Today Is The Day: What’s So Experimental About Metal, Anyway?

austinSteve Austin strikes me as a singularly-minded sort of fellow, for better and for worse. Just read this Metalsucks.net interview; Mr. Austin might seem crazy, but no one could argue he is not dedicated to his work; Today is the Day is the story of that dedication. The band has seen a number of folk shuffle in and out of the lineup over the past 16 years, but for my dollar they’re one of the most consistently interesting “heavy” acts ever.

The question of what makes this body of work “experimental metal” – as was raised in the comments section of this post – rather than one of the other twenty-five available genres is a fair one. As a dilettante, I can offer a possible solution to this everlovin’ question of genre without too much baggage:

Today is the Day is weird. (“Atypical”, in other words.)

IODASupernova_0A perfectly useless cop-out, but apt enough, with songs that bounce between several styles in the span of a few minutes. That’s without getting into the odd twists and turns between full-length releases. Their first full-length, Supernova, is a smear of screaming and squealing – both voice and guitar – and has more than a few noise rock touches. As with most Today is the Day vocal performances, Austin‘s strained and layered performance is a phasey haze of anger. He’s pissed. Even when he’s describing something perfectly nice, like love, it’s angry. Much like Michael Gira never ceases to sound like he’s laughing at his own misery, Austin is covered with a halo of rage.

His voice is not a traditional “menacing” metal growl or shriek; at first listen it mostly sounds ridiculous. I’ve described it as “a cartoon character having a panic attack”, which is apt enough for government work. It certainly takes a few listens to get what he seems to be trying to get across to the listener, regardless of whether it works for you. Lyrically, Austin tends to be somewhat fragmented and simple; variations on “you suck, i hate my life too, but you suck worse and here’s something about guns”.

But lyrics devoid of their performed context are always dumb, as I am fond of claiming, regardless of how “smart” a band is rumored to be. What’s important is the execution; the form is the function.

Supernova has a lot of “experimental” touches; long songs twisting around a simple riff or drone or little ditties of bleeping electronics and fuzzy bass sandwiched between more obviously metal tracks like album opener “Black Dahlia” and “Silver Tongue”. It’s fantastic and sprawling, if not where I’d start evangelizing.

WillpowerWillpower is somewhat close to being a straightforward rock album, sorta. Just to make my handy generalizations about his vocals into a lie, he actually sings in several points. It’s still a layered smear and heavily processed, but it’s definitely singing, punctuated by growling and shrieking and the like.

This dynamic vocal performance sit on top of a psychedelic rock/metal hybrid featuring some great bass playing – particularly on “Golden Calf” (ignore the weird naked lady picture on this youtube clip) – or the radio-friendly-ish love song/stalker anthem “Simple Touch”.

The music is dotted with old movie samples acting as thematic lead-ins, a motif that is repeated across most of their releases to come; the memorable rant that beings “Spotting a Unicorn”off of In the Eyes of God is one of the more effective uses. It’s a pause before the next wave of BRRRR TAT TAT comes in.

TITDselftitledThis self-titled release from 1996 was the last before making the jump to Relapse – their subsequent breakup is chronicled in the song “Broken Promises and Dead Dreams” on Axis of Eden and is about as evenhanded as the title suggests – and is a push away from the psych-mindedness of Willpower, despite the heavy use of keyboards. “Bugs Death March” really does it for me, though – it may be accessible at this last.fm link – and packages everything I like about Today is the Day into five and a half minutes of pure quality. Sprawling, aggressive, weird and enjoyable; encompassing everything from claustrophobic drone and doom touches to a hint of epic metal, mountains-in-the-background style.

And the whole album is like that. It’s sweaty and paranoid, though not as depressive as Sadness Will Prevail. For beginners who like their music chronologically ordered, I’d start here. It’s punchy and cuts across a bunch of styles, if not moods, generally staying in the land of “sweaty and paranoid”.

Today is the Day is also an outstanding-sounding recording, despite the tenor of the content, though this is something that is largely true of their entire catalog. If you’re going to be unusual, attention to detail is important.

morningstarOne of my favorite concert memories is seeing Today is the Day for the first time at the old Knitting Factory; Austin said “watch this” to his bandmates and then played the first few notes from “Temple of the Morning Star”. The crowd went nuts. I went nuts. It was a great show, with Derek Roddy on drums. (You can catch up on the gossip behind that parting in the Metalsucks interview linked in the first paragraph.)

Speaking of awesome live performances, the first time I heard “The Man Who Loves to Hurt Himself” (at Club Europa in Greenpoint, the Brooklyn indie metal venue of choice) I peed myself a little bit, because that opening sample – “Right now I want the attention of every God-fearing American citizen” – is both cliched and awesome, like the cover art.

This whole album is defined by being catchy; there are those who would say “but a sludgy post-metal thunder and wheeze filled with screaming, chuggy screeches masquerading as hooks is, by definition, not catchy.” And they would be wrong (as they always are), as can be seen from “Kill Yourself” and “Mankind” and “every other song on this album”.

It also has “Pinnacle”, which is a song about violating someone’s marriage from the back door. It is uncomfortable. (The song; the act requires only a passing familiarity with the work of Tristan Taormino and good communication.)

At this point Today is the Day is becoming what the Garden State guidos used to call “kill your mother music” (pronounced “kill ya mudda moosik” because they weren’t so hot with-a the Englaysh). It’s “brutal” in terms of being emotionally stark and evocative of pain and rage, though musically there are a lot of their usual change-ups and general harshness. It captures the sense of contempt that was intended by the ginos of my youth in describing “Angel of Death” or an early Metallica song, but “for reals”. You can really feel this in a live setting – and even if you hate the band, Austin‘s live performances are worth watching. He has absolutely destroyed his own voice through years of screaming, an impressive marker of both his personal dedication and a living representation of metaphor for the overall theme of Today is the Day as a signpost for self-destructive, inwardly-focused and all-consuming obsession.

I’ve already reviewed the outstanding In the Eyes of God here, but this is just neat:

Good job!

sadness

We’re halfway up the mountain, so now it’s double album time. The fuzzy, wounded harshness of In the Eyes of God is further explored here – for two and a half hours. I like it, but it’s definitely rough on the old ears.

“The Descent” had an adequate video made for it but I can’t help but feel that Relapse (rumors about their business practices aside) wasn’t the proper culture for this kind of music. I wish I knew dick about the practical side of video production (rather than the mostly hateful side of post-production) because they deserve better than “stock weird video of angry band #4”.

But the real standout on this album is “Invincible”, where Austin’s strangled screaming chugs along to a memorable set of hooks before slowing down into a piano-driven moan-and-drone, combing together in a finale that combines both styles and feels far shorter than its seven minute runtime. Admittedly it is followed by “Aurora”, which is a delightful attempt at gentleness, and the album closer “Sadness Will Prevail”, which features Austin’s most complete vocal performance, though it does end with one of those silly “four minutes of silence” pauses followed by a dose of layered screaming. In the MP3 era, the whole “hidden track” thing is defeated by immediacy and easy searching.

The second disc tends to meander, which hurts some of these compositions. A few tracks seem like filler, but it also has some excellent instrumental compositions like “Your Life is Over”, a plonky piano-driven piece that falls into an uneasy background hum. The second disc is bookended with some straightforward songs like “Breadwinner” and “Flowers Made of Flesh”, but otherwise makes a good case for the “experimental” tag, being explorations of ambient and electronic landscapes, or the 23 minute grind-and-electronics workout “Never Answer the Phone”.

kissthepig

Kiss the Pig is only about 30 minutes long, all told, and has a somewhat smushed sound to it, whether by design or because the mastering engineer messed something up. It’s not terrible (unlike the job on Axis of Eden, which did damage the overall sound of the album.) Which is a shame, because it features a number of barnburners like the opener and…well, most of the rest of the album. It’s pretty harsh, all told, though one does get the impression that the strain on his voice has required a lot more vocal processing as the years have gone by.

Stripped down and well on the short side, the experimental (that is to say “atypical”) moments of Today is the Day were shortchanged somewhat. This quality also makes Kiss the Pig a good starter collection. It’s not too “atypical”, but it’s not stereotypically “metal” either.

Perhaps that’s the crux of the question of what makes something “experimental metal”, though it turns a murky and largely useless label into an incredibly low barrier to entry; is “experimental metal” merely “hipster metal” that isn’t very popular?

Two videos were produced from this record. Both are what you’d expect, but you have the good:

And the not so good:

It’s important to remember what a record company thinks of its fanbase sometimes. Or perhaps the distinction between patronizing and service is lost on me.

Last up are my thoughts on Axis of Eden. Short version: I like it, the recording quality/style kinda sucks, but I still can’t wait to see what’s next. “Broken Promises and Dead Dreams” is one of the more savage pieces in a body of work that is dominated by hyperbolic violence.

As a closing note, the only live record I have the Live Til You Die LP, which is ridiculously uneven in terms of quality. It has a great live version of “Pinnacle”, for example, but is largely comprised of mediocre audience recordings and a surprisingly not-terrible cover of “Wicked Game”.

I have a great deal of respect for this band, and count two of their live performances among some of the best music I’ve ever watched. Steve Austin’s idiosyncratic artistry is wrapped in ambient self-hatred, most of which I hope is catharsis and not a cry for help, and has led me back into an interest in metal. Most of what I’ve found has never come close to Today is the Day, so he’s both lifted my heart and ruined my taste, and for that I thank him.

Relapse is having some big sale on most of their backcatalog – which includes some of the above records – but their website is being stupid at the moment and as the hearsay goes, they’re not a particularly great company to support.

supernovarecords.net

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Today Is The Day: What’s So Experimental About Metal, Anyway?

  1. “Experimental metal” is somewhat of a misnomer – if one must nomer – for TITD. The band, while having metallic elements at times, neither comes from metal culture nor engages in its trappings. “Experimental” also implies distance away from some norm. TTID is obviously some distance away from conventional metal, but to my ears, it comes more from ’90s noise rock. Seen that way, TTID’s “experiments” aren’t particularly experimental.

    Not that that reflects on the quality of the work. I just feel that reliance on artificial/arbitrary reference points like genres can hinder productive discussion about art.

  2. experimental is really just shorthand for “atypical” (or weird, or even “not very good” but someone wants to be kind/write a press release). it’s about as useful a descriptive as “avant garde” if someone is seriously into genrefication.

    but as shorthand for most folk, i think it works pretty well, even if only as a signpost that means “stay away”. along the lines of how kleenex means “tissue” and (as seen in that ny times article) “death metal” means “loud and abrasive heavy metal” for the general population.

    their first two albums are definitely rooted in noise and even psychedelia of a kind, but traveled into a kind of hybrid space as things went on. by the time of kiss the pig it’s pretty firmly a metal thing, if somewhat atypical. (and most of that comes from his vocal performances, i think)

    on a side note, i ordered the coffinworm demo from the band after hearing that mp3 on your site. supposedly they have a full length in the works.

  3. For a second there, I thought you were going to be posting either this, or this.

  4. BakedPenguin

    To build on what you said dhex – “experimental” is a catchall for “this kind of fits in this genre, but it defies enough genre stereotypes that we have to point that out somehow”. It’s kind of a silly title – an experiment should either be considered success or a failure, and then they move on.

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