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Friday, August 24, 2018

The Armed - Only Love Music Album Reviews

The second album from the Detroit hardcore collective is as ambitious as it is effective. Noise, art rock, and a surprising amount of hooks are knotted within their chaotic maximalism.

Part of the thrill of these 11 songs is that they often sound like they’re about to burst or implode, but they never lose their course. On repeat listens to the Armed’s second album Only Love, you start to realize just how finely woven it all is—chaos careens off chaos, using the tracks before them as last-second momentum pushes before disappearing again, infusing what comes next with an extra shot of energy. From opening synth line to closing noise implosion, it’s part relay race, part punk-rock opera.

This feels like a pop record, albeit one with rabies. The Armed create nihilistic hardcore anthems that’ll find you shouting “Everything dies!” “Nowhere to be found!” and “Kill your heroes where they sleep!” The unexpected hooks are courtesy of the conceptual framework they created for the collection: The definitively punk/metal/hardcore band sought to write these songs as if they had never heard punk, metal or hardcore before, just trying to conjure the pop music of their formative years. They’re a band who’s covered Smashing Pumpkins in the past, their debut album Untitled included plenty of slower bits, and their interest in those other zones feels very genuine—which is the only way you can pull something like this off.

As might be expected, it’s hard to pin down the Armed stylistically. They create raw-voiced music that mixes hardcore dynamics, experimental electronics, and a smeared sense of melody. They have three people handling guitar, three vocalists (two male, one female), and variety of synthesizers and electronics besides the airtight rhythm section. They bring to mind a revved-up arty Liars circa Drum’s Not Dead, or maybe ’90s eccentrics Brainiac, or a more playful Converge. It’s, of course, foolish to compare a band this specifically themselves to another band; it’s maybe best to think of Only Love as one of those moments where you have leaky headphones and the sounds of traffic, car alarms, someone’s stereo blasting Fuck Buttons, and a kid crying combine to create a momentary orchestra in your brain.

Careless name-checking aside, they do share a bloodline with Converge: The sextet recorded Only Love with Converge guitarist/studio guru Kurt Ballou, who recorded their debut three years ago, as well. They also twisted the arm of Converge’s Ben Koller—a masterful drummer more than capable of staying detailed and interesting at breakneck speeds—to sit behind the kit. So far, the Armed have collaborated with a few different drummers; hopefully Koller decides to stay put because he adds a sense of control and finesse to the implosions going off around him, and is their best walk-on to date.

Only Love is more ambitiously structured than the debut—the first four songs bleed and tie together like a mutant ball of silly string. It’s the same band, but they’ve cracked things open, and it feels tighter, despite being looser. Where the debut followed some specific punk patterns, and the experiments sometimes plodded into mid-tempo toss-offs, Only Love is beautifully all over the place without losing steam.

Undeniable opener “Witness” is their cathartic Deafheaven “Dream House” moment, albeit with a more negative spin. On it, main vocalist Randall Kupfer growls like he’s trying to dislodge his insides (a bit like John Brannon of fellow Michigan band Laughing Hyenas), and amid his meltdown, shadowy clean harmonies also emerge. In an unlikely twist, the calmer “Luxury Themes” finds a way to bury vocal harmonies in a wall of noise. Now and then, I think of sped-up Flaming Lips, or Pissed Jeans if they sang about starting communes, not dying in an office.

“Role Models” creates a noise-pop anthem with little more than the words “Everything dies.” Importantly, before they remind us that you’ll one day be dust, they also suggest, like a motivational anarchist speaker reminding you to make the most of your life: “You won’t break your stride/No you can’t break your stride.” And, on the eerie, catchy “Middle Homes,” the singers croon: “Breathe/Where’s that little fire?/Gone” That’s the key to this album—as dark as things may seem, we keep going. This kicks into action during the final third of “Fortune’s Daughter,” when the drums arrive after a sideways noise meld, and you want to start punching the floor.

To illustrate the extent of their maximal approach, they’ve released a booklet called “No Solutions” with the collection. Subtitled the “Only Love” issue, it’s reminiscent of a Crimethinc. tract, gathering images (anti-commercialism collages, fashion spreads) and often thoughtful words (“Empathy is not compassion. Empathy is weapon”). There are short essays, shorter record reviews (of St. Vincent, Zwan, Lou Reed & Metallica, Lou Reed himself), comics, reviews of Detroit-area staples by a person dressed like a lawn shrub, and diagrams for how to achieve Only Love’s guitar tone. There’s plenty of tongue in cheek here, something to also admire about the band—this music is vibrant and loud and angry, but they aren’t afraid to crack jokes. (The editor of the accompanying booklet is listed as Papa Johns Emeritus.)

The Armed started in 2009, ages ago in punk rock years. A new band wouldn’t have the arsenal or know-how to create something as anti-everything and complete in all aspects as Only Love; from the packaging to the storyline to the print publication to the “vibe,” it feels like the apotheosis of years of experiments. It’s a lesson in never settling. As the singers croon on “Heavily Lined,” a song that sounds like HEALTH, Negative Approach, and Youth of Today walking into a bar together: “This iteration bores me/Everyone gets older/Only you gave up.” As Only Love illustrates, these fuckers clearly haven’t.

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