It’s difficult to know where to start when discussing the existence of The Armed. The Detroit experimental hardcore collective has been on the fringes of the scene since the beginning of the decade, breaking in slowly but surely by cranking out some of the best hardcore music you’ve maybe never heard of until recently. In particular, their 2015 full-length album Untitled is a masterwork that holds up as one of the best records not just of that year, but very much of the decade, helping bolster the band’s profile following coverage from some more high-profile publications like MetalSucks, which is how I first heard of the group in the first place. Now, 3 years and one live album later, the group is back with their latest studio album, Only Love. The Armed is well known for maintaining a sense of anonymity with their line-up, to the point where even with music videos and online band photos to consider, it’s never exactly clear who is in the band at any given time or what they’ll bring.
That being said, here’s what’s known for sure. As with all their releases, Only Love is once again produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou (whose production catalog speaks for itself), and there’s a special guest drummer filling in as always. This time around, Converge’s own skin-beater Ben Koller is taking up the kit (and if certain statements are to be believed, apparently he had to be tricked into doing so). Right from the start, the album makes it clear that this is a wild left turn from where Untitled was. The album opener “Witness” opens with a second of analog synths before the full band kicks in, with a massive flurry of aggressive drum fills and walls of buzzy atmospheric guitars swelling together to assault the listener in a manner similar to bands like Sannhet. The aggressive tendencies give way to more melancholic vibes with as the vocals switch from hardened screams to dreary moaning, culminating in a particularly somber closer. It’s an incredible piece of work, all at once familiar and different from where they had been just a few years before.
It becomes clear right away that the synthesizers help play a key role in their new direction. The following track “Role Models” has a driving, stomping drum beat with the synths almost functioning as a replacement for the guitars, with the actual guitars being somewhat buried in the mix. The song is an energetic, emotionally cathartic rager, especially with its satisfying sing-along chorus of “No Ins, No Outs.” This one will surely be a mainstay at live shows, and it even has the Tommy Wiseau seal of approval. “Nowhere To Be Found” brings the tempo and volume down a bit as the synths and drums adopt a low-key chiptune vibe before swelling things back to maximum intensity, and “Parody Warning” has a particularly frenetic pace and energy to it. The verses feature buzzing loud guitars/synths that are chopped up and bounce back and forth between the left and right audio channels, creating a uniquely disorienting vibe as they mesh together with the vocals and breakneck drumming.
In addition to instrumental expansions, the vocal dynamic has been greatly expanded from past releases. While moaning spoken-word vocals have been present in their sound in bits and pieces, Only Love pushes them to the forefront with greater prominence. “Luxury Themes” is driven solely by this kind of moody sing, creating a post-punk vibe of sorts when paired against the stuttering, stomping 5/4 drum beat and howling, echoing guitar melodies as it melts into the squealing guitars and furious blastbeats of the chorus. This helps drive the emotional poetic nature of the song’s lyrics, even if they seem a bit abstract at times:
When the answers surround you
Wait until the present surrounds the grave
You don’t feel so sad
With wool covered eyes, what did we expect you to see?
“Ultraglass” also uses sung vocals amazingly well, as the alternating 6/4 and 4/4 grooves mix with the vocals and grungy guitar atmosphere in a manner that almost calls to mind mid-2000s Queens of the Stone Age, especially the moodier songs on Era Vulgaris. “Fortune’s Daughter” expands on the vocal dynamic further by include some particularly intense female vocals that play off of a saturated bass rhythm and disco-like drum beat, uttering frenetic lyrics such as:
Directionless toilet chatter
Thirsty girls and dinner burns
An ostrich in ankle cords
You touch the stove and never learn
The bridge in particular is a hugely heavy segment that has some ripping, buzzing synthesizers with loud shrieks from both the male and female vocals. The chorus maintains the pacing and tempo but is more hauntingly beautiful, with the straightforward instrumental melodies and clean vocals playing off the aggression of the verses:
We’ll find a place
It’ll all blow over
Only Love is easily the most emotional release The Armed has done to date, and a big part of that is the excellent production work from Kurt Ballou and how it expands the band’s sound. While previous records focused on punchy guitars and sharply saturated drums, the sound of Only Love is more atmospheric, with the guitars having a buzzing-but-wispy quality to them, which helps aid in the album’s more emotive qualities. The drum work is similarly produced with an aim towards a more atmospheric quality, reflecting a more dynamic vibe across the whole record. The shifts between melody and fierce hardcore energy are incredibly masterful, as the production knows how to carry these shifts and weave between them with ease, aiding the complex songwriting further and giving every single track on the record its own unique vibe.
How a band manages to release two consecutive game-changing records in a row can be mystifying, but The Armed have done it. Only Love is a consistent spectacle of frantic rhythmic feats, hauntingly beautiful vocals and guitar melodies, and vibrant production all swirling together into an experimental hardcore masterpiece that feels like as much of a potent musical statement for this decade as Converge’s Jane Doe was for the 2000s. If you’ve been sleeping on the band up until now, you owe it to yourself to check out this record. Only Love is, simply put, a masterpiece.
Final Verdict: buy it. Don’t sleep on this album like everyone else sleeps on Carly Rae Jepsen.