The Armed – Ultrapop Review

Only Love was The Armed’s Vexovoid. For the sliver of readers who have heard both, that probably makes as much sense as it does to those who have heard neither. Vexovoid (the Portal album) was a push. Portal were driving their sound even further into clotted murk, draining that last drop of pus from the wound not with a syringe but with a vise. Vexovoid was crushed and suffocated by the band’s own attempt to solidify its sound, with the musicians resting their weight on an extremely thick and compressed production. In retrospect, that wasn’t a great idea; the record loses a lot of impact on repeated plays because the production is so dense. It becomes a massive pile of sound that obscures the band’s most interesting ideas. Now, maybe the sliver listeners get it. With Only Love, The Armed slammed their eclectic hardcore into synth-driven pop and told Kurt Ballou to make it sound like an absolute nightmare. He did. There you go. Blown-out ambitions, blown-out production: Vexovoid. So it follows (again, to the maybe eight people who can make sense of this) that Ultrapop is The Armed’s Ion. Which means that, just to drop the lede at the very bottom of the grave, Ultrapop is really fucking good.

Whereas Only Love bludgeoned the listener with songs in which synthpop and hardcore bands played at the same time, Ultrapop extends a hand in tracks where synthpop and hardcore bands play together. The difference is subtle but significant. Both records hybridize maximalist pop and confrontational hardcore, but in Ultrapop, the band are far more comfortable letting that novel sound speak for itself. Telling Kurt Ballou to make Only Love sound like hot shit was completely in line with the aesthetics of the record, but it was kind of a hat on a hat. I already know this is wild; I’m listening to it. You telling me it’s wild by blowing out my speakers makes your record seem like a gimmick. With the hot shit knobs ever so slightly fiddled with1, Ultrapop feels far less self-conscious and its songs don’t have to burn through their own haze to be heard.

And be heard they will. Despite their excess, Ultrapop’s best cuts are absolute bangers; screaming, blaring, gaudy fireworks of songs. “All Futures” and “Average Death” approach the searing pop-hardcore synthesis from opposite rhythmic ends but converge on halogen hooks. The former’s strobe-light screams and driving beat singe Ultrapop into the brain in preparation for the breakcore rhythms and bleary verses of the latter. “Masunaga Vapors” and “A life so Wonderful” wrap themselves in knotty guitar lines doused with perfume-reeking synths. Late in the record, “Bad Selection” squeezes yet another hit from the 65daysofstatic-style percussion mix in “All Futures,” but further reaches into the Sheffielder’s bag of tricks to snatch a few eroded guitar chimes, reaching a climax that, sans the sinister chorus, could have been a beacon on Wild Light.

This thermite candle of a record arrives via an industrial-scale effort. A score of musicians are credited, and for the most part one could be forgiven for thinking every one of them is present for all 39 minutes of Ultrapop. But what’s most impressive about the mass of musicians is not their volume but their coherence. Ultrapop ties them together via a powerhouse rhythm section – Jonni Randall’s bass lines provide some constancy to the record’s flickering moods, and Urian Hackney and Ben Koller both rattle out downright stunning drum performances. The crowd screaming, singing, strumming, and synthesizing around them might fill up a lot of space, but they’re never allowed to steal the show, as often happened on Only Love.

It’s clear that the days of The Armed as merely a shit-kicking hardcore band are over, and while it’s sad to think that they’re not going to write thrashers like “Cop Friends” again, they really don’t need to. Only Love and Ultrapop are far more ambitious, not to mention transgressive, than any of the band’s previous work. Their oft-repeated themes of malaise, alienation, and artifice are more artfully articulated in the sound and text of Ultrapop than ever before, and as a collection of songs the record is nearly as airtight as Untitled. Outshining Only Love without washing-out its own detail, Ultrapop might be The Armed’s best work yet.


Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: mp3 V0
Label:  Sargent House Records
Websites: thearmed.bandcamp.com | thearmed.com | facebook.com/thearmed
Releases Worldwide: April 16th, 2021

Show 1 footnote

  1. Though technically a louder album than Only Love, and a very compressed record by any standard, Ultrapop doesn’t sound nearly as cooked as Only Love.
« »