What if the antihero in your favorite movie or novel never got the opportunity to repent, reconcile, or redeem himself? There is no victim to save. There is no evil to be defeated. Turnover is not even a tyranny. Instead of healing the day against his better judgment, he only walks a Sisyphean circle of existential misery, bound to repeat yesterday’s vices with no hope of a better future. Uniform tells this narrative on their fourth full-length album, Shame, rather than on the screen or on the paper. Michael Berdan (vocals), Ben Greenberg (guitar, production), and Mike Sharp (drums) slog through an industrialized mill of grating guitars, twisted electronics, war-torn percussion, and demonically catchy vocalizations.
“Thematically, the album is like a classic hard-boiled paperback novel without a case,” says Berdan. “It focuses on the static state of an antihero as he mulls over his life in the interim between major events, just existing in the world. At the time we were making the record, I was reading books by Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, and Dashiell Hammet and strangely found myself identifying with the internal dialogues of characters like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.”
The build-up to this point was as engrossing as any of those individuals’ actions. Uniform, who debuted in 2013, paved the way to the forefront of underground music. Following Perfect World (2015) and Wake in Fright (2017), The Long Walk (2018) constituted a critical high point for the band. Pitchfork called it “their most unified—and most deranged—record to date,” while The Line of Best Fit dubbed them “genre vanguards.” In addition to performing with Deafheaven and Boris, they collaborated with The Body on two albums, Mental Wounds Not Healing (2018) and Everything That Dies Someday Comes Back (2019), as well as the live CD, Live at the End of the World (2020). When it came time to write Shame, Berdan made a deliberate decision to incorporate lyrics, a first.
“I wanted my words to carry a degree of weight on this record,” he says. “Books and cinema have always been integral to my life, and that is often because of how I relate to the themes and characters therein. I am naturally shy and terrified of being misunderstood. This time around, I endeavored to trudge through those fears in order to explicitly articulate what goes on in a dreary corner of my inner life. To put it plainly: I was in a dark place. It was the culmination of years of thinking everyone in the world was wrong, but me. I realized that I couldn’t control the attitudes and behaviors of other people, but it was my responsibility to look inward and fix what was there. I had to articulate what was going on in my heart, my head, and my soul. As I set about the task of writing everything down, I experienced exorcism. If I wanted any kind of reprieve, I had to let go of the narrative that the demons in the back of my head had been constantly whispering to me. For years I held onto my lyrics like personal diary entries. Now is the time for a different approach.”
Mike Sharp makes his debut on drums on this song, giving genuine fire to the engine. With a live percussive storm, his presence grinds down their steely industrial edge. Greenberg took up behind the scenes producing chores at Strange Weather once more. Building on their last album’s approach, the band honed the strong blend of digital and analog, electronic and acoustic, synthetic and actual that has become their trademark. Another first was that mixing chores were not handled by Greenberg, but rather passed over to the legendary Randall Dunn at his Circular Ruin studio. “On ‘The Long Walk,’ we made a significant step in adding live drums and guitar amplifiers,” Greenberg says of the choice. It was a stylistic departure, but it had been planned for years; we were simply waiting for the proper moment to carry it out.
With ‘Shame,’ the next natural step was to hand over the Mix portion of production. An extra pair of ears in the Mastering phase is critical for obtaining a broader perspective and producing a compelling final product; I wanted to discover a comparable constructive cooperation earlier in the process. Randall was an obvious option since he has long been a teacher and mentor to me; Berdan, Sharp, and I all have some of our favorite recordings bearing his name. Randall and I had already collaborated in the control room on several occasions, including the Mandy OST and co-producing the recent Algiers LP ‘There Is No Year,’ so we already had a well-established process and similar aesthetics.”
The opening track, “Delco,” combines guttural distortion with evocative chanting supported by strong drumming. The track, which is an abbreviation for “Delaware County,” focuses on Berdan’s childhood in a suburb west of Philadelphia and “how beatings and bullying by these local hellraisers taught (him) how to keep his guard up and traverse a harsh society.” Elsewhere, “Dispatches'” jagged thrashing alluded to “Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke and how tiny the gap between personal stability and catastrophic breakdown is.” “Life in Remission” kicks into high gear with neck-snapping chords and a furious scream spiraling towards oblivion.
“The song is about people I’ve been close to who passed away and how I’ve become numb to death. A lot of these songs have to do with an internal dialogue and overwhelming sense of fear, uselessness, and dread constantly whispering at me, ‘You’re not good enough. Give up and join those you’ve seen disappear and die.’”
Berdan finishes the album with the almost eight-minute “I Am The Cancer,” in which he assumes the perspective of “The Judge” from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, even quoting his pronouncement, “God is war; war continues.” The title track “Shame” cements the essence of the album in many ways, with unrestrained music and a vicious bark.
“It is about self-medication no longer working,” he acknowledges. “This person is being tormented by internal ghosts from the past.” He ends up drowning himself in booze as a result of his anguish and shame. It was inspired in part by a Twilight Zone episode called Night of the Meek, which is about a drunk, impotent department store Santa Claus who wants to make a difference but is unable to do it. There is a happy ending to that story. We will see how this one goes.”
Uniform’s story may not be nice, but it is unmistakably true. “All I can say is that I am delighted this exists,” Berdan concludes. “It seemed like something we had to make. “Just completing it is enough for me.” ✪