Mike Shiflet’s shifting, elegant sonic experimentation on Merciless is so meticulous and thoughtful, it feels unfair to describe as merely “noise music”. For sure, the compositions are at most times aggressive, loud and unsettling, truly music that can be defined by what it is not, to cop Paul Hegarty’s definition of noise. And yet, and yet… something is different here.
‘Feeble Breaths’ opens the album slowly, but as Shiflet methodically manipulates and emphasises the electro-acoustic tones and tape manipulation he toys with, he creates a field of pure sonic discomfort. In many ways, ‘Feeble Breaths’ reverberates with echoes of fellow Midwestern noise acts such as Wolf Eyes and Failing Lights, with its undercurrent of palpable menace, but where their noise evokes faded, queasy 80s horror film soundtracks, Shiflet’s cloud of mutant distortion would feel equally at home alongside the experimental field recordings of Jason Lescalleet and Graham Lambkin, with added emotional potency. As ‘Feeble Breaths’ dissolves into an interlude of tape static, the sense is that Shiflet is not so much aiming for a sensory noise assault in the manner of so many of his less-imaginative contemporaries, but rather something more considered and reflective. Paradoxically, much of Merciless, from ‘Feeble Breaths’ onwards, begs a rather unexpected question: can noise music be quiet?
As if in response, the hiss of ‘(Breaths)’ seamlessly makes way for a languorous synth drone composition called ‘Exodus and Exile’, where echo-laden extended notes and muted gong percussion drift in and out of one another, the lack of focus only heightening the inchoate pathos behind the music. Of course, Shiflet is no longer operating in noise territory on ‘Exodus and Exile’, yet its tonal simplicity and subversive majesty serve as counterpoint to the edginess of ‘Feeble Breaths’, suggesting that every Merzbow-shaped coin can be flipped over to reveal a Steve Reich picture on the other side. Both track titles suggest struggle and loss, and both are defined by sheer blocks of sound that, for all their monolithic potency (be it noisy or becalmed), are percolated by unexpected yet instinctive recession, the walls of static, noise and synth gradually fading and returning, with the resultant near-silences feeling like rays of light piercing through a dank curtain. Even at its most assertive and abrasive (basically the two interludes ‘(Breaths)’ and ‘(Exile)’, both serving as raucous companions to the tracks preceding them, as if Shiflet has plucked only the most distorted elements in ‘Feeble Breaths’ and ‘Exodus and Exile’ and decided to amplify them), there is a sense of delicacy on Merciless that floats through each track like a balancing force, the ying to Shiflet’s moody, crushing yang.
The title track, recorded with the help of Burning Star Core’s C. Spencer Yeh, pulls these gossamer strands together for a triumphant finale. As Yeh mutilates his violin and peppers the ether with crinkled, Conrad-esque drones, Shiflet seems to lean on his effects pedals and devices, pushing out morose sub-melodies and discordant glitches like a punk Pauline Oliveros. Such references to avant-garde and minimalist composers is not cheap: Shiflet’s greatest achievement on Merciless and its predecessor, Sufferers, has been to patiently juxtapose the basement abrasion of noise with the patient graduation of sounds inherent to modern composition. This is music that can both rape your ears and serenade you into a near-blissful trance. I know of few artists to have accomplished both so convincingly.
It will be very interesting to see how Mike Shiflet continues to develop his somewhat unique approach to noise. It’s something of a fine balancing act, and I’m sure that at times he must have been tempted to just let rip on his distortion pedals and go all Vomir on us. But he didn’t relent, and such absolutism, whilst being a definite hallmark of a good old noise artist, also allows him to point the genre in more testing, expansive and, yes, contemplative directions. It’s what makes him one of the most exciting talents out there, regardless of how you want to catalogue his music.