Album Review: The Armed – ULTRAPOP

[Sargent House; 2021]

There was a moment back in 2018, when listening to hardcore collective The Armed’s last album Only Love, that it felt like the band had reached its peak pop-accessibility status. Their second effort was chaotic as hardcore punk can be, but nestled into each nook and cranny were morsels of pop that made it somewhat approachable for the un-initiated. Three years later and the eight-piece delivers a further push to that pop-center with the appropriately titled ULTRAPOP.

This isn’t to insinuate that ULTRAPOP is a full-on pop record – far from it. The Armed aren’t a pop band; the title ULTRAPOP and the brightly colourful imagery is a sort of a bait-and-switch. There are moments of serenity and sweetness, but for the most part it’s a record full of that same propulsive aggression that devoted fans have come to adore about The Armed.

The opener, “ULTRAPOP”, is a misdirect of sorts. It shimmers and even Daft Punks us with some subtle sampling, but it’s all an elaborate set up for “All Futures”, a rambunctious power-anthem that culminates in an erratically screeched post-chorus of repeated “Yeah!”s. It comes across as a raging thriller of a track at first, but is slightly disheveled by its so-so lyrics, like “Tailored suits, sanguine sacks of shit, it’s all just ballyhoo.” Still, there’s no denying The Armed’s energy, and ULTRAPOP doesn’t really let up on that fierceness. They’re clearly firing on all cylinders from a technical standpoint, embodied by Urian Hackney and Ben Koller’s frantic drumming and the soaring triple guitar attack from Dan Greene, Adam Vellely, and Dan Stolarksi. Even when a song starts relatively sanguinely, it’s a clusterfuck of noise by the end – their hooks buried beneath the unrelenting waves, perhaps out of reach for hardcore agnostics.

On “An Iteration” they find a balance between accessible and erratic. They underline lines like “I fell for some / pseudo-sophisticated / Poet laureate-posing / Young white savior” with some wincing feedback, before pulling back for restrained verses, then ramping it up again with the gang chorus of “An iteration!” It’s the type of stand-out banger that gets put on compilations, especially with the wicked 80s-esque guitar squealing. “Average Death” is another moment where their pop ambition shines, the melancholy melody carrying through the walls of sound.

Impressively towering noise remains The Armed’s modus operandi on ULTRAPOP, but those moments of happy sonic marriage between the ‘ultra’ and the ‘pop’ are less frequent than one would want from an album that, according to Greene, “seeks, in earnest, to create a truly new listener experience.” It’s not as much of a progression from Only Love as one had hoped; this music is fast and hard, but there are fewer risks than it might at first seem. Those hoping for the band to push themselves in a new direction are going to be slightly disappointed, while those who have vibed with this collective since day one will likely appreciate ULTRAPOP for what it is – another album by The Armed.