Searching for the Armed: Hardcore Pranksters Flipping Heavy Music on Its Head | Revolver

Searching for the Armed: Hardcore Pranksters Flipping Heavy Music on Its Head

Who are they and what are they after? Down the rabbit hole of 'ULTRAPOP.'
the armed 2021 crop PRESS soundstage

Clark Huge is in what can only be described as a compromising position.

I'm on a Zoom call with four members of the Armed, a Detroit hardcore collective who are as revered for their genre-bending intensity as they are notorious for taking journalists through a funhouse of deception: using fake names, hiring actors to pose as band members and responding to pointed questions with confounding non-sequiturs. Three of the members on the call are in relatively normal attire for an interview about their fourth album, ULTRAPOP, but their bodybuilding synth player is shirtless and face-down on a massage table while a woman digs her hands into his bare legs.

"I would love to call it a massage but she's about to beat my ass," the 30-year-old says with a straight face while his bandmates chuckle heartily. "She gets a sick pleasure out of watching me squirm, so I'll probably put you on mute at one point so you don't hear me scream like a little baby."

As he's saying this, the woman continues to work his muscles without acknowledging the Zoom call or reacting one bit to the absurdity of the situation. Believe it or not, ridiculous displays like this are totally normal for the Armed.

To this point, the band have operated as a semi-anonymous and constantly evolving amalgamation of Detroit locals and esteemed hardcore drummers including the Dillinger Escape Plan's Chris Pennie, Baptists' Nick Yacyshyn and Converge's Ben Koller, who plays on ULTRAPOP. Their live shows have been wild, their music videos even wilder. Seemingly everything they touch has added to their intangible mystique. The Armed were name-dropped in a Ford commercial a few years back. Actor Tommy Wiseau appeared in a video of theirs that aired on Adult Swim. In 2019, the band released a song with a video that featured people skateboarding in swamp monster suits, and Tony Hawk himself shared the project on his Instagram, insinuating that he was one of the masked stuntmen. Fans and journalists have tried to untangle it all, but in the meantime, ULTRAPOP is poised to take the Armed's bewildering sound and vision to new, even more brain-scrambling heights and, if the band members have their way, radically disrupt heavy music in the process.

Of those band members, only one of the four I'm speaking with has ever been publicly associated with the Armed before — well, kind of. In addition to the burly Mr. Huge, the others on the call are 34-year-old Cara Drolshagen, 35-year-old Adam Vallely and 40-year-old Chris Slorach. Drolshagen is one of the only Armed members who's been clearly identified in photos, videos and interviews for years, and her ferocious screams can be heard all over ULTRAPOP. She says she's been contributing to the band since 2012, but everything else she says about her personal background seems to contradict her veteran stature as an accomplished hardcore musician.

"I wouldn't really consider myself in the music scene or into hardcore music at all," she says with a ditzy affect while Vallely cackles in the background. "I do a lot of painting. I take pictures of inanimate objects and try to see if there's faces or stuff in them. I dabble in a lot of stuff."

Vallely's biography makes even less sense. The guitarist-vocalist is wearing a red sleeveless shirt and a headband, and his arm muscles have the bulging definition of someone who works out voraciously. He says he joined the Armed around the same time as Drolshagen, but there's no record of anyone with that name ever appearing in the band. If you Google "Adam Vallely," the first name that comes up is a lanky British dude whose social media feeds are filled with ULTRAPOP promotions. The Adam Vallely on the call looks a lot more like a man named Tony Wolski, who's been listed as a drummer of the Armed for over a decade, and currently fronts the experimental metal band Genghis Tron.

"Obviously, it's no secret that we obfuscate who does what sometimes on purpose," he says at one point. "Ironically, the more we tell the truth, the more people think we're lying."

Chris Slorach is easier to pin down since he's honest about doubling as the bassist in the well-known Canadian noise-rock band METZ. He says he met the Armed almost a decade back during a METZ tour, and at an unspecified time in the mid-2010s, he began loading guitar riffs into a shared server that untold Armed contributors have access to. He claims that he had no idea what, if anything, he added to that folder would appear on a record, and he discovered that he was a bona fide member of the Armed the same way the rest of the world did: the day the band announced ULTRAPOP and posted an "official" roster of everyone in the lineup.

Clark Huge is a total mystery. Speaking with his face buried in a pillow, he says he's been around "for a while" and boasts that he played all of the keyboards on the Armed's hard-to-find 2009 debut, These Are Lights — an album with virtually zero keyboard parts. It doesn't seem like he participated much in the decade since, and it was during that time that he got massively into bodybuilding and began using the pseudonym Clark Huge. (He does not reveal his birth name.) He says he returned to the band to play all of the many synths on ULTRAPOP, but his abnormal devotion to fitness has had more of an impact on the Armed's day-to-day.

Everyone in the band has spent the last year working out and dieting under the instruction of Huge's fitness coach, Dominic Kuza. Huge explains that he met Kuza in the gym, and after working with him for a few years, the rest of the band decided to hire him so they could all get in super-human shape for tour. "Then COVID happened so we all just got ridiculously engulfed in it for much, much longer than we anticipated," Vallely says. "None of us have eaten anything that hasn't been measured on a scale for the last year."

It turns out that Kuza isn't one of their elaborate pranks and is indeed a professional nutrition coach. However, when I reached out to hear about his experience working with the Armed, he told me that the band made him sign NDAs — something he's never had to do for a client before — and he wasn't able to reveal many details about their regimen. "I can tell you that I was told that the collective goal was to 'create a band that could physically destroy any other band,'" Kuza wrote in an email. "Once concerts start happening again, I wouldn't fuck with these guys."

From what the band told me, it sounds like they're well on their way to achieving that goal. They say that they each eat five meticulously weighed-out meals per day, consisting of power foods like ground beef, potatoes, berries, yogurt and a shit-ton of honey. Huge's alleged routine is by far the most absurd: 5,000 calories worth of food, including four bagels and four 10 oz. steaks. He claims he was a "strict carnivore" before he started working with Kuza, and that he's only introduced other foods into his diet in order to bulk up for a bodybuilding competition. "If I wasn't competing, I would only be eating steak all day," he says while everyone else bursts out laughing. Later in the call, he points his camera at the stove and cooks up his first sirloin of the day shortly before noon.

Suspiciously absent on the call is Dan Greene, a mysterious figure who's long been spoken of as a sort of ringleader for the Armed, both creatively and musically. Slorach says he hasn't personally heard from Greene in over a month, and Vallely uses a jumble of contradictory adjectives while struggling to describe him: "He's a very different kind of person. He keeps to himself. He restocks shelves and owns a flip phone and doesn't really talk to ... we're not a band of best friends. Dan is a very friendly guy, though."

Given the Armed is made up of so many uniquely eccentric characters, I'm curious to know what binds them as people. After some deliberation, they land on the open-ended nature of the band as its biggest draw. "The Armed can be anything, and it's so confrontational," Vallely says. "Dan approaches it much more like a fine art project. Everything is this big picture."

Like any compelling piece of fine art, the Armed and their many mysteries have been examined extensively by fans and journalists who've tried, with the insatiable drive of an Indiana Jones villain, to crack the code. Between the anonymous membership and eye-brow-raising access to celebrities and brands from way outside the hardcore world, a bunch of semi-credible theories about who else might be involved have materialized. Chief among them is the speculation that post-modernist hard-rock eccentric Andrew W.K. is a major contributor. The band gets cagey when I bring him up, but Vallely confirms that he and Greene absolutely know one another, adding with a careful tone, "God only knows how they actually know each other."

I feel like the band is constantly pulling my leg for the first half of our conversation, but once we start talking about what they wanted to accomplish on ULTRAPOP, Vallely's droll smirk vanishes and he begins to offer sharp commentary about the band's creative mission. One topic he approaches with surprising candor is how the Armed as this anonymous entity has been a failed experiment. He says that the reason they started concealing who was involved in the first place was to subvert our hyper-personalized music culture by emphasizing the art over the maker. Ironically, the opposite has occurred.

"In trying to make it anonymous, the focus became more on individuals," Vallely says. Therefore, having won a cult fan base who've come to expect obfuscation and trickery, they decided that the most unexpected thing they could do to introduce ULTRAPOP was to release an actual lineup and share a video of them playing the album's lead single, "ALL FUTURES," in a well-lit room. "I think Dan's idea was always to zag when people expect you to zig," Vallely says.

In that sense, everything about ULTRAPOP is a zag — both in the context of the Armed and heavy music in general. Although the band's intensity has always been comparable to the writhing mania of the Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge, there's always been a curious amount of melody in their songs, and their 2018 album, Only Love, introduced gobs of dazzling synths and lurid clean vocals into their otherwise cacophonous compositions. For its follow-up, they wanted to take those maximalist leanings to their furthest conclusions and make the shiniest, clearest, most sonically disruptive heavy album possible.

"I think the goal of this was to try to make some-thing that truly sounds different and probably a little bit to upset some people who have a more traditionalist idea of what a 'hardcore album' should sound like," Vallely says. "Only Love was this overwhelming wash of noise. And the idea [of ULTRAPOP] is that you went underwater and your ears are full, and then it pops out and you can hear clearer than ever."

Subverting sonic and aesthetic tropes has been baked into the Armed since the beginning, and that's also extended to their live shows, which have been known to go down in gas stations under different aliases. During the more official shows in support of Only Love, Drolshagen and a man in a full ghillie suit would set up a table in the middle of the pit and eat crepes while mayhem ensued around them.

"Everyone knows when you go to a hardcore show, you have the front row for grabbing the mic, you got to watch out for the crowd killing, and you have the moshing," Vallely says. "What we were trying to do was tear down that ritual. Because if you make every-one a newbie to something, that's where you have these magical experiences."

ULTRAPOP takes the insurgent attitude one step further. Not only did they try to be subversive musically, but from a thematic standpoint, they wanted to critique the impotency of subversion in our modern era. In their creative worldview, technology and a lack of genuine curiosity have flattened cultural hierarchies to the point where being musically subversive is nearly impossible.

"Every single thing is pop," Vallely says. "People who Cara worked with who are creative directors who make mid-six-figure salaries have neck tattoos. You can get a Target T-shirt covered in skulls. You can hear tri-tones and chugs and screaming on alternative rock radio. And I think the idea of ULTRAPOP was to be rather confrontational about that in terms of saying, 'Everything is everything.' This is the album, this is the genre. Our genre is now ultrapop."

Their critiques could easily be applied to the broader musical landscape, but many of them are rooted in the context of heavy music because that's where they come from. "Terrorizer made a cool grindcore album in 1989," Vallely says. "Do we really need the same one 30 years later from 500 other bands?" To him, those dark aesthetics and often rigidly enforced sonic constraints don't muster the same disruptive qualities that they did during their inception.

"There's a certain irony in the fact that so many people fetishize strict procedure and think that that's subversion," Vallely says. "Maybe it's just as hardcore to be super into Dua Lipa as it is to be into just pre-Jane Doe Converge albums."

thearmed_3_credit_trevor_naud.jpg, Trevor Naud
photograph by Trevor Naud

A few days after my Zoom call, I did manage to get into contact with Dan Greene — or who I think was Dan Greene. The Armed's publicist told me that Greene was only communicating with fans and press through a secret Discord server that can be accessed through a website called The Book of the Book of Daniel. The site, which features ancient clipart and old logos for Netscape and Internet Explorer, looks like the hub of a low-budget cult that's based around a holy figure named "Daniel" (a.k.a. Dan Greene).

Once you find the proper link, it'll take you to a Discord server where Greene sends out cryptic dispatches to over 500 zealots who are diligently collaborating to try and make the Armed the biggest band in the world. As of press time, they've crowdfunded billboards in half-a-dozen major cities (including Times Square), spent hundreds of dollars on social media ads and hired "Friday" singer Rebecca Black to make a Cameo video wishing Dan Greene good luck on his album rollout. If the band's persuasive critiques didn't sway you, the fact that their hardcore band has followers who operate like a K-Pop stan army is a pretty pointed example of how pop has swallowed everything.

I was able to scrounge up the number for Greene's burner phone, and he agreed to answer a few lingering questions I had after speaking with his bandmates. He told me about how The Book of the Book of Daniel is a meta-response to the band's decentralization-via-anonymity gone awry ("A cult of personality"). He gave me a brilliantly thorough retort to my suggestion that pop can't be subversive because subversion is reacting to norms, and pop is, in and of itself, either the establishment of norms or the practicing of norms. And he sup-plied me with a grad-school-tier analysis of the waning novelty of the blast beat, tracing its history from Terrorizer to System of a Down's radio smash "Chop Suey!" to the "Extreme Metal Workout" playlists that hundreds of millions of people stream at the gym.

Throughout my weeks of research for this article, every new tidbit I learned about the Armed and every question I received an answer to only led to more questions, more curiosity, more confusion. And here I was, receiving dense, multi-layered and shockingly satisfying correspondence from the man who's supposedly behind it all. The whole interaction felt weirdly surreal, but the most profound comment Greene had was about the last song on ULTRAPOP, "THE MUSIC BECOMES A SKULL."

It's a grim, trudging industrial track that's allegedly sung by grunge icon Mark Lanegan (it definitely sounds like him), and its lyrics detail a beloved performer exiting the stage to applause and then suddenly being discarded. "What a brilliant show/Now get off/You have been dethroned," goes its tragic climax. I asked Greene if this song was about the death of the pop star, which could be anybody in a world where pop is everything. Here's what he said.

"I wouldn't say it's about the death of a pop star, but absolutely yes — the ephemerality of fame, of performance or success, and the inevitable destruction in every possible outcome. It's a mirror to the beginning of the record, which uses these themes to espouse positivity."

"Here, it may seem more cynical, but it's truly not," he continued. "Think of it as one more sticky note at the tail end of the album, reminding you that this is all gonna end one way. So don't get too hung up on the stuff that doesn't matter."

He wouldn't elaborate any further, but I now interpret that song as a self-referential nod to the mortality of the Armed's facade. A wink to anyone who's made it this far in their quest to unveil this band and unmask Dan Greene. A Coen Brothers-esque commentary on the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of our time on this earth. Thirty Russian matryoshka nesting dolls that are all empty.

After spending hours combing through old news bits, interviews and photos of the Armed to try and demystify their lineup, after speaking with four of them for nearly two hours and learning more about the nuances of bodybuilding and Clark Huge's menu than who played on this album, and after tracking down a man with an allegedly fake name, who hired a nutrition coach to turn his band into hardcore gladiators, and who started a fake religion to poke fun at our society's obsession with brand devotion, the main takeaway is to not get hung up on the stuff that doesn't matter.

"The Armed is Dan Greene," the band's mysterious ringleader tells me. "But Dan Greene is everyone."

thearmed_2_credit_trevor_naud.jpg, Trevor Naud
photograph by Trevor Naud