Every review you read about The Armed’s new album ULTRAPOP will mention the mysterious nature of the Detroit-based band’s true lineup. They’ll cite made-up names and untrustworthy interviews, falsified press releases and photos featuring models standing in for whoever’s behind such an uncommonly catchy and charismatic strain of hardcore punk.
That’s all understandable, because The Armed’s relentless misdirection is impossible to ignore, especially during the rollout of ULTRAPOP, one of the most anticipated heavy records of 2021. And while it’s fun (if a bit bewildering) to try to suss the seriousness of an interview about dumbbells and protein powder with a jacked synth-wrangler named Clark Huge, it’s best not to get too wrapped up in the non-musical aspects of The Armed. Doing so will only take you away from the music, which is real and spectacular.
ULTRAPOP is The Armed’s fourth full-length album and first since 2018’s Only Love expanded the hardcore/screamo footprint of the band’s first two records into a kind of electro-pop-metal that’s harsh but hooky, and charmingly chaotic. With its pedal to the metal from start to finish, Only Love is a master class in making abrasive music sound incredibly appealing, a la Fucked Up’s epic punk operas or Deafheaven’s shimmering black metal.
It takes The Armed no time at all to go even further on ULTRAPOP. The title track opens the album with a pillow-soft pop song that glitches and glistens like The Flaming Lips’ Pink Robots on a return flight home from defeating Yoshimi, and the first single—“ALL FUTURES”—prominently features a rollercoaster synth hook and some slinky Queens of the Stone Age-style swagger. (QOTSA guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen is a featured guest on the album, in fact.)
That’s just the beginning of the most varied set of songs The Armed has ever put together. Over and over again, the band finds ear-pleasing ways to mingle its sharp melodic sense with heavy elements: strangled howls abut a pretty, fluttering guitar lick in “MASUNAGA VAPORS,” a thick layer of studio grime muffles the Foo Fighters-ish groove of “A LIFE SO WONDERFUL,” a four-minute blast of distorted noise-punk (“REAL FOLK BLUES”) leads into a four-minute slab of danceable, digital dark-pop (“BAD SELECTION”).
A four-song stretch in the middle of ULTRAPOP illustrates The Armed’s remarkable balance on this stylistic tightrope. In moving from “An Iteration” to “BIG SHELL” to “AVERAGE DEATH” to “FAITH IN MEDICATION,” the band bounces from nondescript dance-rock to shrieks and blast beats, to jittery No Age-style art-pop, to math rock, mechanized static and merciless screaming. “Drifting and floating and fading away / Less of me every year / There’s a part of me I hope you never see,” howls a voice (in “FAITH IN MEDICATION”) that may belong to guitarist/vocalist Adam Vallely, or vocalist/bassist Jonni Randall, or vocalist/guitarist Chris Slorach (of the Canadian band METZ). Or someone else! Who knows?
Here’s what we do know: Whoever is pulling strings and pushing boundaries for The Armed is doing a hell of a job. What’s most impressive about ULTRAPOP is not necessarily the killer riffs, the pummeling rhythms or the plentiful melodies, though all of those are consistently thrilling. What’s most impressive is the way this band brings together different, disparate styles in a way that sounds seamless and natural and new, even if others have done it before.
When The Armed announced ULTRAPOP last winter, de facto leader Dan Greene was quoted as saying the album “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.”
With ULTRAPOP, they’ve done exactly that. Whoever “they” are.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.