The Armed – ULTRAPOP

Mark: While this blog rarely sees updates these days, it would truly be a missed opportunity to not have thrown down some words about the newest album by the band that I have referenced in probably 75% of the blog posts that I have written. A new album by The Armed has been my most anticipated album ever since they dropped their last album, which we wrote about and I loved. Ages ago, I wrote about their 2015 Untitled album, which I still believe is the most entertaining and re-playable hardcore album of all time. Anyone who hangs out with me (or used to, before I moved to rural Northern Ontario and we were all besieged by a global pandemic) is so, so sick of hearing me talk about The Armed.

Well, to them I say: Too fucking bad, there’s a new record out and I can’t stop thinking about it. So I’m going to write approximately 10,000 words about how great it is and you’ll get that instead of another post about my kid.

Every new release from The Armed comes packaged with a hysterical and bewildering press junket, and I think that enough has been said about that elsewhere. We’re just going to take a look at ULTRAPOP, song-by-song, and I am going to say many things about it. I am joined by my old friend Jay, who only has bad things to say about everything.

Jay: When we reviewed the Armed’s previous record, Only Love, I wrote, “This feels like… 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”. The heavy band that I respected but didn’t love was still there, but glints of expansive arty music were starting to poke through. A few songs in particular (e.g. “Luxury Themes”) were so radically different, but totally up my alley; I said, “Give me a record like these last two tracks and I would be in love.”

As loathe as Mark is to admit anything I do is right, I’m delighted to gloat: ULTRAPOP certainly is reflects a new stage in the band’s career. The hardcore caterpillar become an art rock butterfly, and I’m all for it.

ULTRAPOP

Mark: The Armed’s records typically lead off with a track that really throws down the gauntlet. Untitled‘s “Future Drugs” was a particularly searing and confounding cut from an album defined by its extremity. Only Love opened up with “Witness”, which I believe to be one of the most forward-thinking pieces of modern metal/hardcore of the last decade. Ultrapop‘s titular opener throws down the gauntlet in a completely different fashion, upending expectations by offering up shimmering synths and heavily processed melodic vocals, rather than pummeling intensity.

This track is a gorgeous and fascinating marriage of dreamy melody and ungodly noise. It’s actually a pretty perfect set up for what’s to come: Never what you expect, but somehow definitely The Armed-y and definitely Ultrapop. One of the best songs of the year!

Jay: Basically a perfect song. It’s a fuck-you to anyone who wanted the Armed to stay a forward-thinking hardcore band, and instead declares that they’re simply a band that does whatever they want. Fantastic melodies, harmonies, chord progressions, noise, beauty, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. While I’d argue there’s nothing else quite like this on the record, I can only hope they keep making songs like this in the future. Superb.

All Futures

Mark: The lead-off single from Ultrapop, “All Futures” is a ripper in a whole new vein for this band. My initial reaction to this one was actually pretty similar to my reaction to “Role Models” from the previous album. I thought it was okay, but I wasn’t really 100% on board at first. Over time, it became a fave and certainly one of the biggest sing-along tunes to be found on Only Love.

“All Futures” has also grown on me. The gonzo noise-pop going on here holds an infectious appeal and the sing-along hook has me thinking that this will be a major high point of any future The Armed live show. The St. Vincent-ish guitar tones are particularly magnificent, and this is the second track in a row to loudly announce to the audience that this is not a typical hardcore record. There are songs on this album that I like a lot more, but I’ve come to really enjoy this one. One of the best songs of the year!

Jay: This song feels like the proof of concept for the album. Most of the other elements of the record are represented here: interesting heavy rhythms, guitar weirdness, both melodic vocalists, anthemic chorus, etc. Or maybe I’m biased to think of it that way since it was the lead single. Like Mark, I especially appreciate the love note to Actor-era St. Vincent in those guitars, and more than simply homage, they manage to really evoke an emotional response in me. Spectacular.

Masunaga Vapors

Mark: The Armed circle back and remind everyone that they’re capable of positively destroying a listener with confounding, snaking guitar noodles and face-melting blast beats. Of all of the tracks on the album, this reminds me most of something like “Witness”: Absolutely crushing, but not really metallic. There’s something major key about the whole thing that makes it feel more like an uplifting piece of symphonic pop, albeit one being fired into the listener’s face with a high-powered laser cannon.

This song smokes. I love it.

…One of the best songs of the year!

Jay: In my review of the previous Armed record, I mentioned that some songs only made melodic sense if they were turned down and listened to quietly, which felt antithetical to the Armed listening experience. This song does exactly the same thing for me. I think I love the uplifting chord progressions and alt-timing of the intro and the outro singing, but I can’t quite hear it. All this to say: the mix is not for me. But it’s obviously for others (see the middle-aged man above).

A Life So Wonderful

Mark: Having observed the fan reaction to the album on some forums and on The Armed’s BandCamp page, “A Life So Wonderful” seems to be getting a lot of love. My take on it is a little more complicated, as one of my very few quibbles with this album concerns some of the vamping that the lead vocal reaches for in the closing moments of the song. It seems half-baked and the song starts to fall apart for me a bit at that point.

It’s a shame, too, because the rest of the song is a bunch of unexpectedly sunny and fun… uh… power-pop-core? There’s something distinctly Weezer-ish about the feel of the verses. The tune is downright infectious, and the double-kicking, blast-beat-laden lunacy that they’ve got going on here is fun to the max. I still really love this song, but I just wince a little bit when the vocals go off-map. It must not bother me too much, though, as I have yet to skip this (or any) of the songs on the record when listening to it. It is… one of the best songs of the year!

Jay: I just read through Mark’s section above, and I’m truly surprised that this track is getting more love than others. It’s thoroughly OK and it has grown on me with repeat listens, but it felt more like a mid-record track. Again, that might have something to do with the mix, which (in my garbage opinion) buries the melodic elements a little too much. Like I mentioned, though, this one keeps growing on me and I love its juxtaposition between verse and chorus (or whatever you call those sections).

An Iteration

Mark: The release of “An Iteration” as a single was probably the biggest “oh shiiiiiit” moment that I had during the lead-up to Ultrapop‘s release. And I had already “oh shitted” a couple of times with the first two singles.

This track is a colossal banger. Not only one of the album’s best, but one the band’s best tracks in my opinion. The loud/quiet dynamic shifts usher in hook upon hook upon hook, while still totally slamming. It’s a pretty remarkable tune. Maybe the best song of the year!

Jay: A perfect and catchy song with its own distinctive personality. Hooks for days, great vocals (especially on the chorus), propulsive drums, just enough of the album’s noise and character. Unbelievable track. I just love it. I also feel it’s a bit a rich for these jokers to criticize others for being pretentious and “pseudo-sophisticated”, while simultaneously making a concept video with the voice of Solid Snake. Hopefully this level of criticism will help me live up to my reputation as a dour middle-aged man. (This really is a gem of a song.)

Big Shell

Mark: ULTRAPOP is an album full of big swings, and “Big Shell” arrives at the midway point where every swing is cracking a dinger right out of the park. As if to anticipate any conversation that The Armed have softened up, “Big Shell” is a positively molten track, a scorching blend of hypnotic drone riffs and pummeling blast beats.

This tune sends me to the moon and I adore it. It also sounds like so much fun to play. One of the best songs of the year!

Jay: As happens with any high on an album, it’s hard for me to not be disappointed with what follows. Some neat guitar moments, nice major key flourishes, but again the mix is getting in the way of me enjoying this song. But don’t let my stupid ears get in the way of you enjoying it!

Average Death

Mark: “Average Death” feels like a natural extension of the vibe explored on one of Only Love‘s best tracks, “Luxury Themes“. In our review of Only Love, I mentioned that I would gladly take a whole album of material in this vein, so I’m happy to hear something on ULTRAPOP that hews closely to this style (while simultaneously happy that the album as a whole is all over the map).

“Average Death” sports a blend of gauzy dream-pop and herculean, incomprehensible drum work, all bashed together in a way that feels very fresh and fun. Terrific tune. One of the best songs of the year!

Jay: Another very strong song that leverages both their art rock sensibilities and their hardcore roots. I think it’s also a great example of using extremely heavy drums tastefully, with the chorus being simultaneously anthemic and rhythmically crushing. While it doesn’t reach the highs of “Luxury Themes”, “Average Death” still is a gift in this stupid pandemic year.

Faith In Medication

Mark: “Faith In Medication” brings us as close as ULTRAPOP gets to the technical hardcore stylings of The Armed’s 2015 “Untitled” album. Which is to say: this song rips.

Zipping from mode to mode, this is a real banger of noisy prog bits and blast beat segments that builds to a mosh-worth four on the floor conclusion. Jesus Christ, the bass playing on this track is spectacular. One of the best songs of the year!

Jay: I like the first ten seconds quite a bit. And again, when I turn it down, I like some of the guitar ideas and the finale. Like “A Life So Wonderful” above, I find that this song rewards with repeat listens, but that’s primarily because my ears are finally understanding the elements of the mix. Since I am a member of the Armed (and you are too!), one day I’m going to request the stems to remix some of these tracks. Until then, I’ll probably enjoy this one much more live than on the record.

Where Man Knows Want

Mark: ULTRAPOP throws another curveball by serving us a… disco-core song? “Where Man Knows Want” is a somewhat hilarious mashup of hardcore blasting and bopping dance beats, the shrill backup vocals bringing things completely over the top. It is catchy as fuck. The extremely maximal outro section is both totally surprising and absolutely appropriate.

I would have to call this one of the best songs of the year!

Jay: Fun! Another great example of using blastbeats for emphasis and dynamics, rather than as a foundation under the song. I think I’d like a more dynamic performance from the main vocalist, but I sure love the juxtaposition between the singing and screaming. Again, the reason I think this one works more than others is because the mix doesn’t obscure the melodic elements; this outro works because you can hear the chords that are being hammered. Fantastic track.

Real Folk Blues

Mark: I really love all of the tracks from The Armed’s recent output that throw the spotlight on their new vocalist, and both “Big Shell” and “Real Folk Blues” are spectacular. This is a dangerously catchy slice of noise punk and it is one of my favourite tracks on the album. From the venomous “tear ’em to pieces” hook, to the totally warped synth lines, to the hard-earned tunefulness of the outro (with ripping guitar solo), I just love this one. I would take a whole album of this vibe.

One of the best songs of the year!

Jay: I am convinced that this is a Sonic Youth song that the Armed stole from some archive (they’ve done it before!) and repurposed into their own track. Since the vocals are atonal, it’s a nice touch that the guitar/synth-sounding stuff picks up the slack on the melody. I’m also convinced that this is the track that Mark Lanegan guests on, and that the Armed are being their usual trickster selves by crediting him on the last track instead. Just listen to that Laneganesque outro! I like this one.

Bad Selection

Mark: In an album full of surprises and twists, “Bad Selection” was actually the biggest sucker punch for me. The band is nearly unrecognizable in this electro-pop guise, somehow winning me over with a style that sits well out of my comfort zone. It sounds pretty terrific and I would love to hear more music in this vein. Look at me. My tastes growing because The Armed said so.

It would be a pretty tight race between “Bad Selection” and “An Iteration” in terms of “which song I have listened to most repeatedly”, so I guess I would have to admit that this is a pretty big favourite. The chorus holds the biggest hook of the entire album, and the climax of the song is absolutely triumphant.

Unsurprisingly, this is one of the best songs of the year!

Jay: So good! This is real genre-creating territory, and ranks among their best work. So many great sounds (especially the synth stuff), and kept rock-solid with a beautiful foundation of drums. Plus it’s mixed in a way that my stuffy ears can appreciate! At least it is until the finale, but by then the chords and melody have been established, and the noise is well earned. If this is the promise of what’s to come from the band, I’m excited, and if it’s only a stopover before something else, I’m just grateful to have this track at all.

The Music Becomes a Skull

Mark: This creep-fest closer features the great Mark Lanegan presiding a noise-driven, throbbing funeral dirge. It’s a solid slab of mood-building. I’m not sure that this song amounts to much for me all on it’s own, but as an album-ender, it is positively un-skippable. The way that the glitched-out noise chugs dovetail back around to the beginning of the title track is just *chef’s kiss*.

A very worth conclusion to the best album of the year!

Jay: Love the intro. Don’t love famous guest vocalists. Don’t get me wrong: Lanegan is awesome and his performance here—if it really is him, see above—is good. But Lanegan (or any other famous vocalist, really) showing up in an Armed track feels off. The Armed have always felt like a band that was paving a new road, so a famous vocalist feels somehow contrary to that. Here’s the part that reveals I’m awful: if Lanegan hadn’t been credited in the track title listing, I probably wouldn’t have cared or noticed, and just enjoyed this as a dark dirge. That said, “The Music Becomes A Skull” seems like kind of a weird place to end an album that is otherwise spirited and somehow optimistic, especially after the perfect-for-a-finale “Bad Selection.”

The Verdict

Mark: You may have noticed that I am extremely thrilled by this new record. I find it endlessly fascinating and I believe that it’s a brilliant leap forward for a band that pushes the envelope for heavy music in ways that are both novel and necessary. This is a step up from Only Love, as far as my tastes go personally, the previous record feeling a little bit more like a proof-of-concept or a bridge from The Armed’s more straightforward hardcore days to their current manifestation as art-punk-electro-metal-whatever troublemakers. I’m not 100% sure that it unseats Untitled in my eyes, but I consider that album to be probably the best/most entertaining hardcore album of the last decade (if not longer).

If nothing else, it excites me that the band is garnering some much deserved attention, and that more new fans are coming to the fold. When live shows can resume, I am quite sure that ULTRAPOP LIVE will blow some minds and destroy some towns.

THE ARMED FOREVER.

Jay: This is the record I wanted Only Love to be, and the one I hoped for after I heard Only Love‘s standout tracks. The fact that about six songs are what I’d call exceptional on any other album has me listening to ULTRAPOP over and over. And interestingly, with those repeat listens, I come to appreciate many of the other tracks as well. This album is a tremendous accomplishment and delivers what I’m often pining for: music to break the boundaries of genre and follow their good senses toward truly unexplored territory.

Since my requests/predictions were validated last time, I’m going to do it again. But in this instance, I think there’s a disconnect between where I think they’re going and where I want them to go. Where I think they’re going: wouldn’t it be the most Armed thing to go from here into the most brutal and straightforward hardcore album? Where I want them to go: to use the songs “Ultrapop”, “An Iteration”, and “Bad Selection” as their branching off point, creating noisy melodic art rock that still crescendos, but also has tremendous emotional depth, hooks, killer drumming, and is full of interesting musical ideas. I’ll make sure to bring it up at the next Armed committee meeting.

Author: markmeeks

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