The Armed – Only Love

Mark: For a number of years, both on this blog and off, I have taken every possible opportunity that I have found to try to work The Armed into my conversations. Their combination of prodigious talent and relative obscurity is a real sweet spot, allowing me to champion their work while also being a real pretentious know-it-all. I simultaneously want everyone to know about this great band while also secretly hoping that most people don’t “get it”.

But enough about how I’m terrible. The Armed have a new album out and it is distinctly not terrible. Only Love was released at the end of April, following a slow trickle of teaser videos and track previews over the last few months. My anticipation for this album could probably not have been greater, and certainly won’t be eclipsed by how I feel about any other album released this year.

But what do normal people think about it?

I couldn’t find any, so instead I enlisted my fellow Fraudsters to take a track-by-track run at this newly released modern classic.

As with all releases from The Armed, you can find it available for download free of charge at their bandcamp page. Please support the band by watching and sharing their YouTube videos 5000 times each, and by purchasing Only Love on vinyl, if you’ve got a record player and great taste.

Witness
Mark: The “Witness” video arrived early in the year, surprising many Mark Meekses with its evocative images and fresh sonic approach. I really hadn’t been expecting something with sustained black metal-style blast beats bolstering strange and aggressive electro-psychedelia, and I hadn’t been expecting such a mournful and beautiful video accompaniment. It’s an absolute racket that manages to be somehow gorgeous and moving. It remains a favourite of mine on this record.

Josh: Mark’s not wrong when he says it’s a racket that’s still somehow gorgeous. This is close to Deafheaven’s Sunbather in how it comfortably mingles shoegaze guitar melodies with black metal beats. The bridge here is like The Upside Down version of an oratorio, and it rules.

Jay: You guys are really going to make me be the normal one? Fine. FINE. So here’s the thing. There are clearly hints of something expansive and beautiful in this song, something that elevates it from standard post-hardcore/metal fare. Maybe the best way to describe it is a rehash of a conversation Mark and I had about Pile: it’s adults making adult music in a genre that is usually emotionally stunted. I really like this aspect a lot, or rather, I really respect it a lot. But as a song, as a mix, I find it nigh unlistenable on some stereos/headphones. The drums and vocals overwhelm the track so much that I can’t really hear what’s going on in the chords or melody. It’s a bold choice, but for me, I’m left straining to hear what’s going on in the background of the mix and trying to ignore the pummelling foreground. If anything, I find this track works much better at quieter volumes, in that it’s easier to hear the guitars and chord progression, and that’s weird for a genre I want to crank up. Lots to like here, and feels groundbreaking to me, but obviously not catering to my tastes.

Role Models
Mark: I’m not a big fan of this video, but the song is a fun extension of some of the sounds introduced during “Witness”, albeit on less grand of a scale. I enjoy this song, but don’t consider it a standout (the absolutely triumphant coda notwithstanding).

Josh: Is this too punk for you, or what? Because I love this beat and the dual sing-scream vocals. This coda is nightmarishly fun, like dropping acid inside a carnival. “Everything dies,” sure, but this song is full of life.

Jay: Much more intelligible, as far as the mix goes, and boy oh boy I love that opening synth. But it somehow doesn’t feel of a kind with the first track on the album. It was all one producer/mixer, right? A solid track, but doesn’t feel quite as “this is a new thing” as “Witness” does.

Nowhere To Be Found
Mark: The album’s strange diversion into an off-kilter trip hop track seems a little out of the blue three tracks in. In context with the album as a whole, though, “Nowhere to Be Found” works and it works well. Featuring some of Only Love‘s most subdued arrangements and interesting synthetic sounds, this track showcases The Armed’s ability to let a song simmer (as best exemplified by my favourite track on their last album, “Dead Actress”). The frosty, laid-back vibe is so effective for most of the song, it’s almost disappointing when the track erupts into its brutal conclusion. Almost.

Josh: I’m just going to say it…this is just Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place” for edgier but no less weird kids. Not that that’s a bad thing. I’m a big fan of songs that make the title into an anthemic refrain, which the one does.

Jay: I love where this track starts and much of where it goes. I’m probably the only casual listener of this band who hopes for more singing. To my ears, the insanely loud drums that come in for the crescendo feel a little more earned, but they’re still so muffled that I don’t love listening to it. I’ve always been one to knock Terry Date’s paper-thin drum tone with bands like Deftones, but hearing this alternative, I can respect Date’s approach to clarity across the track.

Apperception
Mark: The album’s fourth track opens with the album’s most traditional hardcore-sounding arrangement, but it doesn’t linger on them. The album’s hallmark swirling electronics and dizzying composition quickly disrupt what may have been a more conventional math-y hardcore song on a previous record. This track gets to be kind of messy, and is a good example of my hunch that at times Only Love‘s ambition may have outstripped the band’s ability to coherently capture their intentions.

Josh: Lyrically, this is the best song on the record so far.

Jay: The synths on this track rule. There’s a really great subversion of genre going on here. But again, I’m not that fond of how it sounds or listening to it. The last third of the song, in particular, sounds like an old distorted tape. To me it undermines the more spacey, interesting elements of the music, but I can appreciate that this is not a record tailored to the likes of me.

Parody Warning
Mark: One of my favourite tricks in this band’s bag is their ability to disorient and alienate a listener for the majority of a track’s duration only to pay it all off later with a huge, unstoppable hook. The glorious scream-a-long punk banger that lies at the end of “Parody Warning” serves as a perfect payoff for the spastic madness that populates the first half of the track. Great tune!

Josh: Yeah, bouncing between left-right channels always makes me feel like there’s a short in my headphones. The punk elements in this song are so strong, especially the ending.

Jay: There are simply too many notes. Just cut a few and it’ll be perfect.

Fortune’s Daughter
Mark: Boasting The Armed’s deepest-ever hook during its chorus, “Fortune’s Daughter” may be my favourite track in this collection. This song utterly rules. The riotous disco-punk that propels the track makes it an invigorating highlight!

Josh: Easily my favourite on the record. As much as I respect the dense wall of noise that The Armed are bringing, this utterly hook-laden track is my jam, and it is perfectly placed right at the middle of the album. The vocal hook of “Find a place / take up arms / it’ll all blow over” almost reflects how the song acts as a reprieve to the rest of the record.

Jay: Wow, you two don’t feel that this track is somehow betraying their origins? You two don’t feel it’s too much like Fucked Up (a band Mark introduced me to, and then later disparaged at length, haha)? Because I love this, and that’s why I presumed you’d think it wasn’t in the spirit of the band. This song is superb, and all the sonic elements go together spectacularly. I would be genuinely excited for an album of tracks like this (and not simply curious like an anthropologist, as I am with Only Love).

Luxury Themes
Mark: Another stark departure from The Armed’s previous work, “Luxury Themes” is another clear standout. Probably the most melodic thing that the band has recorded to date, the song manages to remain hypnotic as it ratchets up to a pummeling finale. I think I would take a whole album of material in this vein and be very, very happy about it.

Josh: There’s a lot going on here, and it’s all incredible. It’s more accessible and melodic than much of the record. It feels like the 5+ minute runtime gives “Luxury Themes” more room to breathe than a lot of the other songs. There’s a proper guitar solo and Deftones-esque melodies that aren’t as subsumed by the chaos. When the drums drop out just for a second to let the vocal harmonies shine, it’s transcendent.

Jay: Even more than the last track, “Luxury Themes” seems much more catered to my tastes than any of their previous work. Superb drum opening suggesting the likes of Nine Inch Nails, crazy-good rock and roll ideas that are turned upside-down with that crazy chromatic descending noodle guitar. This song is a gem, by far my favourite on the album. Give me a record like these last two tracks and I would be in love. And what a finale!

Heavily Lined
Mark: A fine stab at a boppy hardcore song, but perhaps not as revolutionary as the tracks that came before it. Still a blast to listen to. “Heavily Lined” is one of the album’s most straight-ahead bangers, and still boasts a catchy melodic chorus. I like it.

Josh: These riffs are chunky in a way that borders on cock rock. This track is fun, but easily the cheesiest song on the album. Even the big building crescendo that the song teases gives way to something surprisingly rote. The biggest surprise here in comparison the the rest of the album is how few surprises there are here.

Jay: Where do you go from “Luxury Themes”? I think I would have been disappointed no matter what track followed. There’s some brattiness to the riffs that I enjoy, the drums are awesome and don’t overwhelm the track, and there are vocal moments that pleasantly remind me of Duffy from Ladyhawk. But overall this feels much more standard.

Middle Homes
Mark: “Middle Homes” was the only song that I was unsure about on my first listen of Only Love. I’m still not in love with it, but I have come to enjoy it more with repeated listens, and I think that it works pretty well in the context of a record where the unexpected is the norm.

Josh: I like this more than “Heavily Lined,” because we’re back to having no idea where this band is going from moment to moment. It’s got a warm, almost indie-rock feel, with guitar work that feels like a hardcore punk version of “Baba O’Riley.” This is another lyrical standout: “It’s a town of broken homes/It’s a time of broken hope/You left us in the dark” feels upsettingly apropos.

Jay: This is really the point where I wonder if the hardcore hardcore people feel this record is not hardcore enough. I like this in an album-track kind of way, but I’m also surprised it’s an album-track on this particular album. I find it so weird how the drums are so much further back in the mix on some of these songs. Or maybe I’m just not into blast beats?

Ultraglass
Mark: A quick attempt at some kind of hardcore math-gaze, “Ultraglass” succeeds as an album track but doesn’t contain much that sticks with me.

Josh: I’m a fan of the distorted vocal melody here. It’s not a standout track but it’s by no means a weak spot.

Jay: It’s fine? I’m with Josh: the singing is nice. I also like the alt-timing stuff when the song picks back up in the second half.

On Jupiter
Mark: I didn’t really think that it was possible, but “On Jupiter” actually surpasses the soft-to-deafening juxtaposition of Untitled’s “Dead Actress”. While I’m not quite as hot on this song as I am of that song, it is nonetheless impressive. The droning vocal delivery and stuttering electronics set a terrific mood that is soon demolished by bashing attacks that sound like they couldn’t properly be committed to tape. The squalling noise that follows is a fitting end to an extremely restless album full of creative high points.

Josh: “On Jupiter” is a proper album closer in that, for the first few minutes of this song, you can can barely tell it’s the same band you’ve just been listening to for the past 30 minutes. The electronic bed the song is built on nicely slow-builds into something increasingly more urgent and chaotic. The repeated vocal growl of “Black water” over a droning stutter of sound is suitably ominous until it breaks open halfway through like the doors of hell itself—there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s three-and-a-half minutes of what feels like the equivalent of a band smashing all of their instruments at the end of their set and then lighting them on fire.

Jay: I sure find this unpleasant to listen to once they crank the volume. But similar to other tracks, I can hear tonnes of great shit in here. It’s just not for me.

The Verdict

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Mark: Unsurprisingly, I love this record. Surprisingly, though, it is not at all what I expected of it. While there are some truly banging moments found on Only Love, the real story here is the achievement in space, atmosphere and mood. This is forward-thinking hardcore music that I will be quick to recommend, but will do so with a disclaimer and will not take it personally if people are slow or unwilling to take it in. The album is a lot.

Overall, the album is inspiring and strangely uplifting. I would never complain about a new collection of signature The Armed-style bangers, but what we’ve received here is something different, and I’m appreciative of the obvious time and attention that went into its construction.

Hardcore music (and heavy music in general) is not often associated with thoughtfulness or artfulness, often dismissed as the realm of a bunch of shlocky meathead neanderthals. We’re lucky when acts like The Armed come along to playfully deconstruct these notions and give us something to think about, no matter how dizzying these lines of thinking might end up being.

GOLD STARS. I LOVE IT. NOT AS GOOD AS UNTITLED BUT STILL I LOVE IT.

Josh: Only Love sounds like a band committed to giving space to their ideas—all of their ideas—to create a rich tapestry of influences without relying on simple genre references. This is easily the best heavy record of the year.

Jay: Far more enjoyable for me than their Untitled, but still not quite what I’m looking for in an album. This feels like the album transitioning from being one type of band to another, and I’m curious to hear what that other band might be on their next record (if there is a next record). I’ll agree with Mark that there is something uplifting buried within even the most punishing songs on this record. And I love when adults make adult music, songs that demonstrate the growth of the individuals rather than trying to recreate some early 20s emotional landscape. I respect this record immensely, as I did their last record. And there’s even a chance it might grow on me more. But for now, I’ll listen fondly to that middle stretch and look forward to the band that the Armed is becoming.

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Author: markmeeks

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