The 50 best albums of 2021
It’s here: the Kerrang! verdict on the 50 albums that shaped 2021…
Who exactly are The Armed? It’s a question that’s bugged the hardcore scene since the anonymous, amorphous collective first emerged from the Michigan underground with 2009’s self-released debut LP, These Are Lights. Separating the artist from the art has, for better or worse, become a hot topic over the years since, but rarely has it been so integral to an outfit’s mission – or executed with such absurd, outlandish verve.
“We don't lie,” stresses their chosen representative – a man calling himself Adam Vallely – on our hour-long Zoom call to discuss latest album ULTRAPOP. “We have, however, definitely played into the convolution of identity.”
No shit. Misdirection, subversion and disorientation are as much a part The Armed’s appeal as cutting-edge heavy sound. Identities, aside from those of several big-name drummers and producer Kurt Ballou, were initially shielded outright. Live performances frequently took place at open mic nights or random house parties. At various points, paid actors were almost certainly used to stand in for actual players.
“We wanted to challenge the idea of authorship in the artwork,” Adam continues. Much of the mystique, he contends, stems from confusion around the collective set-up, where different “members” can be involved with different aspects of the creative process – instruments are passed around the 30-odd musicians depending on the demands of the song, and the cohorts used for publicity photos, in-studio recording and live performances might overlap.
“The concept is much more common in visual, conceptual and performance art, but music tends to have its own ecosystem: the band, the band members, the procedure that comes with that.”
Photo: Trevor Naud
With 2015’s Untitled and 2018’s Only Love albums, though, things got stranger. The mysterious Dan Greene was identified as de-facto bandleader. Their scant press interactions felt elaborately staged, littered with props as strange and disparate as leafy swampman outfits and sports cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. 2016 live video Unanticipated was available only as a VHS/custom VCR combo. The Room filmmaker Tommy Wiseau starred in the video for 2018 track Role Models. 2019 single Ft. Frank Turner was accompanied by artwork featuring Rattlesnakes frontman Frank Carter. Neither Brit punk heavyweight was actually involved.
Rumours, predictably, gathered momentum that a shadowy figurehead (Tony Hawk? Andrew W.K.?) was pulling strings in the background, or that the whole thing was an avant-garde experiment by some big-budget ad agency.
As promotion for ULTRAPOP ramped up, the veil seemed to have slipped. The ALL FUTURES video clearly showed an eight-member line-up. Full names were listed in the accompanying press notes. Our Adam was a muscular presence on lead vocals, but he was dwarfed by the bodybuilder-like proportions of aptly-named keyboardist Clark Huge. Adam stresses that their previous high theatrics had become almost self-defeating, and that none of this has ever been a prank. “It invited the idea that we’re a mystery to be solved,” he sighs. “That was never the point.”
Nothing, of course, is as simple as it seems. The Adam Vallely who has been spamming promo posts for ULTRAPOP on social media – a UK-based blogger and podcaster – is not the jacked American joining us from Dearborn, Michigan today. Unguarded and easygoing, sipping a smoothie and petting his cat, this Adam is clearly a “real” person, but even with the angles of the attic bedroom behind him seeming vaguely off-kilter, it’s hard to escape the feeling we’re on a walk down uncanny valley (or should that be Vallely?).
“Plenty of musicians have aliases,” he deflects, skilfully maintaining a sense of Lynchian intrigue. “It doesn’t matter. I don't think Nikki Sixx’s real name is Nikki Sixx, either.”
Born from the noise-rock and art-school scenes around Detroit and Ann Arbor, the band’s “tendrils have spread” across America and even further afield. A tangle of shared servers and Google docs tick away in the background. Dan Greene acts as “air traffic control” and “final arbiter of taste”.
Speculation that they are some sort of musical cult is wide of the mark, Adam insists, though Dan’s recent creation of The Book Of The Book Of Daniel – getting people involved through a cryptic website (with its own .church domain) – has made those claims harder to deny. “It’s his cynical take on a cult of personality,” Adam ventures. “You have to climb the mountain to speak to him directly.”
So, is there at least a fun initiation?
“The initiation is that there's a shitload of NDAs Dan makes everyone sign,” Adam laughs. “Beyond that, it's a lot less formal than a lot of people think. People come and go. They’ll take breaks when what we’re working on no longer speaks to their vibe, and they’ll come back when it does again. Very few people have ever [officially] left The Armed.”
More and more notable contributors have become involved, too. Queens Of The Stone Age / Gone Is Gone guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and his fellow QOTSA alumnus Mark Lanegan both crop up on ULTRAPOP. The latter’s collaboration on haunting closer The Music Becomes A Skull, Adam explains, saw Dan Greene’s observation that the song demanded a singer of Mark’s timbre answered by completed vocal stems less than 24 hours later. That these contributors are named, rather than being assimilated into the collective, he continues, is a little bit about acknowledging their one-off contributions, and a little bit about taking advantage of name recognition.
Drummer Ben Koller has stuck around, too, despite having claimed he was tricked into recording Only Love. “Ben has a very unique relationship with Dan,” Adam offers, sparingly, while teasing a “weirdness” due to other sticksman Urian Hackney re-tracking many of the same parts. Ben’s Converge bandmate Kurt Ballou, meanwhile, has responded to claims he started the band by shifting job title to Executive Producer. “He’s had a very creative role in shaping the concepts,” Adam smiles, wryly. “He’s played on some of the songs. He's very involved in the situation.”
To pry, Adam reiterates, is to miss the point. The point of this project is to nullify presupposed identities in this scene, from famous players to the rank-and-file fans at their shows: the front-row guys grabbing the mic to scream along, the crowd-killers, and everyone further back.
“We’ve always been about trying to break down that idea of gatekeeperism. When you can level everyone into being a beginner in that situation – when people genuinely don’t know how to act – it can lead to profound moments of self-realisation and connection with the art.”
With ULTRAPOP, that upheaval of expectation has spilled spectacularly into the music itself. The record’s “main” sleeve (there is also a Dan Greene variant) features a handsome model (Michigan native XO) sharply dressed against a burnt orange backdrop, as crisp and stylised as a fashion editorial. Adam refers to the album as “our shiny commodity, our sellout album.” From first note to last, the mixture of not just hardcore punk and high-polish pop, but EDM, indie, noise-rock and black metal strikes with unparalleled intensity.
MASUNGA VAPORS comes on like The Dillinger Escape Plan losing a fight with underrated post-rock heroes *shels. BIG SHELL sounds like a Swedish songstress being swallowed up and spit out by a very angry Nine Inch Nails. BAD SELECTION swaggers in the shadows, like some melodic electro-emo side-project, before detonating in a digitised blastbeat. It is, in the truest sense, a record that needs to be heard to be believed (and understood).
“Dan’s idea was to ‘Save rock'n'roll by destroying it,’” Adam explains, relishing that overloaded mission-statement. “Heavy music is supposed to be about subversion, but it’s become super-pragmatic. It's obsessed with developed themes and concepts and procedures and formats. It's essentially become about finding which niche subgenre you want, then doing cosplay.”
The problem, he continues, has seeped through from artists into the fanbase.
“There’s a binary small-mindedness to the metal community: this idea of defined ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Like how people responded to the volleyball-in-an-empty-gymnasium snare sound on Metallica’s St. Anger. When we brought out Only Love, our DMs were full of these hate-messages from crazy people, telling us we’d recorded and mixed the album wrong, as if we didn’t know it was a dense wall of sound, as if that was some mistake. It’s the antithesis to subversion, the antithesis to vitality. [Heavy music has] the most puritanical fans out there. That’s why rock is dead to so many people.
“People ask why hip-hop is taking over. It’s more vital. Maybe SoundCloud rappers aren’t all beautiful, visionary artists, but they're doing things that are a lot more confrontational and bizarre, strange and new. They aren’t just aping the sounds of a bunch of random white dudes from 50 years ago!
“Everyone's still obsessed with scaring people’s parents like it’s the ’80s, or something. My mom has heard [Dillinger’s notoriously abrasive] 43% Burnt like 900,000 times. That shit doesn’t scare her any more. Also, I don't think it's particularly subversive to be obsessed with scaring a bunch of boomers. We should be confronting people within the scene, who have fallen prey to this dogmatic devotion.”
Photo: Nate Sturley
ULTRAPOP, he elaborates, is their weapon for that fight. Although The Armed are still a “heavy-ish” band, those old labels are no longer useful. The collective’s devotion to transcendent extremity endures, but extremity can no longer be achieved by a descent into the narrow diminished scales, tritones and sonic darkness of traditional heaviosity. There are far fewer limits to a bright, chaotic, full-colour spectrum.
Concurrently, the old ideas of “pop” and “outsider music” are painfully outdated.
“What isn't pop in 2021?” Adam asks. “When everyone has the same phone and access, for the most part, to all of recorded music, all film, all visual art at a few pushes a button? Ariana Grande is pop, but so is Terrorizer. Pig Destroyer is pop, because you can go get those records at a fucking Barnes & Noble. Defining your identity through a subgenre – choosing a sound and wearing a uniform – is as puerile as a child deciding that their favourite colour is green or blue. There’s this idea of ‘authenticity’, but isn’t it less authentic to deny the existence of other art forms?!
“That’s why we’re calling this ULTRAPOP. The name of the album is ULTRAPOP. The genre is ULTRAPOP. Everything we do from here on out is ULTRAPOP.”
Indeed, in terms of accessibility, with the current streaming infrastructure, it feels like the music industry is catching up with The Armed, who utilised free-to-all digital distribution in their early days. Why stop there, though?
“Eventually we don’t want to just devalue the digital side of music, but the physical side, too,” Adam (probably) jokes about the trend for increasingly extravagant vinyl releases. “Our goal, eventually, is that you send us your address and we ship you the record. It’s hard to get a record label to agree to that.”
Booking and advertising live dates for later in 2021 feels like another characteristically contrarian move, given ongoing COVID postponements, too, but there is a need to show these wares. “Showing up with eight people to a fucking open mic in some city outside of Cleveland can be funny from an Eric Andre/Jackass perspective,” Adam reflects on the old Unanticipated format, “but it’s not something we want to do again. We don’t want to hide from the fans. We just want to get out and play some shows!”
Looking to the road ahead, though, answers to the questions of ambition and legacy are as slippery as any that’ve come before. Adam feels there is a “humility” in heavy music that is “damaging to the genre’s competitive spirit”. ULTRAPOP, he hopes, will be “lauded as the most vital and important record of the century”. At the same time, he confesses a desire that there are “enough of those sonic and visual walls in the way that we're never going to become a particularly massive band”.
As we take our leave, however, he signs off with a warmth that’s hard not to buy into.
“People say we’re trying to destroy hardcore. We’re not. We're trying to help it by injecting some new thought into the process. We’re trying to add some more vocabulary to the spectrum of this thing so maybe some 15-year-old can hear it, then come back and build on it five years down the road. We want to be a band that will have changed stuff by the time we're done doing all of this.”
ULTRAPOP is out now via Sargent House.
It’s here: the Kerrang! verdict on the 50 albums that shaped 2021…
ArcTanGent 2022 has gotten even bigger with the new additions of Zeal & Ardor, Mclusky, The Armed, The Fall Of Troy, Rivers Of Nihil and more…
From returning metal titans to brilliant young stars in the making, these were the very best album releases of April 2021…
Hardcore collective The Armed embrace pop in all its forms for the hyper-intensity and all-out aggro of Ultrapop
The Armed's upcoming record ULTRAPOP is "a joyous, genderless, post-nihilist, anti-punk, razor-focused take on creating the most intense listener experience possible".
Here is our definitive ranking of the 50 bands crowdkilling the shit out of American hardcore.