Unsane/ Today Is The Day/ Keelhaul/ Vilipend @ Sneaky Dees, Toronto ON, August 22, 2010

Live review and photography by Laina Dawes

Steve Austin is an interesting man.

The first time I set my eyes on the legendary frontman in person was outside of Toronto’s Sneaky Dee’s, hanging out with my metal comrades and waiting for the doors to open to one of the best lineups I’ve had the great fortune to see this year: Vilipend, Keelhaul, Today is the Day and Unsane. Dressed in beige business-casual pants and a conservative red plaid, long-sleeved dress shirt and sensible shoes, a ruggedly handsome middle-aged man walked up to my friend Dave Hall and embraced him in a bear hug. As they stepped away to chat, I turned and whispered to my friends Jason and Rebecca, “who the hell is that?”

“That’s Steve Austin.”

He looked nothing like I expected him to, in part because of the numerous stories I had previously heard about the leader of Today is the Day. While there was nothing but positive remarks from friends and colleagues who have toured with the band, there was also a sense that many were intimidated by him. I could see his tattoos creep out around the starched collar of his shirt and despite his white-collar demeanor; there was a sense that he was someone what you really did not want to fuck with.

So why am I starting this concert review with Austin? Because what he looked like on the street in comparison to his absolutely brutal and electrifying set later on, seemed to represent the entire evening. With every band that played, there was a strong sense that the guys we saw stoically dragging their equipment up the stairs, were really not who they appeared to be. The shitty stage located on the top of the stairs represented a space where the musicians could fight against the forced mundane existence in their everyday lives – to be essentially free for at least the duration of their 45 minute set. While this is really not a surprise to anyone who follows extreme music, it seemed that through various conversations with some of the members from the other bands, this particular tour seemed extremely relevant on not just a professional but also personal level.

Toronto’s Vilipend is fronted by Chris Gramlich, music editor at Exclaim! and the person I answer to as a reviewer for their Aggressive Tendencies section. I don’t know Gramlich that well, but every time I have talked to him in person he was extremely quiet and reserved. So to see him in action, ripping off his t-shirt, whipping around the miniscule stage bellowing and shrieking with his golden locks flying, my jaw dropped in amazement. Holy shit. Who knew?

Supporting Plague Bearer, which was released this spring on No List Records, it was pretty obvious that Vilipend was the best choice for opening the show, as their multifaceted approach to blackened death and hardcore was a perfect match to the other genre-bending bands on the lineup.

After chatting with bassist / vocalist Aaron Dallison from Cleveland’s Keelhaul, it’s safe to assume that they also depend on live performances as a temporary escape from their busy personal lives. They barely ever tour in the States, nevermind Canada, and because of their hectic day jobs and the other bands they play in, a follow-up to 2009’s Triumphant Return to Obscurity is sadly, not likely for awhile. Dallison seemed relieved that the quartet could even meet to tour with longtime friend Austin, whom he credits for inviting them to tour on their first ever tip to Canada, several years ago. And while rehearsals for the band are not as often as they would like, you would have never known it by the way they performed. Focusing on playing tracks from Triumphant, 2003’s Subject to Change Without Notice, and at least a track or two from earlier recordings, the band was incredibly tight and passionate, totally enraptured with their music. Anyone who has listened to me wax poetic about this band, knows how passionate I am about them and I probably made an ass out of myself air drumming along to “El Matador.”

The latest incarnation of Today is the Day includes bassist Ryan Jones and super cool dude, drummer Curran Reynolds from New York’s Wetnurse. This particular set, which was a compilation of tracks from 99’s In The Eyes of God, 2007’s Axis of Eden, and 2004’s Kiss the Pig was even more special as my man Dave, who runs Handshake Inc. created a film, Sexually Frustrating Satanic Landscapes, to accompany their live performance for this tour. If you are familiar with Handshake’s work, especially their previous film based on TITD’s Axis of Eden, you will know that the images projected on the screen were emotionally jarring, thought provoking and of course, phenomenal. While the trio was incredibly blistering on their own, the film brought a unique atmosphere to not only the music, but the interior of the dingy club.

What stood out for me was Austin. Not only did the conservative persona I observed earlier in the evening quickly disappear and was replaced by an incredibly intense musician who howled -either in pain or in passion, I don’t know – but it was clear where one could be in awe and be incredibly afraid of him all at once. With veins popping out of his neck, he was rigid and tense, but then on the turn of a dime, overcome with emotion and completely vulnerable. A touch of atmospheric programming filled in the gaps between the songs and the entire set was so thought out, yet seemed to flow organically. Austin’s career as a producer was evident, as the sound was phenomenal and seemed incredibly pristine, harsh and ragged and yet full and lush at the same time. I’m not a gear head and yes, I’m having a hard time describing it, but it was nothing like I had ever heard before in a live setting. So powerful and controlled.

Closing out the evening was Brooklyn’s Unsane, who played 1995’s Scattered, Smothered and Covered in its entirety, then threw in at least a couple of tracks from 2007’s Visqueen and others. I had never seen this band live and made the foolish mistake of sitting on the steps leading up to the stage for almost the entire set. And while I was completely in awe, I think I did some serious hearing damage as I used one of the bass amps to anchor myself while taking photos. Not the wisest move because damn, the band was loud and really, really heavy with a deep, rhythmic groove. While my ears are still ringing slightly as I write this, I have to admit watching drummer Vinny Signorelli play might have been worth it.

The show was amazing and a bit bittersweet. The club was packed and the crowd was pretty chill, filled with Unsane and Today is the Day fans who sang along with the bands. It would have been nice if the show was held in a larger venue but as Dallison pointed out, a show with four bands who are known for their unique and experimental take on metal doesn’t bring out huge crowds in North America. So they perform for those of us who appreciate it, but unfortunately, there aren’t as many of us as they deserve. But as long as the stage can serve as a temporary escape from the trials and tribulations of the everyday existence of a musician trying to make it in today’s world, so be it.

Adam has been a photographer for Hellbound since day 1 and also has a hand in the technical aspects of running the site.