The Armed – Ultrapop


Artist

Album

Ultrapop

Label

Sargent House

Year

2021

For Fans Of

Converge, METZ, Rolo Tomassi.

Summary

We are all The Armed; AOTY.

Rating

95 / 100

If The Armed made a post on their social media tomorrow, saying “Good evening, “The Armed” was a sociological experiment conducted by Harvard University,” I wouldn’t be surprised. For how this enigmatic, experimental-hardcore noise-pop Detroit collective operates is about as confounding as the intense music they brandish. There is an estimated two-dozen-plus members, with anywhere from eight-to-twelve members contributing here; promos and live line-ups are different; faces change but the names seemingly don’t and vice-versa; “actors” may or may not appear in Gear Gods clips; interviews are entertaining and bewildering performance art; known-unknown ringleader, “Dan Greene,” has a religious book and cult website called The Book of the Book of Daniel; the band allege that someone bought them a Times Square billboard ad; and now they’re all dieting, body-building warriors. For fans and newcomers alike, this is all so bizarre. And that’s the whole damn point. Everyone’s on the same level due to this confusion, like little kids again, now free of any preconceived notions and elitism.

The Armed are a puzzle with pieces intentionally missing, all in the name of deception so that we focus on the “what” – the art, music and message – instead of the “who.” (Though their quest for mystique and anonymity has backfired; people obsess over figuring out their inner workings more so than they do the music.) I liken getting into and understanding The Armed as trying to grasp the story of the Dark Souls games. After the first go, you enjoyed it but didn’t fully “get it.” Then comes the second run, you like it a lot more, having more fragments of the wider yet incomplete picture. Then there’s the third attempt, and you FUCKING LOVE IT, with the eureka moment that you’re not meant to understand everything, that you can’t and never will. That it’s really more about the thrill of the journey and the heavy emotions felt during it. That’s FromSoftware’s titles; that’s The Armed with ‘Ultrapop.’

When ‘Ultrapop‘ released into the world on April 16th, there was no shortage of big albums dropping. New albums from the likes of Hail The Sun, While She Sleeps, and Holding Absence, all feeling one-dimensional by comparison. (Still love the new HTS album though!) It’s a blistering hurricane of varying influences, intents, and ideas; everything from Black Flag, Andrew W.K., Deafheaven, Health, Fuck Buttons, Death Grips, Genghis Tron, Converge, and Rolo Tomassi. All stitched together with the smoothest track flow of any Armed release yet. Feeling simultaneously familiar but totally inspired and unique, the competitive hardcore and pop duality of this LP gel together beautifully. They’re not an anti-thesis, they’re whole. It’s deconstructivist hardcore; Maximalist pop music pushed to its breaking point; a commentary on how the current culture has made music and art so easily accessible that it’s all now “pop.” That everything is commodified, no matter how genuine; an album whose perspective is “everything is everything.” The Armed love hardcore, hence why they’re lovingly tearing it down.

Ultrapop‘ is an incredible successor to ‘Only Love‘ (2018), making the three-year period between these releases all the more worth it. I go back to that preceding LP very often, and the same thing is happening with ‘Ultrapop‘: it’s living rent-free in my head as I’ve listened to it more times than anything else this year. And it’s only been out for two weeks! I could talk about this stellar fucker all day and never arrive at the bottom of it all without over-looking or under-selling some aspect of it. So I’ll just get the hell on with it.

When the title song greets you at the opening pearly white gates, it’s with falling keys, noise-fuckery, power-electronics, amp feedback, sub-booming kicks, and intimate vocal crooning, all reverberating and layered over each other, announcing that “There are no more prophets. There are no more diamonds.” It’s pretty but ugly, and that’s by design. If you don’t like this, you likely won’t enjoy what’s coming. It’s a surprising yet big-sounding introduction for them, that you could swear the band were levitating from how ascendant it sounds. This works in tandem with how the record later finishes on a very different timbre. With the dark droning sounds of ‘The Music Becomes A Skull,’ dotted by the gravely baritone vocals of Mark Lanegan – singing about the discarding of artists once they’re finished performing (“What a brilliant show, now get off“) – and loud percussive bangs that The Armed mangle guitars around like a brilliant car crash. It’s beautiful in its own twisted way and I can’t help but love it and this album’s book-end.

All Futures‘ is the most straightforward, blissful take on The Armed’s bleed-over of hardcore punk, synths, and noise-pop. As “straightforward” as music like this can get. It sounds like the band are breaking the speed limit whilst driving, held together by talented drummer, Urain Hackney, who features on most of ‘Ultrapop,’ shooting a speeding percussive bullet across these songs with furious blasts, quick punk beats, meaty chops, and suitable cymbal pummeling. (For any Aussies reading who saw Converge at Download Festival in 2019, Urain filled in for Ben Koller and he crushed it.) With fist-pumping vocals from Adam Valley, Cara Drolshagen’s harsh but hooky yells of “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah“, finer synth smearings from the swole Clarke Huge that make it all feel so catchy, to all of the disjointed guitar action, The Armed war against the present counter-culture heading into a destructive future ruled by “sanguine sacks of shit” as capitalism takes hold of the art they love.

One of the biggest themes of ‘Ultrapop,’ outside of the creation of and purity of art, is the topic of ownership, and ‘Masunaga Vapors‘ addresses that with its French art-theft inspiration. It’s also the perfect bridge between the brazen hardcore chaos of ‘Untitled‘ (2015) and the melodic, synthy goodness of their previous LP. Like ‘Future Drugs‘ crashing into ‘Witness.’ This thing doesn’t stop, it just keeps going! The way the guitars and synths continually shoot everything higher is so immense, making the song’s extreme climax feel like an ego-death acid trip. It’s like a real rush of blood to the head. The Armed’s not-so-secret winning ingredient of melodic singing merged with blackened, distorted screaming is as effective a songwriting trick as ever. It’s 2:30 run-time rockets past so fast you could fool yourself into thinking it was just 23 seconds long, it’s that engaging.

The Armed’s line-up methodology make them a perfect group for the current disinformation age. ‘A Life So Wonderful‘ being about this disinformation, about the death of truth, likening it to a “body that keeps getting colder.” About the unaware ignorance that comes from one’s views being manipulated. In-vogue and series theme aside, it’s an upbeat, galloping hardcore punk track that’s saturated within an inch of its life in noise and distortion. Whose genuinely elated blast-beating refrain is like nothing else around in 2021. This delirious fourth cut is why you should listen on solid headphones so that you can better decipher the layers of rich sonic details fortifying this beast. The song’s angular opening guitar work sounds like something punk band METZ would put together, which is apt, as it was recently revealed that METZ guitarist, Chris Slorach, is now in The Armed. (At this point, I could even be in The Armed.)

An Iteration‘ – whose music video uses a monologue about the changing form of war from Solid Snake himself, David Hayter – looks at how rich and deceitful yet utterly numb figures – cult-leaders, self-help gurus, etc. – entice, serenade, and fool those worse off than them into following their thinking and aesthetic. That way creating “iterations” of themselves. One of the more “restrained” songs of the whole 12-track experience, if you could even label this sublime song as such, ‘An Iteration‘ switches between a classic soft-loud dynamic. Cacophonous hardcore sections versus these darker ruminating segments of off-putting layered male and female singing, sixteenth-note hi-hats and tremolo guitars, before careening into one another. It sounds like an ‘Only Love‘ leftover but I’m not complaining!

The harsh but more rock-orientated ‘Big Shell‘ – yet another MGS allusion – is lead solely by Cara, beginning with a broken-up guitar lick as she screams: “Fickle Kingdom.” It’s a song that embodies one of the main spirits working behind ‘Ultrapop,’ and that is to be one’s true self, and fuck the rest who don’t like it. (“Heaven wants a say. All I want is air.”) With a pummelling mid-song breakdown, and a striking all-together-now styled instrumental smashing before the song’s final punk sprint, it never ceases to amaze me just how catchy The Armed makes all of this cacophony sound whilst still being so crushing.

One of 2021’s best songs, ‘Average Death‘ is an innovative mixture of their turbulent hardcore-punk and haywire electronics with shimmering shoegaze that’s just genius, helpfully brought to stunning life by prominent bass lines and the finishing touches from Chelsea Wolfe collaborator, Ben Chisholm. The Armed could be actors themselves, the “real” band obscured from us, but this song takes a literal approach to the idea of acting. Namely the abuses against female actors in the early and mid 20th century. How it deeply hurt and trapped these women (“dance for your captor, always an actor“) within an on-surface shiny but underneath toxic industry. Incredible music, depressing story, listen to women.

Panning glitches begin ‘Faith In Medication‘ before all-out chaos is propelled along by one of the busiest, sickest bass riffs of the band’s existence. Once the melodically-abrasive guitars and synths pick up, and Urain begins mercilessly beating his drums, it’s heavenly. You can get lost within this tsunami of noise, the high level of lyrical forthcomingness, and that untamed, scratchy guitar solo. ‘Where Man Knows What‘ addresses an obsession with artistic creation. (“A jukebox that only has one good song. Put on repeat and on repeat. That’s where my head’s at now.”) It has the kind of angular, hair-raising breakdown that would’ve made The Chariot proud with the type of nuclear-grade feedback and heavy chords it wields (courtesy of Converge’s Kurt Ballou.) And from these broken amp squeals, leaps forward ‘Real Folk Blues‘ with a cracking drum-break. Written about acid-house rave artist turned tech-bank robber, Tony Colston-Hayter, its alarming sounds evoke their wicked 2019 single, ‘FT. Frank Turner.’

The Armed’s experimentation reaches a different zenith with ‘Bad Selection.’ This tension-rising piece is pure sonic elation of kicked-in synth patches, washed-out guitars, reversed-percussion, mashing cymbal crashes, and over-lapped singing and screaming, culminating in a metaphorical and literal “Alleluia” moment. It’s got the most breathing room of anything on ‘Ultrapop,’ seeing the band thread the needle between new and familiar grounds. This is The Armed’s sermon; talking about the thin line between having faith for better days and mere blind faith. It tickles my musical frisson every time the vocals swoon with “Something dimly lights the way“. The songs’ bonkers, crust blast-beat section is overwhelming, some of the heaviest shit I’ve heard all year, and somehow more arresting than when they ripped through a similar passage on ‘On Jupiter‘. Their victorious-sounding “everything at once” instrumental punches that follow said part is something they’ve done before, not only on ‘Ultrapop‘ but on past outings. Yet when they unleash it on ‘Bad Selection,’ it’s the most glorious and life-affirming it’s ever been.

Conclusion

Albums like this, where there’s not a single thing I would change or think could even be improved, are such a rare thing. I even bought the Dan Greene vinyl edition of ‘Ultrapop’ after but a single listen to this record on the night it was released. I’ve never done that before with any release ever. I was at a loss for words the first time I heard it. I was so fucking nervous going into this album but my fears were completely dashed after that first playthrough alone. Hopefully, this only further communicates to everyone reading just how much I love it, and how essential I think a record of pure feeling like this is for the current musical climate in 2021. You’ll either like it or you’ll hate it, but I recommend you listen to it at least once.

‘Ultrapop’ is the death of dogmatic approaches to hardcore and pop music. It’s fucking weird, and it’s most certainly obtuse, but it’s unbelievably fun and incredibly artistic. Records like this inject the glee of loving and discovering music back into my jaded heart. Despite the album’s insanely abrasive nature, it fills with me joy by how pure and authentic it is. It’s everything I wanted and expected from a follow-up to ‘Only Love’ and everything I didn’t know I needed, breaking new ground for them. The more you listen, the more that its intricate little details reveal themselves. It’s a lot. The only thing that matches its heavy, noisy extremity is the overwhelming sense of euphoria felt in each track. Via 12 cacophonous experimental songs, The Armed tear down these genres’ conventions, erecting something new atop the rubble. Putting forward the best representation of themselves and how they view the music they love. ‘Ultrapop’ proves that the only restrictions on your art are whatever limitations you yourself set. Not an album, it’s an experience. It’s an acquired taste, but once acquired, you’ll never go back.

Tracklisting

Ultrapop

All Futures

Masunaga Vapors

A Life So Wonderful

An Iteration

Big Shell

Average Death

Faith In Medication

Where Man Knows

Real Folk Blues

Bad Selection

The Music Becomes A Skull

‘Ultrapop’ is out now!

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