After delivering 7 albums in the space of 13 years, recent times have seen Steve Austin’s output under the Today Is The Day banner slow a little bit. To be sure, he’s been keeping himself busy. As well as running his own recording studio, Steve has featured on a diverse range of projects, from the ambient BardSpec project, to the post-rock of LAE, to the noise-rock of UXO (also featuring Chris Spencer of Unsane – probably the most natural collaboration Steve Austin could ever involve himself in), to name a few. So given all these extra curricular activities, 3 new Today Is The Day records in this time is a pretty decent return…
Axis of Eden, Supernova Records, 2007
“And I know what’s right, and I know what’s wrong”
The story of Today Is The Day’s Axis of Eden and my ears is not a love story. Neither is it a horror story. There has been no rapture, nor any trauma. For a long time I thought this album and my ears could never be friends. That’s probably still the case, but I think now at least they can grudgingly one another respect from across the room. Axis of Eden is not a warm album, it doesn’t invite you into its house, it doesn’t even seem to want to share its problems with you. Nevertheless it’s not quite obnoxious enough to want to avoid entirely. If not a friend then maybe this album is a cyborg reconstruction of one. Something’s missing, but sometimes it’s just about enough and in any case a cyborg friend is something different from the norm at least.
And different Today Is The Day can do. Over an almost 30 year and 10 album career the band have changed line ups so many times that it almost feels like a novelty when part of the rhythm section survives from one album to the next. Axis of Eden does in fact mark the 3rd recording to feature Chris Debari on bass, the first member outwith Steve Austin to make it that long since the band’s first 3 albums. When it comes to drums however, the record follows the rule that from Temple of the Morning Star onward every release sees a new addition to the band, in this case ex-Nile drummer Derek Roddy.
More than any of their other albums – barring perhaps In The Eyes of God – the drums on Axis of Eden really take centre stage (for better or worse). But while Brann Dailor brought a flashy exuberance to their 1999 record (like an Alsatian on amphetamines), Derek’s drumming performance on this record is like a jaded pornstar grudgingly going to work; you might admire what he can do, but you suspect he’s not having a good time. The bass drum – so often the trusted go-to for death metal drummers – returns again and again on this record like a remorseless tank, trampling everything in its path. After a while though, once I come to accept that the heart of this record was replaced by a mechanised engine it starts to make sense, as if Steve thought I wonder what it would be like to make a Fear Factory kill bot?
Being as this is a Steve Austin record it’s always bound to offer something different, however appealing (or not) the presentation is. Album opener IED is a pretty satisfying high-speed barrage, while Free at Last is an interesting gothic dirge with a haunting piano driven melody, ultimately levelled by a double bass pedalling airstrike. No Lung Baby, with its moody guitar intro, lurching 5/4 rhythm and building energy might be the best realisation of the mechanically-precise realm this album operates in. The album’s title track meanwhile, starts out like some low-key alt-rock number, before transforming into a percussive dive-bombing battery, to finally transform again into one of the albums rare slowed-down sludge riffs. Where it’s predecessor Kiss the Pig was like a rabid animal with a jet engine surgically sewn into it by some musical Josef Mengele, Axis of Eden is less about savagery and more remorseless pounding (and the high pitched screams Steve was cultivating on the band’s past two records are absent too). As well as doing away with the grindcore leanings of the previous record, there is also little of the crushing, epic sludge of Sadness Will Prevail. Some of the band’s familiar motifs are on display, like the zigzagging riffing of If You Want Peace Prepare For War – before the track unexpectedly opens out mid way through into an eastern-tinged, keyboard-driven drone – and dark chugging riffs, the likes of which you might find on Temple of the Morning Star or In The Eyes of God, but altogether the delivery on this record is more contained and less manic than much of what the band has done before.
While a controlled, precision assault is another interesting face to this ever-changing band, Axis of Eden somehow lacks the visceral thrill they usually deliver. It’s far from their most difficult album to get into, but over time it fails to offer up many hidden joys like so much of the band’s other releases. Like some expensive piece of machinery that hasn’t been assembled quite correctly; you know it has a powerful engine and will probably flatten a few buildings for you, but ultimately it just doesn’t give you the experience you hoped for.
Pain is a Warning, Black Market Activities, 2011
“I’m not afraid, I am the man”
Today Is The Day have been many things since their first album in 1992. 19 years on from their debut, the surprising thing about this their 9th album is not so much the shift in style from the pummelling, metallic artillery-fire of Axis of Eden, but it’s the change in mood and atmosphere. Pain is a Warning sees the band reconfigure themselves into a straight-ahead (for them), hard rocking unit (Steve Austin again bringing in an entirely new rhythm section for this endeavour). As energetic and propulsive as ever, what sets this album aside from prior offerings by the band (though they were maybe moving in this direction on Axis of Eden) is that it feels more like a call to arms than a tortured howl. For the most part here Steve Austin seems to be looking out not in, and while existential dread and mental terror has tended to be a thread running through the band’s records, if this release is anything to go on Steve may be coming to terms with his inner demons.
Album opener Expectations Exceed Reality sets the tone for what is to follow, with a hushed, tick tocking rhythm exploding into bursts of thunder. Drums pound, overdriven guitars burn and bass rumbles, with Steve’s familiar distorted screams/ growls roaring over the top. It’s interesting to hear the band playing something like late 70s/ early 80s hard rock, like AC/DC or Judas Priest, but with those familiar Today Is The Day motifs scattered around. Some residual grindcore or death metal elements remain, especially in the vocals and drums. For the most part though this is the band at their most stripped down and direct. I’d say they’re going back to basics, but they’ve never been to this place before.
If this is vintage hard rock, it’s hard rock played through the filter of a guard dog ferociously sounding the alarm while a fire rages. Tracks like Wheelin’ with its propulsive, insistent, pounding beat, perfectly evoke the sense of urgency, while The Devil’s Blood and album closer Samurai rain down crashing waves of resonating chords. In addition to the hard rock aesthetic, Steve utilises cleaner vocals to a greater degree than ever before. The album’s title track shows the full extent of how the band can use this to add contrast, as tension builds to final release in sudden bursts with those familiar distorted screams. Altogether throughout the album the combination of vocal styles from hushed, to screaming, to death metal growling are all incorporated together in a very satisfying, unified way.
Adding to the sense that this is a stripped down incarnation of the band there are no TV or movie samples this time, no synths or other ambient textures. Everything is delivered through guitar, bass, drums and vocals. When the band does ease back on the intensity, they do it with two surprisingly gentle and reflective numbers, first channelling the spirit of Slint and Sparklehorse with the delicate grace of Remember to Forget, and then with the quiet and reflective This is You, which manages to be melancholic without being gloomy. It’s a new side to the band and doesn’t feel out of place.
Breaking from convention, Steve Austin relinquishes production duties and brings in Converge’s Kurt Ballou to record the band (Austin produced them back in the late 90s). Complementing the simplified and unembellished direction the band takes with these songs the production of the album is clear and bright. This is almost certainly the band’s most accessible record both in terms of song writing and sound. Add to this the sense of maturity and grace to Steve’s vocal delivery (and the absence of tortured introspection) and Pain is a Warning comes off as perhaps the least confrontational of the band’s releases to date. To be sure it’s still a sonic alarm bell, shaking the listener into a state of heightened alertness, but while you’d feel safest with many of their prior recordings securely chained to a rail in the back yard, this one you can probably let into the house without fear of having your belongings torn to shreds and the furniture smashed to pieces.
Animal Mother, Southern Lord Records, 2014
“Lightning let it roar”
From the opening insinuating, descending riff of the title track, the pounding drums and the whiff of King Crimson in the air, it’s clear that Animal Mother is a very Today Is The Day sounding record. Having shown on Pain is a Warning that they can be introspective – alongside the more typical explosive fury and dementia that the band refined for years – Animal Mother sees the band move from brooding understatement, to explosive pounding, to zigzagging riffing and back again with fluid ease and grace. From the outset there’s a kind of cosmic reflectiveness to this record that while filled with hammering bursts of aggression, seems just as comfortable drifting through space.
Once again bringing in a new rhythm section (fully tooled for the task), the album ebbs and flows seamlessly across an undulating landscape of shifting riffs and rhythms. After dispensing with unusual time signatures and rhythms and sticking to uniform tempos on Pain is a Warning, Animal Mother reintroduces these once familiar idiosyncrasies. The angular, razor sharp riffs of Discipline, the head-spinning brutality of Masada and Heathen, the lurching drunkenness of Mystic, it’s all so recognisably Today Is The Day. The album is like a fully realised letter to Father Christmas:
Dear Santa, I’d like a Today Is The Day record that incorporates all my favourite features of the band, with amazing, heavy production, as crushing as Godflesh, as majestic as Neurosis, but also mature, reflective, poignant and beautiful.
Done and done and done.
Back in 1994, the band’s second album Willpower came in the aftermath of the violent death of Steve Austin’s father. The savage intensity of that record was like a sonic wail of near-insane grief; 20 years later Animal Mother emerges as Steve Austin comes to terms with the death of his mother. Perhaps it’s from Steve’s ruminations on love and loss that this album sounds so warm and humane, even amongst those familiar bursts of savagery that the band still explodes into at a moment’s notice. Alongside the sense of deep existential reflection of the title track, Outlaw (acoustic) delivers the most poignant statement on the album, with a beautiful, sombre and resonant reflection on life and mortality.
After one distinctively flavoured musical dish after another, Pain is a Warning came like a sonic palette cleanser. With all expectations reset Animal Mother delivers an auditory dish that brings together everything that’s made the band so recognisable over the years, while still being fresh and new. On top of this, the record takes the spirit of Neurosis, Godflesh, Swans and Slint and synthesises it all together into a cohesive form that alludes to some of the best features of all of these bands, all the while sounding exactly like Today Is The Day.
The band might no longer be so terrifying as in the past and they don’t exude malevolence like they used to; instead they now exhibit poise and authority, a certain kind of majesty that was never really part of the package before. Steve Austin is clearly getting older and if the measure is by the output of his band, he’s doing so quite gracefully. That frothing at the mouth, rabid frenzy so evident earlier in their career is probably gone for good. Animal Mother succeeds in positioning the band in a new landscape. Maybe some of the adrenaline rush of psychotic chaos is gone, but this latest incarnation of the band is no lesser creature as a result. Less inclined to slice you open, here they’ll more likely calmly crush you. And in any case, as refined as it is, that psychosis is surely still there behind the eyes, so don’t get too complacent thinking there won’t be a sudden knife to the throat. As Critical Bill put it when reflecting on his impulsive homicidal actions in Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, “when you think about it, it really was sort of your fault. I mean everybody knows… I’m out of my tits”
So there it is, my history of Today Is The Day. For those looking for a way into the band I’d recommend starting with Temple of the Morning Star, or the most recent album Animal Mother. Every album by the band has a different sound and style, but I don’t imagine there are many fans of the band who don’t appreciate those two albums. If I had to pick a favourite it’d probably have to be Sadness Will Prevail, but it took me a long time to get to that place. As to the rest, they’re all great in their own way… with the exception of Axis of Eden which doesn’t live up to the high standard set by the band (but it still has its charms).
They aren’t for everyone, but find a way into this world and you’ll never want to leave. If you haven’t done so already maybe today can be the day that you make every day Today Is The Day day.
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