The Armed are the Band America Deserves
It seems appropriate to me that Pitchfork gave The Armed’s new untitled album a score of 6.8 (“just passing”), the same grade they bestowed on The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Miss Machine just over eleven years ago. Because like Dillinger, The Armed’s artistry is the exact opposite of what critics tend to look for and understand about music. It’s the kind of artistry that doesn’t happen on the down-beat, so to speak – it happens in the space between the accents.
It’s also an artistry that touches on the story of modern urban America.
Everybody points to the thriving extreme music scenes in Brooklyn, Boston, Washington D.C., Seattle, and Baltimore (in particular for punk music). Nobody ever looks at Detroit, the American city that firsthand experienced (and is currently experiencing) most of this country’s horrors of the last few decades, and was left to bleed out: the financial crisis, the ruin of the manufacturing sector, urban blight, population shrinkages, and crumbling infrastructure. For a time, the city had an emergency manager – a nearly-autocratic position of power in America – and the citizens of Detroit had no say in his appointing. For years, along the banks of the Detroit river lay a three-story-high pile of petroleum-extraction waste that the Koch brothers dumped and left to rot, a literal black cloud serving as a reminder of economic corruption today, and environmental devastation tomorrow.
The black hole of America spit out The Armed.
And this black pile of spit then spat out Untitled, a twisted love letter to the history of extreme music – from thrash to noise to Swedish death to mathcore to post-punk and everything in between.
There’s a lot to talk about this band and their new album, but I’ll paint in a broad stroke: one of the things that makes Untitled great is how authorless it feels. Every cylinder with this band is firing in focus on the song, the hook, the vibe. Attempts to pick this thing apart by its components are fruitless. Since Led Zeppelin, I don’t think we’ve seen a band emerge with such a natural mystique. Nobody really knows who is in this band – and high-profile appearances in Rolling Stone and other publications have flat out just gotten it wrong. Not their fault though – it’s completely unclear who even played on this album, let alone who is in the band right now, so hats off to Rolling Stone and AV Club for taking a shot in the dark and risking getting it wrong (which they both did). The performances are all great, but the guitar solos are squeezed beneath a mountain of noise, the intricately detailed and layered vocals are buried in the mix (and often beneath gutteral shouting), and there isn’t really a single moment where one individual player stands out above the group. In other words, this is a band, an entity, not a collection of musicians trying to force through their abilities, egos, and ideas.
Along with this goes unsettling imagery. There’s the depressing cover art, which features a sort of monotone-generic-ideal of a horn-rimmed glasses wearing, PBR-drinking, American Spirit-smoking hipster in David Bowie makeup. There’s the video for “Polarizer,” above, which by splicing and editing together pop videos to make Lorde, Nicki Minaj, and Kanye West lip sync the lyrics to the song, probably has the most copyright violations ever contained in a video. There’s also an extended video for “Paradise Day,” an ode to the working class featuring beautiful aerial shots of Detroit and its suburbs (shot with drones – a punk as fuck way to stretch a video budget), and a clip for “Forever Scum” where the band literally sets fire to their own fucking album.
Kurt Ballou produced the album as with their previous work. His touch is great as usual, but Untitled doesn’t feel quite like a Kurt Ballou album as we’ve come to know them. Even when his trademark HM2-through an Emperor cabinet-guitars come roaring in on “Enemies Closer,” they are in service of something so much denser in spirit than what Black Breath or Nails are attempting. The catchy choruses (one of this album’s strength’s) of standout tracks like “Polarizer,” “Nervewrecker,” “Paradise Day,” and “Forever Scum,” recall a Kvelertak or Beastmilk – but there’s no safety net of an explicit classic rock or post-punk tinge as with those bands. Even a high-profile drum performance by Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists and Sumac, who is one of the great young drummers (if not the great young drummer) in heavy music, feels a part of this perspective. Yacyshyn’s playing is great on this album, don’t get me wrong, bursting with groove and personality, but it feels so different from his past work, partially because he really downplays the flash and flourish in service of The Armed’s laser-precise vision.
I’m not sure if The Armed intended all of this, but the end result to me feels like the album’s true middle finger, and not what other outlets have identified through their surface-level criticisms of the band’s lyrics. My interpretation is that this band, as a unit, is a “fuck you” to the “me” age – and not just the selfie-stick wielding Kardashian worshippers. Like a virus, many of the worst traits of Internet culture have made their way into the cell structure of hardcore and heavy metal bands – and these are the artists who people like us entrust with being on the cutting edge of radical culture. For being the voice of reason in an echo-chamber of celebrity death-fetishization, phony political ideologies, and Vitamin Water-sponsored punk culture. But like Kim and Kourtney, bands want the Instagram followers, the VICE profiles, the re-tweets from their idols. Like the plastic and vapid culture they are supposed to oppose, they actually do want to be looked at, as The Armed scream on “Polarizer,” like they’re “the only one in the world.”
By separating the musician from the work itself, The Armed strip away the relevance of all of that. As an anonymous writer of early 20th century fiction from Indiana wrote, after an art object is complete, the artist must die, and the object destroyed immediately. The Armed separated themselves from the pack, and by doing so, they’ve indirectly become its leaders. This is the best punk band in America.