By Rich Hobson
It begins with a blare of electronica and in less than five seconds, pandemonium erupts. Blast-beats, anguished howls and screams; heavy music, exactly as we know it. And then, by the 30-second mark, the whole notion of extreme music is turned on its head as in the centre of this sonic cacophony, a sombre melody begins to play out. Everyone, meet The Armed, a Detroit-based musical collective formed in 2009 with hardcore leanings and something entirely more ferocious bubbling beneath the surface. Across a steady stream of releases (two albums, three EPs and a split release with Tharsis, to date), the group have built a sense of distinctive individuality. Their third record Only Love is due for release next month and just may be the most polarising piece of music you’ll hear this year.
“We make a conscious effort to not repeat ourselves.” explains vocalist Dan Greene. “We were trying to make music as if we’d never heard of Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan or Hatebreed; I wanted to go back to listening to what we did when we were ten. There’s a sense of stagnation in aggressive music; there’s a problem with progressing things. There are so many subgenres now that all sound so similar.”
He considers it for a moment. “That sounds really judgemental; I like a lot of aggressive music, as we all do, but we need music that comes from somewhere different.”
For The Armed, ‘something different’ describes almost everything they do. Ostensibly tagged as a hardcore band, their sound is expansive and branches into many other areas, taking the furious energy of punk and technical prowess of metal and drowning it in crashing tidal waves of noise. And somehow, amidst all of this cacophony, is a sense of mournful and destructive joy, of embracing just how fucked up everything is as the world crumbles around you.
“We actually wanted it to be net positive, if that makes sense?” Dan asks. “The idea of Only Love was that the world has got itself into a predicament by lots of white dudes yelling about their perceived problems – we didn’t want to add to that. Not that we didn’t want to be aggressive; we wanted to be intense. A lot of hardcore can be so reductive and even though that’s what’s cool about it, like ‘Yeah I can boil the solution down into one sentence!’ sometimes this was more about when things feel so insurmountable, so truly insane, that it’s okay to not have any kind of solution. Not permanently – you should always work towards one – but that’s where Only Love comes from; when in doubt, embrace love.
The interplay between noise and melody is a crucial element in the very best extreme music, and Only Love has it in spades, drawing on some unlikely sources to create something truly unique and interesting.
“My dad is a big Chicago fan! Sure, a lot of their music is cheesy, but so much of it also uses odd time signatures. You could have hummed a song for years and you don’t realise it’s not 4/4; it’s because they really crafted the melody, the hook and the beat. That became more interesting to us, this record became a quest to incorporate more of a pop language than we have done previously.”
Drawing on pop as an influence, The Armed have created an uneasy marriage between harmony and melody, fury and cacophony, backing it up with a series of increasingly surreal images and videos which betray their otherworldliness. And yet, for all of their strangeness, the troubles of the real world have always crept in on the periphery, particularly in relation to their hometown.
“Detroit finds its way in, whether we mean it to or not,” Dan agrees. “A lot of the early stuff we did was about capturing the very real images and intensity that surrounds say, a liquor store on Young and Beautiful, or some mini-vans going through an intersection like on Common Enemy. In time, it’s become a thing about including the surreal.”
You’ve likely heard about Detroit. Whether BBC or VICE, The Guardian or Channel 4, the city earned immense interest from publications at the turn of the decade when, after almost five full decades of decline, it finally declared bankruptcy. Overnight, a large amount of its populace – those that could – abandoned the city, leaving behind a shell population of less than 700,000; an enormous drop from the 1,000,000+ in 1950. For journalists, it was the perfect opportunity to explore the dark underbelly of America; a wasteland where capitalism and government had utterly failed. For The Armed, it was the perfect breeding ground for a maverick sense of creativity.
“When we started playing music, Detroit was so cool,” explains Dan. “It was this huge city that suddenly found itself empty. You could go out and shoot shitty, cheesy band photos in the middle of the intersection and there’d be nobody there. There were so many places and squats to play, all these music venues operated in grey areas of the law – or were just totally illegal.”
While Dan paints a picture of punk’s paradise in Detroit, he also acknowledges that as the city makes slow progress towards recovery, the spread of gentrification is also changing the music scene.
“People have talked about the comeback of Detroit for so long, but within the last six years, the difference is so ridiculous. Those places you used to go and do crazy stuff, there’s some Finance Bro who’s moved there from the suburbs and is spending a quarter of a million dollars on it. It’s a trip; go there like ‘hey dude, I puked in your bedroom!’ I’m not bummed about gentrification because I can drive around laughing to myself about all the crazy shit I’ve done there.”
Speaking to Dan amidst the grip of a snowstorm – with roads closed, trains cancelled and businesses shut against the sudden onset of snow and sub-zero temperatures – it’s hard not to feel like so many of our infrastructure problems feel trite compared to the absolute clusterfuck that was (and still largely is) Detroit. And yet, Dan speaks with fondness, even glee, about growing up in the city. He doesn’t view it with any sense of rose-tinted nostalgia though, and his story isn’t the usual narrative we’re offered when the subject of gentrification and music comes up.
“It’s not all negative,” he states. “It’s the natural order of things to change and there are actual clubs now with good sound systems. We had places where the sound wasn’t that great and the security was just a bunch of hardcore gang kids who’d beat people up. That was the vibe of shows; I’m sure going to cleaner venues bums some people out, but I love going somewhere with good sound.”
Fiercely independent, almost everything The Armed has ever recorded is available entirely for free on Bandcamp, adhering to a policy of art over finance. Their last record was untitled (that’s untitled – not Untitled) and the band even “toured” it by playing low-key shows in community centres, petrol stations and the like under different guises, recording the results in a live album titled ‘Unanticipated’. That doesn’t mean that they haven’t made some decisions along the way to keep things self-sufficient.
“We tried to come into it as pretty resourceful people so that it’d pay for the next thing,” explains Dan. “Nothing where we’d get rich, but enough that it’d keep things going. We’ve always had this thing where its like if we don’t make any money it’ll make the art pure, but it’s sometimes a bummer to hear that other bands have to make a new record just because they need to eat.”
So how do you measure success for a band like The Armed? After all, while their sound incorporates pop sensibility, there is an uncompromising sense of extreme individualism which runs through it all. As media interest increases around the band in the build to Only Love, you can’t help but wonder if this record could propel the collective into the mainstream consciousness…
“We’re totally fine with where we are. We just want to make stuff and we’re really happy that we’ve got a nice, humble fanbase that do things enough to support it and whatever happens, we want to do that on our own accord. I think to be remembered at all, in an environment that’s so full of easily accessible art, is good enough for us.”
Proud of who they are and what they have achieved, The Armed are pragmatists through and through. Surviving in one of America’s most violent and impoverished cities is by no means an easy thing, but they have nonetheless achieved it, achieving it without ostentation or cashing in on their situation as a bargaining chip on the PR circuit.
“When someone says ‘at least there’s going to be some good punk music!’ it’s like oh man… I’d trade all that good punk for not being in that situation!” Dan laughs.
Detroit’s day in the sun as a music-producing capital of the world may be long over, but the time of The Armed is just beginning. The group have learned from the mistakes of The American Dream, forging their own sense of rugged identity that suggests they are ready to make things work again on their terms, forging a whole new reality from the wreckage of the past.
Only Love is due for release April 27 via No Rest Until Ruin (US) and Throatruiner Records (UK)