I Saw The Armed for What They Are

The post-modernist hardcore troupe played Pittsburgh. It made me feel some type of way.

I Saw The Armed for What They Are

Three years ago to the week I was asked if I wanted to work full-time at Revolver Magazine. My now-former boss posed the question to me in an email thread about The Armed, who I had just filed a long profile on for Revolver's spring 2021 print issue. Last night, I saw The Armed play live for the first time. It was the day after I formally stopped working at Revolver Magazine. My girlfriend says that's "a sign from the universe." I prefer to call it "a weird coincidence." Either way, it's definitely...something.

In those three years, my relationship with heavy music — and all music, really — has changed a lot. In some ways, I'm more disillusioned than ever with the state of heavy music. In other ways, I find myself more enlightened by the scene and more fulfilled by the culture than ever before. Where The Armed now land on that axis of disappointment and gratification, I'm not exactly sure. For the last year-and-a-half, my thoughts on The Armed, who I once counted among my favorite bands, have been muddy. Seeing them live didn't exactly clarify my relationship with their music. But that in and of itself might be the clarity I was seeking. Life feels better, righter, when The Armed are a puzzle to me.

In spring 2021, I thought The Armed were the coolest band in the entire world. I discovered them in 2018 shortly after they released their third (and best) album Only Love. That record is, to this day, fucking bonkers. A genuinely radical, abrasive, beautiful, evocative, disorienting, and seismically loud noise-hardcore-electro-pop conglomerate that snapped me out of a two-year period where heavy music wasn't part of my regular listening rotation. But it wasn't just the music that blew my mind. It was the whole conceptual project of The Armed that captivated me.

A quasi-anonymous collective of marketing professionals moonlighting as genre-busting hardcore musicians who had spent years lying about their identities in the most needlessly extravagant ways. Who had music videos that looked like they could air on HBO but were thematically nonsensical and decidedly anti-commercial. Who were rumored to have only played live at trailer park open-mic nights where they sold unplayable vinyl records made entirely out of leaves. In an age where everyone is knowable and every musician is so public-facing that mystery and mystique feel damn-near extinct, The Armed were shockingly unknowable and genuinely perplexing, not just performatively obtuse. And being a music journalist gave me a unique in on the action.

From their late-2000s formation up through the ULTRAPOP cycle in 2021, The Armed's whole thing was about giving journalists the run-around. Obfuscating details about the band both for fun and in an attempt to keep the focus on the music, not the personalities. At least that's what they said. What it really did was make The Armed an enigma, and enigmas are fun. Sometimes, enigmas are more fun than music.

By 2023, The Armed were found out. Profiles like mine (which was really just my attempt at a spiritual follow-up to the singular, unbeatable brilliance of this 2018 Noisey profile on them — still, to this day, my favorite piece of music writing ever) had overexposed The Armed's shtick and sucked up every last drop of mystery that the band had to give. So for their 2023 album, Perfect Saviors, The Armed went the other direction. They finally revealed their real names in a proper list of credits. They truthfully answered any question any music journalist asked them, including detailed rundowns of who played in The Armed over the years and how their philosophy came to be, dropping the façade of pseudonyms and paid-actor trickery and intentionally reducing themselves to just an ordinary, non-anonymous band.

I respected the move and understood why they did it. The jig was up. They couldn't have carried out the nonsense for an entire other record cycle, especially with eyes like The New York Times on their rapscallion antics. Even so, I felt like a little something in the world died when The Armed became, shall we say, un-armed against the onslaught of ordinary. I had mixed feelings on Perfect Saviors as an album, as it felt like a too-shiny, too-try-hard, too-normal attempt at festival-rock crossover. ULTRAPOP was an inversion of hardcore through noise-pop maximalism and heady, Warholian deception. They had a professional body-builder join their lineup, and I got to watch him cook a steak at 11 a.m. while I interviewed his bandmates about why they all decided to get jacked. It was fucking insane, and so was the music. Perfect Saviors was just a rock record. The Armed had become just a rock band.

Last night, I approached the Pittsburgh venue with very little palpable excitement in my bones. My expectations truly couldn't have been any more minimal. I was fighting a cold and was physically exhausted, and I kept forgetting the show was even happening in the weeks leading up to it. I almost considered bailing to stay home and rest on the couch, but ultimately pushed through because it just felt like a guaranteed missed opportunity to not see this band in a small club. Between 2019 and 2021, an Armed show would've been a season-defining event for me, but it's been years since I've listened to The Armed with any regularity. ULTRAPOP was cool as hell to me until about halfway through 2021 when The Armed became semi-famous and no longer felt like one of heavy music's best-kept secrets. They were no longer fringe music, but music for people who fancy themselves as fringe. That's a completely pompous judgement, I know, but it's how I felt, and still do to a large extent. By the time I got wind of Perfect Saviors, I was skeptical from jump if I'd even like it. A Julien Baker guest vocal is the exact opposite direction I wanted them to go in. I didn't want The Armed to rack up cosigns. I wanted them to, in their own parlance, refract their heightened profile into weirder, uglier shapes and colors.

So when I showed up to the venue, I kind of just went through the motions. I met up with my friend and we chatted after the first and only opener, HIRS Collective, who rip live. The Armed were up next, but I didn't have that thumping pulse of anticipation that I usually get at shows when I'm actively excited for the headliner. A few minutes before they took the stage, I stood behind Armed guitarist-saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi in the bathroom and heard him discussing the set order with a bandmate I didn't recognize. I was in a tiny enclosure with two members of The Armed! I felt almost nothing and instead spent that short minute distracted by the shrieking blowdryer.

When the six members in this configuration of The Armed casually ambled out onstage, I felt a little pang deep in my stomach that said, "Oh shit, there they are." Then, moments after they began their set, I felt like my eyes lost a layer of cornea. That's a weird first observation to have about a group of artists working in the audio medium of heavy rock music, but it was my eyes that felt the impact strongest. The Armed's stage setup consisted of a blinding surge of strobes and these giant glowstick-esque tubes of light that blinked and changed colors throughout the set. The sound was buzzy and blistering, but the lighting was profoundly intense. At various points throughout the next hour, it was impossible to see anything other than waves of white light.

When I did get a good look at the band, nearly every move they made struck me as a little bit uncanny. However, the thing about The Armed is that it's hard to tell if you're reading too much into their subtle peculiarities or if those choices are all part of their post-modernist theater. For instance, the band's primary frontmen, singer-guitarist Tony Wolski (the band's co-founder and longtime press ambassador) and singer-guitarist Randall Kupfer (a six-foot-five-ish giant who might've been a circus strongman in a previous life), re-arranged themselves onstage after every song. They started the show standing beside one another center-stage, where there was ample room for the both of them, but going forward one of them would retreat to a cramped nook behind Shiroishi and sing and/or strum there while the other one commanded the spotlight.

There was no clear rhyme or reason to these decisions, because the two of them were sharing lead vocal duties for most of the songs. But their squirrely realignments really conveyed the sense that The Armed are less a collection of individuals and moreso one big organism. Their movements might not make sense in isolation, but they all seemed part of the esoteric logic of the greater whole. Furthermore, it was usually difficult to discern exactly whose voice was coming clearest through the monitors. During opener "All Futures," almost every member onstage had a microphone, but it was obvious that a backing track was playing Cara Drolshagen's yelpy "ya-ya-ya-ya-ya's," as the prominent longtime member wasn't present for this show. During the hook of "Everything's Glitter," I could've sworn that Wolski was lip-syncing over the chorus take that appears on Perfect Saviors. His raw vocals were a little pitchy throughout the rest of the set, but that portion of the song — the sweetest melody in their whole repertoire — sounded noticeably bulletproof.

I had long heard rumors that Armed shows were deconstructionist expositions that flipped the conventions of a hardcore show on its head. Supposedly, Drolshagen used to descend into the crowd and set up a table where she would eat crepes while people moshed around her. There was nothing that extravagant last night. During the first song, Wolski knelt down to hug someone singing along upfront, and then waded into the crowd for a few measures before leaping back up onstage. Kupfer came down a couple times and made more of a show of it. His towering figure was entertaining in and of itself, and watching him plough into people around the pit to get them moving felt like being in a haunted house where the actors can actually touch you. At one point, after stirring up the crowd into a push-pit, he lunged forward and did a sloppy barrel roll on the venue floor, after which he laid on his back and huffed the song's final words while gazing up at the ceiling. When he brushed by me he smelled distinctly like Abercrombie cologne, and his overbearingly fresh scent hung in the pit for minutes after he rejoined the stage.

Kupfer's aura was an amusing blend of threatening and affable, but Wolski's demeanor throughout the night was hard to pin down. He seemed distracted and vaguely pissed-off at various points during the set, calling on the mostly docile crowd to "fuck this place up" before playing songs from The Armed's most recent albums, which are catchier and less conducive to hardcore mischief than anything in their back catalog. He said very little in between songs other than muttering the upcoming track titles, but at one point he made an awkward "go Penguins!" joke and immediately recoiled with self-deprecating laughter, shrugging in a way that said, "I don't know, man, I'm trying up here." I couldn't tell whether he was being purposefully reticent to maintain The Armed's inscrutable vibe, or if he genuinely didn't know what to say up there and felt awkward.

As the set went on, Wolski's presence became more combative. He announced when the band only had five songs left and kept firing off half-assed encouragements for the crowd to get wilder, repeatedly warning the room that "there is no encore." During a song that was just drums, bass, sax, and keys, Wolski chucked a mostly finished plastic water bottle into the crowd and I saw it bonk lightly off a person's face a few rows over. She wiped her cheek and then kept on nodding her head to the music, unmoved to strike back. A few nights earlier I saw beatdown hardcore kingpins Sunami launch full water bottles into the audience at LDB Fest, where the intent was a very clear invocation of violence. In contrast, Wolski's bottle toss felt like an awkwardly performative "fuck-him-up" move, a quaint nod to "traditional" hardcore fuckery that the band's norm-breaking ethos nominally opposes.

The night did, however, include some real-deal bloodshed. After their penultimate song, Wolski barked, "I just broke my nose for this shit," into the mic. He was dabbing his face and had a look of genuine frustration in his eyes. The implication was that the crowd should go the fuck off to make it worth it for him. Kupfer descended back to the floor with a mic stand and howled into it before strutting throughout the crowd with his guitar, stalking all the way back to the bar and then reversing to push his way through the crowd again. I looked up at the stage and saw smears of blood on Wolski's face. The strobes were too intense for me to make out the particulars, but he had clearly sustained an injury — one that didn't stop him from screaming the words to "BIG SHELL" as fans upfront shouted the words back at him. The song ended and they walked off. The house music came on within seconds. As promised, there was no encore.

Back when I thought The Armed were the coolest band in the world, I imagined what it would be like to see them live. I envisioned a sort of purifying experience. A cirque du soleil-cum-basement gig pageant of incomprehensible chaos and adrenalized expression. That's not what last night's show was like. The Armed were just six guys onstage playing noisy, electro-tinged punk music. They sounded fucking great. Powerful, dialed-in, and animated. They rocked out appropriately and certainly put on more of a show than most bands of their ilk.

But again, knowing what I know about this band, I was expecting something more grandiose than what they gave. And weirdly, that in and of itself made me appreciate the subtleties that much more. The absence of "holy-fuck" climaxes supplied a bounty of, "ha wtf," idiosyncrasies. Like the fact that I didn't even notice the sixth man onstage until halfway through the show, when the anonymous figure waaaay in the back corner revealed himself to be more than just a roadie. He was strumming a guitar during the song I noticed him, but I never saw him actually play an instrument for the rest of the night. I couldn't really tell what he was doing, frankly. During the last track, when Wolski was bleeding from the face, I squinted through the strobes and clocked him spinning one of those big-ass glowsticks like a baton.

Details like that reignited my love of The Armed's peculiarities, and shed their antics in a new light. For so long, I bought into the idea that The Armed's conceptual project was highly regimented, that every brushstroke — even the odd ones — were intentional and somehow meaningful. Throughout last night's show, I began to seriously question whether The Armed were still trying to be weird or if, despite their newfound acceptance of normalcy, they were just unintentionally weird. Wolski's beady eyes, Kupfer's hilariously pungent cologne scent, the stoic facial expressions of their bandmates when they did some wacky shit, the frantic shuffling of on-stage positions for no discernible reason. The fact that they only had a stack of ULTRAPOP vinyl at their merch booth, which were plopped down in the far-right corner of the otherwise empty table alongside a hand-written note that said "sorry" for not having any of their signature merch items. I don't know if any of that shit was intentional, but all of it struck me as just a little bit funny. A little bit off. A little bit uncanny.

When I interviewed The Armed for that Revolver story in 2021, I spent weeks digging through old articles to assemble a sprawling document of their contradictory backstory. I created a master list of their various pseudonyms, read every interview they'd ever done, and combed through the press photos they used to send off to publications that didn't feature any real members of the band. I had so many questions prepared for my interview that our conversation went 45 minutes overtime and I still didn't get to ask them everything I wanted. If I interviewed The Armed tomorrow, I don't know what I would ask them. I don't know that I care to know any more about them at this point. Some mysteries are better left unsolved. Some coincidences will forever remain just...something.