Imagine: a monster truck bedazzled in rhinestones. Or maybe, rather, Freddy Krueger singing Lady Gaga. No, actually picture getting the wind knocked out of you by a pink stiletto. These are all crude approximations of what it’s like to listen to The Armed, a band with a sound that has been chiseled down to something precise and prehistoric: a sharp shiv of big hooks and bigger guitars. It’s aggro-pop equally appealing to those of us who want to mosh and those who want to scream along.
The last record by The Armed, Only Love, suggested this direction, which reached a peak on “Fortune’s Daughter,” a cacophony of video game sounds and screaming that somehow turned into a blissed-out chorus as anthemic as anything Foo Fighters ever recorded (and three times as noisy). There are always a million things happening in a song by The Armed, with drums beating around like a fork in a garbage disposal and guitars locked in a fistfight. The digital slant is pulled back on ULTRAPOP in favor of clean vocals and more accessible melodies throughout. A close cousin is Sleigh Bells, another band that found a magic meld in hardcore and Top 40.
The Armed have cloaked themselves in mystery since the beginning, however, this album cycle, they’ve revealed the full lineup, which in part would appear to be made up of beefed up muscle bros standing in front of brightly colored backgrounds. The tone of the smirking is-it-a-joke Noisey profiles has found its way into the music itself, threatening to alienate hardcore audiences with music that sounds more and more like it belongs on Alt Nation. The overtly Millennial aesthetic threatens to do the same. ULTRAPOP presents itself as anti-hardcore hardcore, all with a smile on its face that dares you to throw the record across the room. Lucky for The Armed, the songs are just too good to do that.
The accessibility of this record shouldn’t be overstated. It’s still Loud and Out Of Breath, but instead of hooks being buried in the mix, they’re noticeable on first listen. The opener is full of harmonies strong enough not to be crushed by dense bursts of bass and digital noise. There’s something almost Deafheaven-like in the juxtaposition of delicate dream pop and metal.
Songs like “All Futures” and “Average Death” represent ULTRAPOP at its most radio friendly, which is to say, not all that kind to DJs beholden to advertisers. Yes, there are sung choruses in these songs (catchy ones!), but they are at the center of arenas of pounding drums and guitars, noise made by, if they are to be believed, eight people who seem desperate to beat us down. Both make use of group sung choruses, pointing to something very communal in The Armed’s ever-shifting lineup.
The band is at its best when it’s making brutally fast bangers like “Masunaga Vapors,” a song that hinges itself on elliptical guitar lines running up and down the scale at dazzling speeds. The whole thing crests at the end, when the wave breaks and everything collapses into glittering bits of synth. It’s excellent. While a typical song by The Armed lets up just long enough for a hook to appear, “A Life So Wonderful” goes even harder in the chorus, blast beats and screaming turning into something like an anthemic hook. “Faith in Medication” is built on Converge-ish vocals and angular stabs of guitar, making good on their early roots in mathcore. The solo at the end is a bonkers show off that’s completely unnecessary, which is what makes it great.
Closer “The Music Becomes a Skull,” featuring vocals from Mark Lanegan, apes a goth drum pattern to slow things down and get b-i-i-i-g. While it’s not the best song on the record, it reflects a hungry band that keeps getting more ambitious. ULTRAPOP seems like it could have the same crossover appeal Sunbather did eight years ago: metal for the non-metal listener. Deep down, everyone likes to thrash, it’s just a matter of how much sugar is needed to make that thrashing palatable to people who prefer Popjustice over Decibel. This is a difficult needle to thread, bringing heavy music to people who sneer at the stuff. The Armed seem like they could really make it happen.
Label: Sargent House