In 1998, Swedish hardcore punks Refused released their third album The Shape of Punk to Come. The album was a bold departure from their 1994 debut This Might Just Be… The Truth, and it’s 1996 follow-up, Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent. This time around, the band incorporated elements of electronica, jazz and ambient music alongside its established metallic hardcore sound. The album would prove to be both a commercial and critical flop. It was all but ignored by the media, while fans and critics alike lambasted the band’s decision to move away from hardcore punk.
In the album’s wake, an ill-fated tour of the United States commenced, with a show in a basement in Virginia shut down by local authorities after four songs. This, creative differences and in-band conflict would lead to the group’s disbandment. Their self-penned epitaph, ‘Refused Are Fucking Dead’, would also cite the band’s inability to reconcile their far-left politics with the limitations of rock and roll. Go figure.
In the years that followed, The Shape of Punk to Come would come to be heralded as a classic album in the realm of heavy music. A who’s who of artists in the alternative music scene would cite the band as an influence, or at the very least declare their admiration for the band. Refused would themselves reunite to tour in 2012, later regrouping to record albums Freedom, War Music, EP Servants of Death and contribute to the Cyberpunk 2077 video game soundtrack.
For all its influence as documented by the music press in its, however, The Shape of Punk to Come was the shape of punk that never came. The experimental sonic template was one that was never truly embraced by the punk rock scene. Sure, there have been artistic high points, but ultimately, the punk scene never truly broke past the confines of their respective genres. For the most part, at least.
This arguably changed in 2021 with the release of Ultrapop, the critical and commercial breakthrough album by The Armed. The Detroit, Michigan based collective started life as a pretty average metalcore outfit – technically impressive, but otherwise musically indistinct. Aesthetically, however, they were a mystery. Shrouding themselves in anonymity, conspiracy theories about the band’s identity would range from believing the band was the brainchild of Converge’s Kurt Ballou, a commercial ad agency, or that pro-skating legend Tony Hawk was bankrolling the whole thing.
Regardless, the band would grow increasingly more experimental from debut These Are Lights (2009), to Untitled (2015), to Only Love (2018), incorporating pop hooks, elements of noise and industrial music and everything else in between. Ultrapop would prove to be the band’s boldest artistic statement to that point, visually and sonically, matching their maximalist sound with bodybuilding and developing a cult of personality at live shows. This year saw the release of Perfect Saviors, an album even more befitting of the Ultrapop moniker, as the band dive even deeper into experimental pop waters. While not as immediate as its predecessor, the album cements the Detroit collective’s place as one of the most exciting experimental bands in the world today.
Much like Refused’s “New Noise” being a pseudo-manifesto for the band’s (then) new artistic vision, Perfect Saviors’ lead single “Sport of Form” could arguably be considered The Armed’s cryptic mission statement. Boasting guest vocals from boygenius member and acclaimed singer-songwriter Julien Baker, and a music video starring Iggy Pop as God (and rightly so), the song was described by frontman Tony Wolski as being “about the human need to win a game that we’re not even actually playing. Sonically, it is a reflection of that cognitive dissonance through a constant whiplash between beauty and ugliness, severity and tenderness, obscenity and grace.”
Fitting then, that the song would take the sonic form that it does. A brief flourish of horns and strings gives way to crushing, electronic bass hits and layered, vocoded vocal harmonies and sputtering synths. The synth bass no sooner hits a groove than it gives way to delicate acoustic guitar arpeggios, itself giving way to blast beats and a full on sonic onslaught. The cycle repeats, before the band build to a crescendo behind its chosen mantra “Does anyone even know you? / Does anyone even care?”
It’s beautiful, but brutal.
But how does Wolski get his point across lyrically? He and his band reportedly recorded Perfect Saviors with the intention of creating the biggest rock album of the century. In the press run preceding its release, he stated “Too much information has made us dumb and confused. Too many ways to connect have inadvertently led to isolation. And too much expectation has forced everyone to become a celebrity. Predictable primal dangers have given way to newer social ones. And the result is a world that is confounding and terrifying – but ultimately still beautiful.”
Sonically, “Sport of Form” is itself all of the above. But lyrically, too, encapsulates much of the overarching themes Wolski describes here – not least by way of its sonic ambition. His opening statement refers to the expectations both self-imposed and imposed by others in the advent of social media (“Oh so perfect, self-aware / A curation unflawed / Iteration, or one of kind? / A distinction so hard to explain”).
This can also be interpreted as the impermanence of self-image and the need for constant reinvention as and when society demands it, or when one demands it of oneself. The song reaffirms the need to “tow a line, test some faith / never die, never fade” on several occasions – the need to believe in ones own reinvention. Perhaps this is The Armed’s own self-affirmation.
The song’s second verse vaguely refers to some kind of connection or recognition “from a waiter, from a friend, from a long-lost time”, reaffirming the belief that in the age of information, true connections have become increasingly difficult to maintain. The feelings of disorientation are explored in the juxtaposition of the dizzying sonics with the surrealist imagery and rhetorical questions in verse three “always time to watch seashells drowning / is it cynical? / are they drowning?”.
Ultimately, the song’s biggest takeaway is the climactic mantra “Does anyone even know you? / Does anyone even care?”, which echoes Wolski’s leading arguments central to the theme of the album as a whole: the age of information, in granting people at large instant gratification has created a vacuum of true knowledge and connection and created mass disorientation. Add to that the simulation of life ever present on social media, people now have an expectation to follow suit and create avatars. Those with the most likes, shares and followers are winning. Social status is measured in emojis. We hardly know each other. We scroll madly on.