The Armed is one of the most mysterious bands on the hardcore punk circuit these days. But if you ask them, it’s only semi-intentional.
Have they intentionally kept the band’s lineup a secret in the past, including using a rotation of fake names? Yes. Will they still flood their live show with fog and strobe lights to obscure the audience’s view just a bit? Well, yeah. Do they enjoy keeping fans and critics alike guessing by releasing albums that each sound like they could be made by different bands with handfuls of big-name guest artists? Sure, but at some point they realized that their desire for semi-anonymity was preventing people from taking the band and its music seriously.
And after reaching a much larger audience with 2021’s glitchy hardcore album-of-the-year contender, Ultrapop, this week’s Perfect Saviors marks the end of an era — or perhaps more accurately, an arc — for the Detroit band.
“We set out to do this really concerted effort of a few albums that would have to do with pop culture and our ability to use the tools of pop music in which to communicate,” the Armed’s unofficial spokesperson/vocalist/drummer/it’s complicated, Tony Wolski, tells SPIN over Zoom. “We started on [2018’s] Only Love, doing things like imposing rigid pop structures to parts that don’t sound rigid and trying to write as much in a major key as we could — just imposing weird things in our vernacular. Then we flipped that on its head for Ultrapop, where we started using the format of pop music — blistering shine and compression — and we blew that into a million-miles-per-hour version of what that could be. For this one, we wanted to strip away those challenges in the format and make it so that the palatability of pop was the format for this one. It’s the necessary resolution to these three albums.”
For as unintelligible, overdubbed and sonically confrontational (all in the best way) as Ultrapop was, Perfect Saviors is about as widely appealing as a hardcore-related album can be without being Turnstile’s Glow On. Its shininess and catchiness are borderline radio-friendly, while still maintaining the darkness and complexity that fans have come to expect from the Armed’s various albums over the years.
“There’s far more to get out of [Perfect Saviors] on the 10th and 100th listen, but we also made an album that’s digestible on the first listen,” Wolski says. “Before, we were purposely making a really delicious bowl of oatmeal, but with some shattered glass in there, so you had to be slow. This time, it’s just a really yummy cake with nothing bad — but that doesn’t mean that all those details aren’t still in there. In my opinion, it’s our most complex record to date, but not in a showy way.”
Most of the purist hardcore scene would scoff at such a pop-friendly album if it wasn’t coming from the Armed. While they’re not for everyone (some find the mysterious “lore” shtick to be a bit too much, for instance), the musical collective has developed a devoted audience that’s willing to ride the wave and trust that Wolski and his bandmates won’t let them down in the long run. For musicians who “never want to do the same thing twice,” that’s a better situation than becoming a mainstream arena-filling act.
The Armed’s history of steadily growing for a decade before really reaching a semi-mainstream audience also helps smooth their transition to Perfect Saviors. After self-releasing their 2009 debut, they first gained a small (but dedicated) following with 2015’s more traditionally hardcore Untitled before growing into their current trilogy. Each album saw their following grow a bit, with Ultrapop’s late-pandemic launch pushing them from somewhat underground to critical darlings and semi-viral hipster hardcore heroes. And while not being able to immediately tour on a potentially breakthrough album isn’t exactly what the Armed had planned (their first post-pandemic tour was rebooked four times), the band was better prepared for the situation than most artists.
“It was almost like we were an outside observer [of Ultrapop’s success],” Wolksi says. “We’ve always been a tortoise and the hare kind of thing, but Ultrapop felt like a serious level of growth. It was weird to not be able to go out and connect with all those people right away, but it made those shows magical. We were selling out headlining shows in places we hadn’t been before. We didn’t know how much it connected until we saw people traveling to the shows and singing everything.”
As a part of that growth, the Armed has been able to bring in big names guests on Perfect Saviors. While Ultrapop featured the late Mark Lanegan, Troy Van Leeuwen, hardcore producer extraordinaire Kurt Ballou and more, the new album includes Iggy Pop, Julien Baker, Josh Klinghoffer, Eric Avery and Stephen Perkins of Jane’s Addiction, Van Leeuwen again and more. The band went into Perfect Saviors with the idea to forsake any kind of concerns for genre or coolness and simply make “the best rock album of this century,” so they knew they were going to need some help to tackle a release of that scope.
“The cool thing about getting older is that you can just reach out and not care what people think,” Wolski says. “We wanted to make this album big and beautiful in the way that the ‘90s albums we grew up on were — not the aesthetic, but the grand scope — and part of that was reaching out to people that could make it feel bigger. We’ve never created anything where it has to be a specific person playing, it’s always just whatever helps the song. We found the person that would be best for each song.”
If they’re going to release a rock album for the ages, the mystery and lore around the band couldn’t get in the way. While they’re not looking to dispel the smoke (literal and metaphorical) around the Armed, they’re willing to “peel it back a little bit.” After all, the whole secrecy thing started because Wolski and his cousin, Kenny Szymanski, were just making music in his basement with various friends.
When those friends dropped by, Wolski and Szymanski weren’t sure who was technically in the band. Instead, it became a village of collaborators. Plus, the duo and their additional contributors didn’t want their individual personalities or perceptions of them getting in the way of the art.
“You see people’s interpretations of what’s going on outside of the music itself color and push that lens on to what the actual art is, so we were trying to come up with a way to prevent that,” Wolski says. “You couldn’t say ‘I like this drummer better’ or ‘I like this singer better’ if you don’t know who they are. You either like the song or you don’t, but it wasn’t ‘This band was better when this guy was playing the drums’ even though these dipshits can’t really tell the difference.”
By divorcing the band’s personnel from the music, the Armed’s creative process can be completely without ego. If no one knows who’s writing or playing on a track, there’s no jealousy or competition for the little money and fame they earn. It also played into the band’s desire to always subvert expectations — including finally breaking their silence on the matter. While Wolski admits they participated in a little intentional misdirection over the years, much of the mystery came from allowing fans and critics to jump to conclusions.
“People were seeing photos that weren’t of the whole band and saying we were using actors,” Wolski says. “The irony is that we’ve definitely participated in obfuscation and misleading stuff, but over half of it is just people misinterpreting it. I’ve always wondered if they’re just wrong or if they’re participating in what we’re doing. I’ve read about people being at a show where Ben Kohler played drums for us, but I know he’s never drummed at a show with us. So are they participating in the art or do they think they saw that or are they just guessing and lying on the internet?”
By trying to prevent anyone from getting wrapped up in the band’s identity, the mystery became its entire identity. The more fans and media wanted to solve the puzzle, the more the Armed resisted. The air of mystery began consuming the authenticity of its music, and its sense of humor teetered into an atmosphere of insincerity surrounding the band itself. For instance, Wolski using the moniker Adam Vallely on Ultrapop was a part of the art until the album exploded and he found himself giving interviews about the sincerity of their music while using an insincere name.
That’s why, at this point, Wolski is more comfortable with using his government name (or if it’s not, he’s done a far more elaborate job creating a backstory for this pseudonym than ever before) for Perfect Saviors. Similar to Ultrapop, all 23 contributors to the album are listed, yet every track is listed as simply “Written by The Armed” and identifying individual contributions is an impossible endeavor. There’s a certain level of anonymity and secrecy that people love and respect, but without the overt mind tricks.
And for those who don’t love the Armed, Wolski thinks it’s more of a matter of misunderstanding a lot of the time. After all, if they were a fine art collective instead of making music, they’d likely be viewed as “provocateurs” or “disruptors” making waves with their performance art.
“I think music criticism has a tendency to be more rigid than other art criticism in that people are used to the idea that they could go to a museum and encounter a fire hydrant turned on its head or a performance piece or conceptual piece and it is a valid thing — or at least accepted,” Wolski says. “But within music, we’re still typically working with these binaries. When St. Anger came out with a snare drum that sounded like a basketball in an empty arena, everyone thought it was a mistake. But those guys have millions of dollars. It wasn’t a mistake. Whether or not you think it was artistically the right move is a different story, but people were acting like it was a literal oversight.”