Before January is over and the internet really moves on the usual previews, ones-to-watch, and new-stuff-new-stuff-now-now-NOW thinkpieces that fill the gaps in content creator’s heads all day and all night, I wanted to take a moment to discuss what I consider to be the best music release of 2015. That record is The Armed’s untitled album.
The Armed are a punk rock band from Detroit, MI. They have a central core of members who make up their creative core, but the rotating line-up of collaborators and co-conspirators is much greater than this, and has varied considerably over the course of their 10 year career.
This record doesn’t have a name — it’s been erroneously reported by some outlets that the title of the record is Untitled, or that it’s self-titled. Neither is the case — it’s an untitled record. The concepts and themes that are tightly wound about the core of this album make it having a title of its own redundant.
This record stands sideways from the traditional role art plays in modern culture, as well as many of the established models of commerce that the present-day music industry operates in; to provide a helpful label or moniker to easily slot this work into either goes against its very being.
The Armed’s 2015 album is a reaction to where culture was in 2015. That operative word is reaction, not rejection or reflection or critique. Culture is what it is, and The Armed are what they are as a response to that. That response is sometimes made with judgment, but sometimes without. Sometimes that response is to turn its gaze and sucker-punch the band’s own audience.
“The whole album is sort of a commentary on appropriation in art and the culture of curation versus creation,” said (current) bassist Cara Drolshagen said in an interview with Rolling Stone .
“The Bowie cover was our way of nodding toward that theme. We had initially taken it to even further extremes: The original cover was just the cover of [Bowie’s] The Next Day with the title crossed out and our working title written above it. The cover for The Next Day, of course, is the cover of ‘Heroes’ with a big white box over it. So it would’ve been a third-wave Bowie concept. Our printer refused to print it at the time though, so we ended up going in a different direction. It was probably for the best.”
Drolshagen is just one of the new faces that appeared in The Armed’s camp since the last time the band released anything. In fact, The Armed went to great lengths to disguise just who worked on what aspect of the new record (bar the high-profile involvement of Baptists’ Nick Yacyshyn and Converge’s Kurt Ballou on engineering duties). None of the “established” faces of the band appear in the promo photos for the new record. The occasional making-of vignettes the band put out during the record’s recording at Godcity Studios in Massachusetts didn’t feature the band members’ faces. When we wrote about the album in one of the final pieces ever on Thrash Hits, one of the band emailed us to ask us to remove their names from the article. The latest record by The Armed isn’t about the people who made it. They went out of their way to hide that from you. They want you to witness a message (and I’ll get on to that in a bit).
That’s why they give their music away for free. Sure, you can’t move for free music on the internet these days, legal or otherwise. What’s the big deal about this case? Well for one thing, The Armed having given away all their music since day one. Sure, if you want to you can throw them a buck or two over Bandcamp. Sure, you can shell out to buy their records on fancy, high-end vinyl releases. But you don’t, haven’t ever, and never will have to if you don’t want.
“It is undeniable that for the most part young people do not place the same sense of monetary value on recordings as they once did. People can argue about the ethics, but that is the fact. So you might as well try to adapt to that and control the situation on your own terms. Why let someone posting a horribly compressed torrent of your material dictate what most people are going to hear?” That was how the band’s drummer Tony Wolski, described the situation when speaking to Thrash Hits as far back as 2009. I have no doubt the same sentiment remains baked in to The Armed’s operational philosophy today.
This approach of “free, but on our terms” extends into the extreme care and visual distinctiveness of The Armed’s videos. While past videos have followed traditional (if extremely high-quality) templates of bands performing live, both with and without an audience, it’s only been with the release of the untitled record that the band have taken the next step in visual creativity.
The video for ‘Forever Scum’ was the first taste of music from this record that the band released to the world. A locked mid-shot of a record playing, the calm scene is soon shattered by what appears to be someone pouring water all over the scene. When a pair of hands holding a bright red gasoline can slips into the shot, the fate of the objects in front of us becomes clear. When the track reaches the bass-heavy menace of its middle-eight, and a flaming torch lurks into view, we the viewer think we are ready to appreciate the destruction that we’ve subconsciously been building up anticipation for. We want to watch this burn. We want to watch. We’re so drunk on glee at the sight of the conflagration when it takes off that a sudden, unexpected, inferno-inducing smash of a sledgehammer into the mix kicks us clean out of our destruction induced glee. The Armed are here to destroy everything, not just the items we their audience expect, and they are not going to do it in the manner we expect them to. We are not in control.
For the second video for the record, the band crafted a warped video mashup of some of the biggest popstars of the last few years to appear as if they are performing ‘Polarizer’. Beyonce, Ronnie Radke, Miley Cyrus – and even the indie ingénue Lorde – get hijacked into doing a turn in The Armed’s editing suite.
But rather than being a crass and clumsy takedown of popular, mainstream, celebrity culture (which in itself is such a tired and overdone trope of punk rock everywhere), The Armed put out a communication to articulate the altogether different aim they had for ‘Polarizer’:
“The video is mostly a reflection on the importance of curation vs. creation today. Tumblr culture. You don’t need to create it… just embrace it during its shelf life of cultural favourability and be vocal. Take what you want from whatever you want and define yourself like a Mr. Potato Head. We’re not saying this is good or bad, it just is.
“There’s also an undercurrent theme of anonymity and the unimportance of the creator or the individual. Art over its maker. The reduction of pop star/cultural deity to mere blurred extra in some evening news b-roll.
“Lastly, we wanted to hit the idea of referentiality in music. So much modern music is — if we’re being kind — incredibly referential, or if we’re being honest, a stale cartoon of sounds and an aesthetic boomeranging back into fashion. Everyone is guilty of it, including us. But I would say that more so than ever, a lot of trending rock and pop music finds itself in a state of genre-cycling arrested development.”
Perhaps that’s why each of the co-opted celebrity images in the video have their eyes pixelated. It’s the most tokenistic, bare-minimum gesture to concealing their identities; a stylistic mirror to modern music and Tumblr-culture’s pathosis of absorbing ideas and regurgitating them as originality without acknowledging their source.
Then there is those repeating chorus lyrics “Polarizer / thy will be done”. Not only do they carry with them the obvious religious overtones, slyly observing youth culture’s veneration of the musical icons as saints. Of course, that the song itself repurposes the lyric “It’s just a shot away” from ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Rolling Stones is an equally cheeky wink at the entire concept of intellectual appropriation.
It’s little wonder that the video ends with a image-mirrored view of Nicki Minaj’s arse gyrating furiously in a cage. If you want a vision of the future, don’t imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever, just imagine a technicolour wall of frantically twerking booty, providing soporific sexual satisfaction for a generation of keyboard cowboys and their unwitting dullard march towards a digital monoculture.
The third (and to date, final) video for the album came out after the album had been released. By the time the ambitious promo for ‘Paradise Day’ was released, the world had been given time to breathe in the untitled record, to try to articulate the nuances of it to our own brains. The video itself was a stark departure to not just the previous two videos, but The Armed’s career aesthetic, taking the song’s 2:58 runtime and expanding it into a 7-minute short film.
A muzak-spiral of cold North East American winter office drudgery, ‘Paradise Day’ bursts as a fantasy karaoke session throws a leash around the raw kinetic fury of the song and rides it out like a rodeo champion. This hellish feeling of oppression, by culture, by ourselves, by life, is popped by the fantastical vision of Zoo Of Berlin’s Trevor Naud instigating a riot-come-apocalypse-party.
‘Paradise Day’ ends with a near inhuman roar of ‘We’re the greatest band in the whole world!” At first I thought this was ironic bravado. But the more I listen to the untitled records, the more I think The Armed believe it. The more I think I believer it.
This album took the loose template that rattled around the band’s full-length debut, 2008’s These Are Lights, and panel-beat it into something more sleek, more engineered for purpose. What the purpose is…we can only grasp feebly at the edges of, trying to gain purchase in a trip that doesn’t really care if we come along or not. We’re just passengers to this. We can observe, we can attempt to absorb, but we’re all just clinging on for dear life. The Armed aren’t a solution to anything. They don’t offer answers. You’re just the problem they don’t like.