Mike Shiflet

The Choir, The Army

It is difficult to describe what makes a good ambient-drone record. Granted, the barrier is set pretty high for those approaching these kinds of records. But after clearing the hurdle of listening to tones shift in and out of focus with the occasional sand blast of dissonance for hours on end, trying to describe the aesthetic qualities which separate the good from the monumental slabs of noise gets a bit tricky. Most of this review will be spent by me trying to unpack why I “feel” this is such a monumental record. Why I “feel” that The Choir, The Army puts Shiflet in a place reserved for the heavyweights of the genre. But so much of this will fall short of how I actually feel (unquotated) about this record. The sounds, the melodies, the perfect balance of beauty and dissonance, are all pitch-perfect, but somewhere, a strong undercurrent holds it together. And more than anything I can identify with this undercurrent. It feels familiar, sympathetic or compassionate in the true sense of the word. But approaching this as an abstract piece of work, The Choir, The Army isn’t something that stays on the wall, it is art, sure, but it is also something more vital, something living and breathing.

There is something unnamable beneath the way Shiflet sculpts viscous waves of sound, stretching and thinning them into a distant bass rumble or a sustained, unrepeating signal. Other times he bunches them together into short stabs of dissonance like a sudden spike on an EKG. There is much on this record that is unnamable, which probably says more about the listener than the artist. There is much, however, that can be named, that is readily apparent on the surface. There is much of this that contributes to the album’s success. The album is a cohesive shift from spectral to the structured to the unraveled and peeling. Tracks like “False Flats” and ”Inching” prop up the arching middle of the album’s tent with haunting, too-pure ambience. Stars of the Lid come to mind here in the lunar pull of a lonesome slide guitar, the gentle, few note strum, the upper register haunt and the low plod of the sustained drone. What is remarkable about these tracks is the wide-eyed expanse of West Texas after wading through an intense four minute jackhammer and traffic noise of the city in the aural attack of “Attrition”. It is moves like these that give the record a sense of catharsis. A sense of moving through physical locations through an aural medium.

Pure haunt gives way to two tracks that are just as evocative, but a bit more structured and under just enough static and dissonance to pitch a balance between the two sides of this record. “Omicron Serenade” and “Passchendaele” are tonal shifts, oscillating sirens stuck out of joint and stalking our plane. “Yonder”, which bears a striking resemblance to album opener “1917”, is old. A forlorn violin glides through 1930’s radio static and a thousand chiming clocks buried well beneath the sediment of the track.

And we are back from dissonance back into dissonance. From wide-lens landscape shots of West Texas to frantic jump cuts and the cocaine-jazz of the city. In both cases, The Choir, The Army feels like a reaction to something put upon. Someone working under oppressiveness of landscape. While Shiflet works as an expert sculptor, molding these into useful, often beautiful, shapes, you get the sense that Shiflet is always a half-step behind. His conscious reaction to it is what makes this a great record. It is because I can relate to it. I am always trying to get ahead of my environment, to get out from under the consequence of decisions not always consciously made. I guess that unnamable part of life comes from these efforts to keep up, to mold them into something useful, and sometimes beautiful.

Ryan H.

Mike Shiflet.com

Under the Spire

April 15th, 2013