces a harp and piano driven landscape and a number of tracks explore using piano as the melodic lead, perhaps most memorably on Death Requiem. At almost 2 ½ hours altogether the album is a lot to digest and some parts are certainly more appealing than others first time around. The 2minutes of distortion (just in the left ear) that makes up two thirds of Distortion of Nature, and the horrible 3minutes of distorted screaming that closes out the brilliantly emotive title track (and the first CD), can certainly be off putting (and were to me in the beginning). Somehow though over time I’ve come to appreciate how incredible the range of sounds, textures, feelings and sonic impressions this album offers is. Witness the sludgy, Butthole Surfers evoking Christianized Migick, leading into the delicately reverberating and slightly unsettling melancholia of Voice of Reason: Vicious Barker, to the piercing guitar arpeggios of Face After the Shot, to the infernal, stalking rumblings of The Ivory of Self Hate, and so on and so on.

It’s difficult at first not to take sitting through the whole album as something of a test of strength, but at its most engaging the album delivers as much gut tightening satisfaction as anything on Temple of the Morning Star, and over time these moments of magic have expanded for me to describe the whole experience. Before getting to this stage though, there were entry points for me. The crushing, army of the damned marching into the abyss that is the instrumental Times of Pain on the second CD, where the band again invokes the spirit of Neurosis, is one such example. So too The Descent, with its cutting, head-spinning riffing, sharp transitions and ear piercing screams. And on the topic of screaming, this album delivers some of Steve’s most high-pitched vocals, so… you know… be prepared for that.

Anyone can, like me, find their way into this album one track at a time, but to only ever cherry pick the most immediate, rocking tracks and ultimately and see the rest of the album as filler, or inferior passages of experimentation misses out on a lot of what this album has to offer. Sadness Will Prevail is more than just a collection of avant-garde metal, it’s a full, cohesive listening experience, treading more stylistic paths and offering more ideas than the entire careers of three average bands put together, without the album turning into an exercise in experimentation for experimentation’s sake.

As well as being unlike anything the band has done before or since, the music within this album travels many paths, sometimes on the same track. The previously mentioned Invincible fuses Unsane style mid-tempo rhythmic charging, with doom passages, before opening out into its gloomy, atmospheric death march; the sprawling 23minute Made of Flesh intertwines drawn out drone doom passages, with pounding riffing and avant-garde elements; while Myriad Spaceships and the virtually a cappella Breadwinner incorporate ethereal female vocals to great mournful (and Swans invoking) effect. Not to mention the ambient passages, the noise, the samples, and the kind of whiplash guitar lines perfected by Steve Austin peppered throughout the album. Altogether it’s a deep, dark rabbit hole to go down and I’m pretty sure even now I haven’t fully appreciated all the strange creatures down here. 

About 12 years ago when I was first diving into both Today Is The Day and Swans, I had this album and Swan’s expansive, experimental double album Soundtracks for the Blind (back before double albums were the standard for Swans) on my ipod. I’d sometimes just randomise everything and I remember a few times not knowing whether I was listening to Swans or Today Is The Day when it came to some of the more ambient or avant-garde numbers. While Swans are another band to have undergone frequent reinvention, their musical world is normally very different to that of Today Is The Day, but on these two albums there feels like some convergence. Coming some five years later, it’s possible that Soundtracks influenced Steve when creating the concept of Sadness Will Prevail. While these sorts of comparisons can be a lead weight round the neck of an album, dragging it down under the weight of expectation, here’s another: I believe that this album deserves to occupy the same status within the realms of extreme metal as The Beatles’ White Album does for rock ‘n’ roll. There, I’ve said it. Just don’t expect to reach the same conclusion as me before a good few years of your life have passed in the company of this record.

Oh Sadness Will Prevail, you are a strange, misunderstood and maligned beast. You make it hard to love you, but you are unapologetic, unafraid and you have magic on your hands. In the words of Ice-T, a lot of people dis you. They’re just jealous. Fuck ‘em.  

Kiss the Pig, Relapse Records, 2004

                   “How’s it feel to be my target?”

After the sprawling experimentation, noise and doom metal leanings of Sadness Will Prevail, Steve Austin caught everyone flat footed by putting together an album of lush operatic rock, complete with soaring orchestral arrangements and a children’s choir. Just kidding, Kiss the Pig is a 37minute grindcore brick to the face. That’s the simple description, but nothing by this band could ever be so easy to define or pigeonhole. So of course under the surface of relentless screaming and blast beats there’s more to appreciate on this album than just aggression and misanthropy. While remnants of the doom style the band explored on the previous release are still evident here; in terms of the overall effect, Kiss The Pig is closest in feel to the battering fury of In The Eyes of God, but this is certainly no re-tread of that era of the band’s history.

Approaching this album presented me with a particular challenge, as I generally find blast beats totally unappealing. It’s a perception that’s kept me from getting all the way into Napalm Death and to grindcore in general. It could just be though that this is the album to help me overcome my longstanding prejudice. The more time I spend with Today Is The Day and appreciate them at their most immediately appealing, the more I feel that the music of theirs I have initially found off-putting, or incomprehensible deserves more effort to understand. This is why, despite how impenetrable some of it can seem to be, I still keep coming back to Sadness Will Prevail and seeing it more and more in a new light. Kiss the Pig, is a completely different beast to its predecessor (it could barely be more different), but once again a few glimmers of light become a more understandable whole over time.

Album opener Why They Hate Us is a case in point. The opening clicks of weapons being loaded, hints that the subsequent blast beat fury, could be a musical representation of relentless artillery fire (the song closes with 40seconds of various ammunitions being unloaded, removing all doubt). It’s nothing if not brutal. Across 3 ½ minutes the intensity doesn’t let up, but it’s the way the band effortlessly slows the tempo down a minute in, that focuses my mind and ear on how great the collective performance is. Today Is The Day has always been a vehicle for amazing drummers (and again here, while Chris Debari remains on bass, drum duties have been passed on, this time to Mike Rosswog). While past releases often showcased elaborate fills and complex rhythms, here the musical terrain is more direct and regimented, but that doesn’t mean the drumming is any less awesome. Witness the fluid transitions on Mother’s Ruin from one pattern to the next. Because the music is so unrelentingly aggressive and the guitar and bass (both high in the mix) often act as extra weight to the rhythm, more than they offer melodic lines, a lot of this music can initially fee like a colourless percussive battery (also the emotional terrain no longer encompasses the melancholia and vulnerability of the previous album, here the tone is pure vitriolic aggression). But Kiss The Pig is no less inventive or imaginative than the band’s previous efforts. It’s just that this time round the band chooses to take on an incredibly blunt and violent style and work within narrower parameters.

The sound of Kiss The Pig is a guttural engine roar; buzzing guitars and pulsing bass lock-in with thundering clockwork drumming on This Machine Kills Fascists, while the hypnotic, stalking Don’t Tread On Hope lurches to and fro into a dizzying crescendo. Austin, who also produces the band, always manages to craft a totally distinct sound for each release. Every album has its own sonic identity and the flaming jet engine of Kiss The Pig totally aligns with the energy of the music. Instrumental Bee’s Wax and Star Wars batters the terrain with drum rolls and purring riffs, into a rising, churning cacophony. Seemingly impenetrable initially, Kiss The Pig turns out to be as well executed and intense as anything the band has done before.

In terms of the mood of this album, it bears some resemblance to Superjoint Ritual’s A Lethal Dose of American Hatred, in spirit at least, if not musicality. On this release the object of Steve’s bile isn’t totally clear, but whoever the target is, he seems to want to shoot them. If this gives you a sense of the atmosphere of the recording, you’ll be even more surprised when you approach the end of album closer – and riffing treasure trove – Birthright, pass Steve leading some kind of pledge to patriotic values, and discover at the very end the most sincerely beautiful acoustic guitar melody to ever appear under the Today Is The Day title. But there it is.

Listeners might suppose that this album is a recognition of the mixed response to the expansive experimentation of Sadness Will Prevail, and Steve is choosing to go down a path that will pick up fans who fell off the Today Is The Day truck on the last release with something more immediate. I suspect however that Kiss The Pig offers such a shift in style from the last release because that’s just what the band always does from album to album. I can’t imagine many people would have grumbled over a Temple of the Morning Star Part 2 back in 1999, but that’s not how Steve Austin rolls; whatever the reception, whether rapturous, or hostile, or baffled, the band always takes a new direction from one album to the next.

So here we are, today in Today Is The Day land it’s a grindcore party (or at least grindcore Today Is The Day style). If that’s not really your thing, then maybe, like me, you’ll find this release changes your opinion of what can be done in this genre, and if it’s just too unrelenting to stomach, rest assured, the next album will be nothing like this.

8 years, a constantly changing line-up and 4 albums of vastly differing sounds and styles, this is the legacy of Today Is The Day during their time with Relapse Records. Each one of these albums has the credentials to be a treasured favourite of any extreme music fan. It would be 3 more years till album number 8, and that’s where we’ll pick up in part 3.

By Tom Boatman

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