The Armed Make Themselves Known in a Big Way on 'ULTRAPOP'

The Armed Make Themselves Known in a Big Way on 'ULTRAPOP'
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The Armed are a band known for their elusiveness. The mystery surrounding the extreme group is made up of things like fantastical music videos, Ford commercial nods and intentionally deluding the media about who they really are, all for a greater artistic purpose. It works well for them, and it's all a part of the story that makes the Armed so intriguing, seemingly strivers for a future of music, culture and creativity that's as boundless as their collective vision.

For their new album, ULTRAPOP, the Armed finally revealed their lineup, which has been ambiguous in the past, and it packs a punch, extending to nine members, including two drummers, four guitarists and six vocalists (several members work double duty) with additional guests. The result is an album further evolved from its predecessors, an experimental vision of hardcore, metal, noise and pop that's equal parts chaotic and elevating, visceral and cerebral, strangely beautiful and masterfully maximal, filled with raw, unbridled energy.

The album's production, with Kurt Ballou once again at the helm, is crisp, precise and devastating. Similar to 2018's Only Love, ULTRAPOP's tracks are knotty and layered yet woven together in ways that make their music captivating and dynamic, like the punishing bass, dreamy vocals and shapeshifting, sparkling and strident synths of the opening title track, giving a feeling that's simultaneously overwhelming and blissful. "MASUNAGA VAPORS" and "FAITH IN MEDICATION" wield full-bore hardcore fury that's twisted up by manic guitars and speed-freak drumming, with both elevated by light backing vocals that provide a subtle counterpoint to the vicious rage.

The band's emphasis on the concept of ULTRAPOP comes through a focus on counterculture and a drive to push any notions of genre beyond expectation and to their most intense forms. The group remain a unit with an unmistakably complex sound. And with ULTRAPOP, they've refined their chaos to the point where their extreme and experimental tendencies are right at home with their pop sensibilities, and many of these songs are melodic and catchy as hell, in remarkably twisted ways. Fierce screams and crushing guitars demolish the "BIG SHELL," while harmonized vocals and relentless and towering instrumentals attempt to lift the deceptions and "beautiful pain" of "AVERAGE DEATH." "REAL FOLK BLUES" embeds buzzing hooks into a harsh and urgent scream-along epic with lyrics, amongst other things, about a strawman in the streets, gold-plated prying eyes and something burning through the skin. Intricate rhythms, tones and electronics clatter, weave and pulse around one of the record's catchiest vocal refrains on "BAD SELECTION," and the album closes with the harsh, pounding and melancholic "THE MUSIC BECOMES A SKULL."

The album's lyrics are often bizarre and esoteric. You could parse them for days and still not know for sure what they're about. "ALL FUTURES" takes buzzing riffs, rampant energy and lyrics about being anti-capitalist and staying hopeful to anthemic heights, but the phrasings used inject ambiguities amongst more direct notions: "Caress a monolith / Shape shifted birthing hips / Cut up – Cut out – cut in – it's meaningful if nothing's meant / Maybe a race to nowhere, but I still hope that I win / I'm anti, anti, anti…" The lyrical puzzles and buried meanings fit well with the band's flair for diversion and challenge-all-expectations ethos, adding an enigmatic layer to their intricate music. 

In "A LIFE SO WONDERFUL," hooks and near-inhuman drumming propel the song into one of the band's most ferocious and uplifting choruses to date. Despite the song's title, its lyrics tell a tougher story: "Addicted till we all got sober / We tried to find a place, start over / A body that keeps getting colder / A fame that's never getting closer." Nothing is ever as it seems with the Armed, and ULTRAPOP is another piece of their mystique. The band's myth and the unity behind it is something that comes out in the spirit and strength of their music, where every part is as important as the other in order to experience the big picture and its full force. ULTRAPOP is a beautiful storm, dense, monstrous, vital, and aching to break free. (Sargent House)