Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: The Armed ULTRAPOP

Sargent House
Sargent House

How much mythology do you like with your action? As evidenced by the legions of people who happily spend days online discussing Star Wars or Marvel apocrypha, there is clearly a market for nerd-level full immersion within a particular extended universe. I can relate to that impulse somewhat. I was the kind of LOST viewer who read recaps, explainers, and borderline-masturbatory hyper-theoretical Doc Jensen columns after every episode. Still, I never would have become invested in the show if it hadn’t told an engaging story full of compelling characters. I certainly wouldn’t have kept watching through the end if I wasn’t invested in those characters and at least sometimes entertained by what became of them. As we saw with so many of the mystery box shows that emerged in LOST‘s wake — to say nothing of so many tedious Star Wars or Marvel offshoots — a dense web of extracurricular bullshit only gets you so far. Sometimes it can even come to overshadow what people love about your project in the first place.

I bring this up because the Armed have a new record out this week. At this point, after a few album cycles’ worth of antics, you may have heard more about how you should be incredulous toward the Armed’s various promotional misdirections than about their incredible music. But please know that however good the Armed may be at stunts and deceptions and carefully cultivated confusion, they are infinitely better at making songs. If it entertains you, you can choose to engage with the hoopla and attempt to figure out whether, say, the guy who has been giving interviews as Armed frontperson Adam Vallely is actually named Adam Vallely, or whether the band’s sonic mastermind Dan Greene is really just executive producer Kurt Ballou under a pseudonym. You can even embark upon the diet and workout plan the alleged band members allegedly followed to become absolute units. But you can also just ignore all that noise and tune into the noise on the records instead. It’s some truly exceptional noise.

In the case of ULTRAPOP, that noise is more ecstatically diverse than ever. Over the course of 2016’s Untitled and 2018’s Only Love, the Detroit collective has been gradually broadening the scope of its sound, venturing out into various kinds of sonic bombardment with a curatorial touch that keeps it all sounding like the Armed. In light of that expansion and the sense that these records emerged from a sprawling community of collaborators orbiting a fixed core braintrust, the band has essentially been a harsher, more extreme answer to Broken Social Scene or Queens Of The Stone Age. (Notably, QOTSA’s Troy Van Leeuwen and their longtime collaborator Mark Lanegan are both in the mix on ULTRAPOP.) On a baseline level, the Armed are a hardcore band, but their arsenal has come to include black metal, shoegaze, pigfuck, synthpop, screamo, grunge, industrial, screamy basement punk — a searing cauldron of styles so undefinable that they decided to come up with their own genre this time around.

“Ultrapop,” as an introductory essay by Dan Greene explains, “reaches the same extremities of sonic expression as the furthest depths of metal, noise, and otherwise ‘heavy’ counterculture music subgenres but finds its foundation firmly in pop music and pop culture. As is always the Armed’s mission, it seeks only to create the most intense experience possible, a magnification of all culture, beauty, and things.” A few lines later, their intentions are further crystallized: “The concept of ‘subgenre’ becomes almost the antithesis of vitality in art — itself a fetishization of expectation. ULTRAPOP seeks, in earnest, to create a truly new listener experience. It is an open rebellion against the culture of expectation in ‘heavy’ music. It is a joyous, genderless, post-nihilist, anti-punk, razor-focused take on creating the most intense listener experience possible. It’s the harshest, most beautiful, most hideous thing we could make.”

ULTRAPOP lives up those lofty ambitions. Sometimes it sounds like an apartment tower demolition being interrupted by a hostile alien invasion. Sometimes it sounds like a tense cyberpunk dance club where the house band is a bunch of lounge-lizard rockstars. Sometimes it sounds like Harley Quinn joyriding a fighter jet into the bowels of Hell while an army of robots is wiped out by a horde of fire-breathing creatures too disturbing to describe. Sometimes it sounds like a dream-pop band serenely playing at hearing-damage volume in their practice space in an attempt to drown out the kamikaze noise-punk band rehearsing next door. Sometimes it sounds like a godlike creature accidentally dropping a bag of dumbbells down the stairs and summoning a catastrophic tornado in frustration. Sometimes it sounds like an entire city population screaming bloody murder while being consumed by volcanic lava, even as you’re whisked safely into the sky at breathtaking speeds. It is a constantly shifting sonic blitzkrieg unified mostly by its commitment to thrilling maximalist intensity. To borrow a phrase from Spoon, a band whose crisp stylish minimalism basically represents the Armed’s antithesis, it sounds like everything hitting at once. It rules so hard.

The Armed have been clear about the worldview they’re trying to communicate with these songs, a philosophy of endless possibility and breathless, boundless creation. What they’re saying in the songs feels like a secondary concern — and as with so much noise-adjacent music, you can’t always make it out — but between some of the more surreal and oblique passages, parts of the lyrics sheet make themselves clear enough. Lead single “All Futures” begins with what might be a critique of reactionary own-the-libs outrage bait: “Tower of Babel sinking into sands of revenue/ Tailored suits, sanguine sacks of shit, it’s all just ballyhoo/ Taboo appropriation just because we wanted to/ I’m anti anti, ain’t I?” “An Iteration” is a takedown of a certain Type Of Guy, a “pseudo-sophisticated, poet laureate-posing young white savior” who drinks Stroh’s despite his generational wealth. “Average Death” and “Faith In Medication” seem to be portraits of more sympathetic but no less tragic characters. Closing track “The Music Becomes A Skull” even directs a scathing glance at the audience, reflecting on the fleeting nature of praise in an age of endless stimulation: “What a brilliant show/ Now get off/ You have been dethroned.”

The Armed, however, deserve your sustained attention. ULTRAPOP is another punishing, bombastic, catchy, genuinely surprising collection of songs. If you are a fan of the artsier, more hipster-beloved corners of the heavy music landscape — stuff like HEALTH and Nothing and Youth Code and Lightning Bolt and Liturgy and Ballou’s main project Converge — it’s hard to imagine listening through the album without feeling exhilarated at least sometimes. Parts of it remind me of Fucked Up or Deftones or Sleigh Bells or Deafheaven — and given how cagey the Armed have been about who participates in these recordings, maybe that really is Damian Abraham or Chino Moreno or Alexis Krauss or George Clarke clutching a microphone within the chaotic swirl. But where ULTRAPOP is concerned, the distinct parts matter much less than the monolithic whole. Like Only Love before it, this album is as bracing, euphoric, and gorgeously ugly as anything those groups have released. The Armed are on an insane hot streak right now, and they’re about to release one of the best albums of the year. Don’t let their bodybuilding regimen distract you from that.

ULTRAPOP is out 4/16 on Sargent House. Pre-order it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Young Thug’s freshly announced Slime Season 2.
• Andy Stott’s Never The Right Time.
• Spencer Krug’s Fading Graffiti.
• Sharon Van Etten’s epic Ten reissue, featuring covers of the album by an impressive assortment of artists.
• Paul McCartney’s guest-heavy McCartney III Imagined.
• iLoveMakonnen’s My Parade.
Heart, the first installment of Eric Church’s multi-part album Heart & Soul.
• Cannibal Corpse’s Violence Unimagined.
• Nick Hakim & Roy Nathanson’s Small Things.
• Wand leader Cory Hanson’s Pale Horse Rider.
• Fred again..’s Actual Life (April 14 – December 17 2020).
• London Grammar’s Californian Soil.
• The Living’s The Living: 1982.
• The Offspring’s Let The Bad Times Roll.
• Born Ruffians’ PULP.
• Norah Jones’ live album ‘Til We Meet Again.
• Greta Van Fleet’s The Battle At Garden’s Gate.

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