Attending a Uniform show is a lot like stumbling into a revival. The attendees violently sway and crash into each other in a state of euphoria as a carnival barker exorcises their demons onstage. But instead of dramatic organ stabs to punctuate each cry of “You are healed!”, the guitar skronk of Ben Greenberg strikes at you like a hand slapping you in the forehead. And then there’s singer Michael Berdan. Don’t be mistaken by his wild thrashing and trance-like stare; he might look like he’s possessed by the Devil, but he is waging spiritual combat with the demons in the crowd and within himself.
It’s fitting, then, that Uniform’s new record The Long Walk confronts a crisis of faith. Berdan, a lapsed Irish Catholic for most of his adult life, recently returned to the Church. Normally, this would be a cause for celebration, but instead it brought only angst. He found that the tensions which first drove him away from Catholicism were still present in the Church. How does a religion which preaches love and charity also tolerate bigotry and exploitation, and how do you reconcile those conflicts within yourself?
“I almost view the whole of the horror genre as a bank to pull dual meaning from,” Berdan writes via email. “Most of our songs deal in personal, real-world situations that bring about psychic and spiritual pain, confusion, entropy, and atrophy.”
The Long Walk is a record that deals directly with the horrors of organized religion and the modern world by using horror as its primary frame of reference. Songs draw inspiration from Clive Barker stories (“Inhuman Condition”) and horror films (“Alone in the Dark,” “Headless Eyes”) as a way of coping with the existential terror churches wreak on their followers. Even the record’s title, The Long Walk, is an unsubtle reference to a Stephen King novel about a dystopian future in which America eats its young. But this is nothing new. Uniform’s discography is defined by a deep knowledge of horror cinema and fiction. References come hard and fast and tend towards the obscure (who but the most dedicated name a song after Night of Fear?). Berdan is as much a traveler in search of spiritual fulfillment as he is a fan. He speaks of horror as both an obsession and a passion, stating, “There has never been much that I’ve been into passively. When I develop an interest, I tend to dig as deeply as I can in order to better understand its roots and broaden my palate. I’ve been into horror for longer than I’ve been into music, so I’ve had some time to comb a small portion of the depths. Genre would get boring to me if it began and ended with what exists on the surface.”
Previous records have trawled the depths to find the depravity that lies beneath horror’s kitsch surfaces. Where most are too lazy to move beyond popular films about knife-wielding maniacs in masks, Berdan pulls from sources as diverse as Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader’s The Killing of America and Jack Ketchum’s The Lost. Why? To examine the monsters that live among us. On Uniform’s second record, Wake in Fright, he was haunted by the kind of crippling fear one might develop living in a world of human monsters — or, you know, living in America circa 2017. But that fear wasn’t necessarily for the ones hiding in plain sight. No, it was that he might be one of them.
“I’ve lived with a rather nasty anxiety disorder for my whole life,” he explains. “When it spikes, I can go for months without sleeping for more than a couple of hours in a night. I stop eating. I isolate … Wake In Fright was written during an extended period in this state, where I was constantly wishing for a moment’s reprieve and finding little or none. Most of the song titles on that record were reapplied from their original material to directly reference the physical manifestations [in me] and about how trying to escape these feelings have led me to some dark places.”
This is where the King reference becomes important. Even though Uniform relies heavily on old texts to make a point, their songs express very contemporary anxieties. On naming the album, Berdan states, “While we were working on the new record, I found myself going back to this absurdist, deadly notion of competition present in the book as allegorical for life in late capitalism. The more I played with the idea, the more I found myself relating to feelings I have regarding organized religion as well. It is a record about spiritual, emotional, economic death and, to a degree, rebirth.”
The Long Walk is more than just a Boomer allegory for Vietnam, and its invocation is another in a long line of clever connections made by the band. It’s a quintessentially American story, because Americans have been on a death march from the day we earned our freedom. We’re the tired, emaciated children of a country hellbent on grinding the innocent into dust. We keep walking ostensibly on vague promises of a reward in some distant future, but the truth is, we lumber forward out of tradition and process rather than a genuine belief we’ll ever reach the end. Inequality persists not because it’s inevitable but because we’ve grown accustomed to it and find it acceptable up to a point. Americans die in mass shootings because for that to not occur, something would have to change. We continue to walk because of those who bravely sacrificed themselves doing it before us. In America, there’s one way, and that way is forward.
These threads — religion, horror, American aggression — emerge from underneath a throbbing industrial pulse and barbed guitars. Berdan’s longtime co-conspirator Greenberg complements the singer’s sermons with riffs that batter you through repetition and sheer force. His versatility is easy to overlook upon first listen because many of the songs appear to cover the same sonic territory. This, however, glosses over his more adventurous moments. Album opener “The Walk” marries a queasy synth to sheets of noise in a never-ending drone from Hell, while “Found” chugs along like a lost thrash gem before collapsing into feedback and improvisation reminiscent of no-wave pioneers Suicide.
Much as with the band’s sound, Berdan’s tastes and fears are ever evolving. He even concedes the future might not be so bleak. When asked about his views on contemporary art, he responds with something resembling optimism. “I firmly believe we live in a great time for horror, for the first time in a long time,” he states. Whether he’s referring to the world we live in or the art that’s being created in it remains to be seen, but he is enthusiastic about specific writers and filmmakers like Donald Ray Pollock, Mike Flanagan, and Julia Ducournau, among others. He names so many writers (Paul Tremblay! Grady Hendrix!) and filmmakers (Jordan Peele! Ted Geoghegan!), in fact, that it’s clear Uniform will have inspiration for years to come.