’93 Retrospective #2: “Supernova” by Today is the Day

“A storm is rising. Can’t you sense it?” – “Silver Tongue” from Supernova

By the early 90s, noise rock bands were in no short supply. The genre itself had not only emerged into popular consciousness but was a foundational element of the grunge and, more generally, alternative rock milieus now surging in popularity. Still, while superstars like Nirvana were cranking out distortion-drenched nihilistic rock for the masses on MTV, the majority of noise rock groups were leading the typical unglamorous existence of working musicians, cramming into cramped tour vans, playing in filthy (if not downright hazardous) venues, and getting a decent amount of college radio airplay if they were lucky. The noise aesthetic might have gone mainstream, but much of the actual music’s appeal was still limited to relatively niche audiences. Those fans, however, were fiercely passionate, like the punk and hardcore obsessives who preceded them. Many were the same people, now older but no less alienated and starved for the visceral, sensory assault that aggressive, caustic rock music delivers.

There had been a steady supply of it since the 70s. Suicide’s brash electro-minimalist “punk mass” and Throbbing Gristle’s bleak dirges and industrial soundscapes caught the ears of a young Steve Albini, who further pioneered noise rock through the 80s at the helm of Big Black and Rapeman alongside fellow genre mainstays God Bullies, Helmet, The Jesus Lizard, Sonic Youth, Swans and others. Across the Pacific in Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun birthed acts like the Boredoms, the completely deranged Hanatarash and absurdist Gerogerigegege, along with the distinctly less violent (i.e. not given to sawing dead cats in half onstage or driving excavators through venue walls) Ruins and Zeni Geva. The arrival of the 1990s saw an independent/experimental rock landscape filled with both the creators of noise rock themselves in addition to labels like Skin Graft, Touch and Go and Amphetamine Reptile, the latter originally started by Marine Corps lance corporal Tom Hazelmayer as a means of promoting his band Halo of Flies.

Today is the Day in their Nashville practice space, early 90s. L-R: Michael Herrell, Brad Elrod, Steve Austin.

Far from being homogeneous, the noise rock style was an alchemical witches’ brew, and perhaps no other band embodied this better than Today is the Day. The group’s origins stem from the dissolution of the avant-metal outfit Alien In The Land Of Our Birth, which featured South Carolina-born drummer Brad Elrod and, in its final incarnation, Tennessee native Steve Austin on guitar. Shortly after the breakup, Austin and Elrod formed Today is the Day, recruiting Alabama transplant Michael Herrell as bassist and releasing the 1992 self-produced EP How To Win Friends And Influence People. The following year, they signed to Amphetamine Reptile, recording and releasing their debut LP, Supernova. The result is a fifty-plus minute aural mélange, repeatedly careening from the brutal to the sublime and back. Austin’s tortured screams and dissonant, lacerating guitar work wind through constant tempo and metric shifts, punctuated with samples of everything from Michael Moore interviewing neo-Nazis to a sound system demonstration tape that shipped with late 80s Chryslers. All of it is anchored by Herrell’s driving bass and Elrod’s vibrant, cascading drumming: aggressive and precise, recalling fellow experimental rock pioneers like Bruford and Carey. It’s music that works both from afar as a confrontational gut punch and a richly detailed tapestry up close.

Flier for a Supernova CD release party in Birmingham, Alabama, August 1993. (Photo: Julie Odom)

Herrell, who I spoke to via social media, remembers recording at Amphetamine Reptile’s in-house studio, a carpeted, acoustically dead downstairs facility that was the sonic opposite of what the band was used to. “Our practice room had [soaring ceilings]….It was a warehouse space, and [it] had huge sound. [It was] really different for us to have to go and use…some reverbs or whatever [to get] the live sound which we liked and which we later provided on Willpower….” Thankfully, the awkward transition had no deleterious effects on the quality of the final product. “All three of us [were] finding our ground….[We had] so many different kinds of influences [from] different bands we all brought to the table in our different styles,” Herrell said of the inception of Today is the Day’s sound. While the group already had its “core rock songs,” the overarching approach to Supernova was for it to be “a voyage like Dark Side of the Moon…a voyage between songs.”

The album has a nightmarish, hallucinatory quality to it, maintaining an overall stylistic continuity as it trudges through a tracklist characterized by starkly contrasting dynamics (musical and sonic) and oblique, eerie instrumental interludes. Opening track “Black Dalhia” starts with a striking descending guitar riff and furious fill by Elrod. After less than a minute, the time changes begin. Austin alternates between overdriven leads and massive, distorted textures, accompanied by his requisite banshee screams and wails. The song settles into a chugging ostinato near the end, only for an explosive reprise to draw everything to a close. Similarly, “6 Dementia Satyr” has a jazzy, chime-sprinkled beginning in compound time that’s quickly abandoned in favor of a riff-heavy rampage that ends with a frantic tempo shift. Conventional, pedestrian “verse-chorus-verse” form is essentially absent here. Supernova demands attention from the listener.

In 1994, the aforementioned Willpower was released, the final album with all the original members. Elrod and Herrell both departed in 1996 (with Elrod briefly returning to play on a 1998 tour) and the band continued with a different lineup on every subsequent record, Austin being the sole constant. While a move to Relapse Records saw the release of 1997’s Temple of the Morning Star (often regarded as the band’s best work,) 1999’s In the Eyes of God (featuring future Mastodon members Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher,) and 2002’s bizarre double disc magnum opus Sadness Will Prevail, the experimental and psychedelic qualities that were a core component of Today is the Day’s output up to that point featured less on future studio recordings. Some of their later work recalls the group’s AmRep era, but never, in my view, replicated the lightning in a bottle that was the band’s first decade.

It’s obvious how influential Today is the Day has been not only in the domain of noise rock, but metal and boundary-pushing music overall. Surveying the musical landscape of the past thirty years, their imprint on everyone from Deadguy to Dillinger Escape Plan and scores of contemporary bands is undeniable. Critic Patrick Kennedy observed that “[Supernova] presaged the shape of things to come in extreme music. [It] straddles numerous musical fences at once, and indicates that metal could indeed be far more than a simple, formulaic system of chugging riffs, screamed vocals, and stampeding drums….Very few outfits are capable of such detailed, inescapably mathematical, acid-damaged music. Supernova is a landmark recording.”

Ultimately, everything that came to define Today is the Day is present on Supernova: ferocity, heterogeneity, bold experimentation, fearsome musicianship and uncompromising musical ambition. The energy and drive of all involved parties is clear, and the result is a mercurial experience that thoroughly assaults the senses before ending as abruptly as it began. The passage of time hasn’t dulled its impact whatsoever, and how lucky we are that trio of southern weirdos committed their vision to tape in a Minneapolis basement three decades ago. Supernova endures in all its psychotic glory.

Listen to Supernova on YouTube:

Surreal Spring: A Retrospective of Three Albums from April 1993

Primus, alongside VJ Kennedy, on MTV’s Haunted House Party, October 1993.

For the entirety of this blog’s existence, its subject matter has remained solely political. This month will be a (much needed and long overdue) departure.

In western popular culture, the early 1990s were an anomalous period, comparable to the late 60s, where elements of various subcultures of the past two decades found their way into the mainstream. There were few realms in which this was more obvious than music. No Wave, hardcore punk, post-punk and noise rock of the late 70s and 80s found new visibility among audiences of the time, with the bands/musicians of said genres (Big Black/Shellac’s Steve Albini and Black Flag’s Henry Rollins are just two examples out of many) suddenly sharing the spotlight with a number of newer groups bearing their influence. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil both attended Big Black’s 1987 final show in Seattle. Within a few years, the two were giants of the now wildly popular “alternative” music scene.

At the same time, a vibrant musical underground flourished, playing host to a plethora of acts that would eventually break into the mainstream (The Butthole Surfers, Helmet, The Melvins, Primus,) others who didn’t but proved to be greatly influential in the long-term (Breadwinner, Today is the Day,) and a remaining smattering of obscurities and curiosities (False Sacrament, Shorty.) Independent labels like Sub-Pop and Amphetamine Reptile, along with tape trading, fanzines and mailing lists, all played a significant role in enabling a varied array of bands and artists to keep making music that reached audiences, both large and niche.

Lollapalooza attendees at the World Music Theatre, Tinley Park, Illinois, July 2, 1993. (Chicago History Museum)

The early years of the decade saw a truly dizzying array of seminal releases from a diverse range of artists: Built to Spill, Bjork, Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Faith No More, Helmet, Ice Cube, Jamiroquai, Jane’s Addiction, The Melvins, Meshuggah, Ministry, Mr. Bungle, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Primus, Public Enemy, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Shellac, Skinny Puppy, Sonic Youth, They Might Be Giants, Tool, Tom Waits, etc.

The list, of course, goes on. For the rest of this month, however, I’m focusing on three records from 1993. Why 1993? As a teenager, it was a year of immense importance to me solely because Pork Soda, an album that completely blew my mind a decade later, was unleashed on the world. Since then, I’ve obviously become aware of the multitude of other fantastic records from that year. I discovered last fall, though, that three of my favorite ’93 releases, including Pork Soda itself, all dropped in April, the two others being False Sacrament’s April 1993 and Today is the Day’s Supernova.

These three albums encompass the aforementioned paradigm of early 1990’s “alternative” music: The formerly unknown hitting the mainstream. The weirdos who’d go on to influence entire generations of musicians. The even weirder weirdos whose demo tapes, seven inches, EPs and LPs exist in the present day as relics of a bygone era. They’re all equally deserving of recognition on their 30th birthday. This month will be devoted entirely to them, with each entry posted the day of the original release if available. Hopefully, you’ll come away from each post either knowing a bit more about the music in question or having discovered it for the first time.

Encapsulation of an era: The Melvins, with Kurt Cobain, circa 1992 during the recording of their 1993 album, Houdini. L-R: Buzz Osborne, sound engineer Jonathan Burnside, Lori Black, Dale Crover, Kurt Cobain.