Rapidly becoming one of the most fascinating enigmas in contemporary music, The Armed are a truly unknowable, confounding force of nature.
Having long transcended their comparably humble mathcore origins, the Chicago based collective have become something of an absurdist multi-platform performance art project. They send actors to interviews, use stolen archive recordings of Frank Turner (then titled the track ‘Ft. Frank Carter’), were name-checked in a Ford advert, and have, somewhere down the line, managed to (possibly) get Tony Hawk, Andrew W.K., and Tommy Wiseau all involved.
Most compelling is the theory, possibly confirmed in a Vice article from 2018, that the real puppet-master of The Armed is producer extraordinaire and Converge guitarist, Kurt Ballou. He’s worked on every one of their albums, and his sonic fingerprints are visible all over their work. From that incisive yet brittle drum tone to the manic intensity so famously pioneered by Converge, whether or not he really is pulling the strings of The Armed, Ballou is certainly among their biggest musical influences/contributors.
Yet, what sets ‘Ultrapop’ apart from so much of contemporary extreme music is its melodic, upbeat optimism. Though the album is riddled with blast beats and screams, it’s also oddly cheerful, seemingly entirely composed in a major key and adorned with bright synths and warped guitar tones. There’s no nihilism, misery nor contempt for humanity to be found here, rather The Armed seem more interested in crafting music that points firmly in the direction of the future; a vibrant, colourful, and potentially utopian one.
This is a strangely radical prospect, and one that’s understandably missing from many of our headscapes in 2021. However, The Armed manage to cut through the despair quite brilliantly. The bouncy, infectious verses and the shoegaze guitars that melt across the choruses of ‘An Iteration’ evoke a colourful, idyllic metal paradise, while the ear-piercing guitars and manic screams of ‘Big Shell’ are positively immersive, conjuring up dreams of a world where all heavy music could sound this vibrant, alive, and singular.
While comparisons to Converge or similarly unique heavy bands like Genghis Tron, The Dillinger Escape Plan, or Rolo Tomassi are inevitable, a more apt comparison for ‘Ultrapop’ would be to the PC music/hyperpop scene. A trend that began in the mid-10s and has managed to gain influence at the upper echelons of the pop world, numerous key tenants of the genre can be found within the aesthetic of ‘Ultrapop’; sonic maximalism, ambiguous identities, and an overwhelming air of optimistic futurism.
The lyrics to monolithic lead single ‘All Futures’ spell out this mindset, sardonically taking aim at the nihilists and misanthropes: “It’s meaningful if nothing’s meant / Maybe a race to nowhere”. The Armed want to save us, they want us to imagine better futures and a world teeming with colour and possibilities. The eleven utopiancore anthems they’ve crafted on ‘Ultrapop’ are works of sheer imaginative brilliance, and add up to one of the best albums of 2021 thus far.