We Were Front And Center For The Armed At Pitchfork Fest And Holy Shit
When the smoke cleared, the first thing I saw was the jacked men in tank tops brandishing guitars. Then the women in Juggalo face paint clutching microphones. Then the blindfolded guy behind the keyboard. Not long after the handsome devil with the mischievous grin raised his fist, the heavy bass drone gave way to a punishingly loud, feverishly intense monolithic onslaught.
The Armed, an experimental hardcore collective from Detroit that functions like a multimedia art project but is very much a real band, put on what will almost certainly be the wildest, most entertaining set at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. The group descended upon the slightly smaller, more intimate Blue Stage like a bomb Saturday afternoon and didn’t stop exploding for 45 minutes. Imagine Broken Social Scene if they were three times heavier and five times weirder. The sound was so harsh, the vibe so jubilant. In terms of both audacious spectacle and sheer sonic force, it was one of the most incredible rock shows I’ve ever witnessed.
Musically the Armed hit you with umpteen subgenres at once. Machine-gun drum fills blur together with programmed blast beats. Keyboards, bass, guitar, and laptops unite into walls of sound so loud that the guitar-hero finger tapping is usually swallowed up in noise. Singing, screaming, and shout-along hooks coexist within battering-ram songs that pull from grindcore, industrial, D-beat, black metal, and more. It is enough of a thrill on a pure audio level that the Armed’s last few records — most recently last year’s Ultrapop — more than stand up on their own without the pageantry of the live show.
But damn, the live show elevates this band’s operation to a whole other echelon. Lead vocal duties were traded and shared by an Avengers-esque committee of fearless freaks. Or maybe the Suicide Squad is a better comparison point. The Armed go out of their way to confuse and obscure, so beyond Tony Wolski of Genghis Tron, I’m not fully clear on these people’s identities. (And I’m not sure it matters which one is Adam Vallely, which one is Dan Greene, et al.) Wolski’s fellow vocalists included an extremely tall long-haired barbarian who sometimes broke into some kind of tai chi dancing. There was also that trio of women in black-and-white face paint — another way to rep Detroit along with the Pistons jersey and Wolf Eyes T-shirt onstage — one of whom wore a disco-ball dress of sorts. The point here is not the individual but the whole.
The Armed spent their whole set throwing an abrasively loud, admirably communal party onstage: trading instruments, sharing the spotlight, losing their tank tops when the moment was right. From the beginning, they invited the audience into that party. Stage dives and crowdsurfing abounded among the performers. The vocalists often put a mic in fans’ faces, who then eagerly shouted along. At one point the lead guitarist summoned a circle pit with nothing but a hand gesture. By the end of the set half the band (basically everyone with a microphone) was in the crowd sowing joyous chaos. When it was over, I felt elated for everyone who experienced this show and awful for all the acts that had to follow the Armed.