ALBUM REVIEW: The Armed, ULTRAPOP
Hardcore is a genre that has an incredible amount of potential because it’s location in the cross-section of multiple genres. It can be technical in the same way math rock is, heavy like metal, anthemic like pop-punk and out of control in like classic punk. Bands like NAILS and Boris have effectively used the hardcore sound to creatively branch into metalcore, crust punk, thrash, doom and even drone. With the exception of pop-punk, all the genres I named are notorious for being harsh, unforgiving and face-melting. Hardcore bands usually don’t touch pure pop with a ten foot pole, because if they do, it comes out lukewarm, sounding neither heavy nor catchy. Enter The Armed, the world’s greatest “anonymous” band. Hailing from Detroit, this collective has been active for years experimenting with different styles and sounds within hardcore, adding additional members and guests at will to chase the perfect sound.
ULTRAPOP is that sound for them in my opinion. Their newest and best album takes all the elements that make pop music so infectious: the bright choruses, tight structure and clean production and cranks them up to the max. So to the max, in fact, that many songs on here just turn into maximalist hardcore all over again, as on the stunning female fronted “BIG SHELL” or the speedy “MANSUNAGA VAPORS”. These songs don’t particularly sound poppy, but the crystal clear production of both and clean vocals on the back end of the latter track continue to elude toward those sonic themes. To me, it’s the biggest selling point and the aspect of the album that keeps it cohesive as the songs range from cyberpop on the opener “ULTRAPOP” with Jess Hall to abrasive crustpunk on “FAITH IN MEDICATION”.
This is the first year the band has been transparent about its lineup, but from what I can tell the names revealed just scratch the surface of who is playing what on this album. From what I can glean from Wikipedia and various interviews, Adam Vallely is essentially the band’s mastermind, playing guitar, singing and even providing context for the songwriting on some of these tracks via Apple Music. Musician Clark Huge is a major player, Kurt Ballou is producing this album like he produces all of The Armed’s stuff, Cara Drolshagen is on here as the female screamer, and then we get like 10-15 guest vocalists, drummers, guitars, bassists and producers.
The lyrics here focus a lot on the concept of presenting oneself to the world while still being anonymous. Several of the songs here directly reference actors or playing different versions of oneself, see “FAITH IN MEDICATION” or more specifically “AVERAGE DEATH”, a track about actresses in the ‘50s being abused by the industry then continuing to “act” offset, pretending they were not affected by what was inflicted on them. “AN ITERATION” is my favorite song on the album but also the best expression of this theme. The song hits the listener with female and male dueted vocals on the verses and choruses, making it not only pop focused but also non-binary. The track’s incredible guitar soloing and workman-like drumming are impressive but so is the music video, which features the voice actor for Snake Plisskin from Metal Gear Solid. Fans of the game remember this character not just for his different graphical “iterations” from game to game but also the alternative, clone versions of himself aka Solid Snake, Naked Snake, Venom Snake and Liquid Snake. In a way, that’s the way this band operates from song to song, disorienting and identity shifting while still maintaining a core set of traits.
“REAL FOLK BLUES”, like many tracks on here, uses a specific historical event and person to continue to play with themes of identity. In this instance, the song is about a bank robber in the ‘80s who altered his voice to trick banks into giving him access to their systems during phone calls. Smartly, the vocals alternates between Vallely and Drolsagenin order to mimic what he did. The theme of cybercrimes and futuristic living makes sense considering the band's ahead-of-the-curve sound and recent collaboration with the video game Cyberpunk 2077. Even the opening track addresses the isolation caused in our NFT and cypto era with the lines, “holographic masses, artificial tensions”.
It’s difficult to review this album without just outright stating it’s themes and sonic influences because they all interlock. The band does repurpose the sounds of Queens of the Stone Age, but they get a frequent collaborator of that band to sing on the closer. The math rock of Dillinger Escape Plan and the shoegaze of Deafheaven are clearly major influences, but they tap into the precise time signatures and walls of sound that those respective artists are known for and make something brand new out of them, and then solidify their intentions by crafting a song about stealing art and falling in love with it as a result (“MANSUNAGA VAPORS”) to acknowledge these connections. When we hit them up to ask if we could use their song “ALL FUTURES”, whose chorus is “I’m Anti Anti ain’t I?” on our podcast they said, “Probably? We don’t give a shit!”. This just speaks, again, to that “great artists steal” motto that becomes more and more relevant in our post-PirateBay era. Everything is for sale, this album itself is meant to feel like a clean product, but The Armed argues the case that stealing is a hell of a lot more fun. (Please stream this album, buy it on Bandcamp or get a physical copy though).
That’s not to say that this album doesn’t sound as good as some of the best QotSA or Deafheaven albums, because it absolutely does. This is one of the best hardcore albums I’ve heard in a long time, the band’s purposeful, manifesto-like appeals to pop sensibilities make it feel like more of a plot than a lazy pander. The band has such an expert-level grasp of how to get people to re-listen their album without it being too heavy or too poppy as to give the listener a sugar rush or concussion. The semi-faceless and ever shifting nature of the group, just like AntiArt, means that they can experiment and try on new costumes. We can release an album review, interview a painter or talk about Chet Hanx, and the Armed can make a straightforward melodic punk cut like “AVERAGE DEATH” but also a 150 BPM machine-gun drum, mathy rager like “A LIFE SO WONDERFUL”. If you ever wonder why we constantly promote this band, it’s because we are them. We’re all The Armed if you get down to it, some of us are just more comfortable broadcasting a version of ourselves to the world than others. But we’re all just living life, playing our parts and occasionally screaming our heads off in anger.