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Hold Steady

A decade after aggro-rock's heyday, Nashville's Today Is the Day keeps going strong.



In the beginning, the punk subgenre hardcore had a pretty strict blueprint. That changed in the mid-'80s when ambitious bands such as Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, and the Butthole Surfers began to blur the genre's borders, setting the stage for a new generation of hardcore bands: Helmet, Jesus Lizard, Unsane, Today Is the Day. These bands were the progenitors of what fans and critics called "aggro-rock" or "noise-rock."

With a heyday that runs roughly from 1988 to 1995, the aggro-rock subgenre acted as indie-rock's ugly cousin, a severe contrast to the gentle scene then holding sway around Beat Happening/K Records in Olympia, Washington. By contrast, noise-rock may have been more of a boys' club, but even then it was in many ways less disturbing than the spectacle of grown men throwing a pajama party.

Steve Austin's Nashville-based Today Is the Day not only outlived many of their early-'90s contemporaries, they blasted out of 1992 with an unhinged sonic psychosis that made Helmet sound more like grunge-era lightweights Candlebox. The trio's "phase one" was carried out via the one label uniformly synonymous with aggro-rock: Tom Hazelmyer's Amphetamine Reptile. While stationed as a marine in Seattle, Hazelmyer launched AmRep in 1986 as an imprint for his band, Halo of Flies. It soon blossomed into the preeminent representative of the loose movement by nurturing or furthering the careers of Helmet, the Cows, and Melvins.

On the strength of the debut 1992 EP How To Win Friends and Influence People, Hazelmyer signed Today Is the Day and released the band's initial string of albums: Supernova (1993), Willpower (1994), and an eponymous third record in 1996. The underground had never heard anything like these albums. Austin's vocal range — singing to yelling to his trademark distorted/reverb-drenched scream (a convincing impersonation of someone being burned alive in an empty gymnasium) — plus his off-kilter time signatures, thrash- and death-metal-informed riffs, and use of keyboards made Today Is the Day a fascinating, hair-raising, and, to some, repellent prospect.

Today Is the Day's second act had the band switching from AmRep to Philadelphia's Relapse Records. The band's AmRep releases struck a strong chord with adventurous fans of death metal, grindcore, and black metal, so the move to the growing underground metal powerhouse made total sense. Album number four, Temple of the Morning Star (Relapse, 1997), managed to top the extremes of previous albums, like an unholy marriage of King Crimson and early Napalm Death.

A perfectionist with a short fuse and a strict vision, Austin blew through bandmates as if he was passing them on the street. By the time he cleaned house after Temple of the Morning Star, six musicians had passed through the Today Is the Day ranks. He had moved the operation (the band and his recording studio, Austin Enterprises) from Nashville to Clinton, Massachusetts, and returned to a guitar/bass/drums lineup. Drummer Brann Dailor and bassist Bill Kelliher backed Austin for the In the Eyes of God album, and this short-lived lineup tends to be a fan favorite (it's no accident that Dailor and Kelliher went on to form a little quartet called Mastodon). In the Eyes of God is foremost a metal album and is widely considered the classic within the Today Is the Day discography.

The next Today Is the Day release had a polarizing impact on fans and critics alike. At two-and-a-half hours spread over two CDs, the sprawling Sadness Will Prevail (2002, Relapse) is Austin's epic. A new rhythm section tackles a slew of Austin's unique compositions, there's an EP's worth of instrumental material, and the ringleader bares all on "Death Requiem," a morose-yet-pretty exercise in clean vocals and strings. The droning song snippets, industrial ambience, and samples-laid-atop-noise that connected songs on previous albums were extended into stand-alone tracks. The common accusation that Sadness Will Prevail is weighed down with filler can't be ignored, nor can the ambition, experimentation, and nerve to bring this release to fruition.

The 36-minute Kiss the Pig (2004, Relapse) is Today Is the Day's brutal farewell to Relapse Records. Starting with "Why They Hate Us" ("they" as in the rest of the world), two-minutes of unrelenting machine-gun riffs, what sounds like 4,000 bpm drumming, and tortured screams proving Austin's discontent with, well, everything, Kiss the Pig doesn't let up until the roller coaster of sludge, death, doom, and thrash dissolves into the passage of acoustic-guitar weirdness that closes the album.

Once free of Relapse, Austin returned to Nashville and launched Supernova Records in 2006. The label is now up to 19 releases from 12 artists, including the Austin side-project Taipan and a nonstop schedule of live Today Is the Day releases. Supernova also reissued Today Is the Day's formative trio of albums on Amphetamine Reptile and, more recently, echoed the condition of the music business at large with the decision to limit all future releases to digital downloads and vinyl. A thumb in every pie, Austin also helped produce and release David Hall's Axis of Eden: The Movie, a film based on the most recent Today Is the Day album of the same name.

If such a thing exists, Axis of Eden (2007, Supernova) is a slightly friendlier Today Is the Day album, with a few more forays into Melvins/Black Sabbath doom-metal territory.

Austin, bassist John Judkins, and drummer Mike Rosswog (Today Is the Day members #15 and #16) bring the cathartic release to the Hi-Tone Tuesday evening.

Today Is the Day

The Hi-Tone Café

Tuesday, December 2nd

Admission is $8

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