ALBUMS: August 2023 in Review

A modern rock triple bill comprises this month’s record column

The Hives (Image: Dean Bradshaw)

This month, you could dive into the immersive soundscapes of ANNA or the dreamily danceable Realms from Cindy Wilson. 

There’s Rhiannon Giddens in a looser, lighter mode on You’re The One. And you definitely could (and should) jump into the welcome return of Be Your Own Pet after 15 years with Mommy.

But we’re checking out variations on guitar with the newest from The Armed, Mammoth WVH and The Hives.


The Armed Perfect Saviors, Sargent House 2023

It’s been a couple years since we last heard from Detroit’s The Armed, whose intentionally ironically titled Ultrapop, was ranked tenth on Rock and Roll Globe’s 40 Best Albums of 2021

Our Ron Hart said at the time, “There’s no need for individual affiliations in this outfit because The Armed operate like one giant octopus with the ability to destroy everything in its path while connecting to our souls simultaneously.”

Artist: The Armed

Album: Perfect Saviors

Label: Sargent House 

★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars) 

On the other hand, I found it easier to admire than actually enjoy. The band’s whole deliberately impenetrable “we’re a collective, not a band” shtick mixture of performance art, trolling for the lulz and perhaps a genuine desire to remain anonymous extended to the music itself. Full of ideas, yes, but often thrown in at the expense of the songs that stuck.

There’s been a history of artists at the fringes doing this sort of thing to varying degrees. There were bands with invented bios like The Strangeloves. Negativland and the KLF took a very askew route, with the latter basically treating their entire career as a performance art piece, as if Banksy were a band.

The Armed have had their roots in the absurd since 2009, as if they were the noisy hardcore offspring of Andy Kaufman and David Lynch. They’d send paid actors or friends to portray themselves while having various pseudonyms. They’d wear disguises and perform with lighting and effects meant to obscure.

All of which brings us to 2023 and a shifted approach. It is still a band regardless of who’s in it at a given time. The Armed reached a point where their particular direction had gone as far as it could go, that a bit of a change was in order. Certainly not a 180, but the masks are coming off more.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought the aesthetic, fun as it could be, was getting in the way.

Wolski told Stereogum recently, “Over the last few albums we’ve been talking a lot about, like, information warfare, data warfare, the concept of weaponizing information and information control. So it became this cool meta-layer for us to kind of play into that subterfuge a lot, and those misunderstandings, and amplify them. But then it became this thing where everything was sort of like… it became a schtick that was very hard to communicate sincerity with the actual art, you know what I mean?”

Perfect Saviors finds the Armed daring to be accessible. If some in the band’s fanbase find it to be a “sellout” move, then so be it.

One of Perfect Savior’s songs, the pulsating electronics meet distorted “I remember the ’90s” guitar rock of “Burned Mind” tips its hat towards fellow Detroiters Wolf Eyes by using one of their album titles.. That duo got that sellout tag thrown at them when they started putting out some of their releases on Sub Pop almost 20 years ago.

I saw Wolf Eyes the year before Burned Mind came out and there was nothing remotely “sellout” about them. That is, unless you consider a guy with his back to the audience the entire set, twiddling knobs to create a migraine-inducing sound best described as “Metal Machine Music tribute act meets headliner Sonic Youth’s most painfully indulgent excesses” to be commercial. 

But we are here not to bury Wolf Eyes, but praise The Armed, because as it turns out, their move towards accessibility is still instantly recognizable as their work.

The collective band aims more for arenas (or at least nice mid-sized venues) rather than underground clubs that don’t have a permit. They do so with appearances from guest stars like Julien Baker, Eric Avery and Stephen Perkins from Jane’s Addiction, Matt Sweeney (a man of many bands), Sarah Tudzin from Illuminati Hotties and former Chili Peppers’ guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. Queens of the Stone Age’s Troy Van Leeuwen co-produced it with the band.

And the guests all appear with permission, unlike when The Armed did their Negativland salute on a 2019 single. That’s when they used Frank Turner vocals that they didn’t ask him for on the “FT. FRANK TURNER” (complete with a picture of Frank Carter on the cover). Sadly, the vocals were from an unfinished song with nary a mention of Turner wanting “a goddamn concerted effort to come out of a record that isn’t a fuckin’ up-tempo record every time I do a goddamn death dedication.”

“Everything’s Glitter”, about the artist being unafraid of looking like a complete fool, comes across like Failure with more groove in its verses before aiming for the cheap seats during the choruses and soloing. 

“Liar 2” seeks to get people dancing, but does so with the old trick of marrying upbeat music with lyrics that decidedly aren’t (“Please talk so I don’t just give up/Keep talking I don’t give a fuck/Lemme hear those lies”).


VIDEO: The Armed “Liar 2”

The Armed immediately segues without signaling from that into “In Heaven,” which marries soft acoustic guitar, sax soloing which wouldn’t have been out of place on a yacht rock record and dreampop atmosphere, the latter aided immensely by Baker’s vocal contributions. It’s lovely and, here’s a word that wouldn’t have been used to describe Ultrapop, vulnerable.

Wolski starts the opening “Sport of Measure” singing in a scratchily drawled manner that sounds as if he’d employed Hamilton Leithauser as a vocal coach. That’s before the noise creeps through. Thunderingly percussive alternative guitar rock kicks in, belying the inertia of the song’s protagonist.

“Modern Vanity,” a song Wolski came back to after some years, lopes along as if Trent Reznor’s early band Slam Bamboo were more interested in sleazy glam rock. Then the guitars, sliding and skronky, crank up and the vocal turns into a throat shredding scream.

There’s a lot of that on Perfect Saviors. Multiple elements dovetail into or glide above each other. Sometimes they collide, combining into something else entirely. But while Ultrapop often embraced doing so in service of abrasiveness, the band keeps things smoother without sounding compromised.

“FKA World” tackles truth from the other side of false hope (“And I wanna sing you lies/Can’t you hear me?/I am willing”) in surging rock. Followed immediately by the cynical swipe at inactive activism on “Clone”, the two songs are both  propelled by drums destined to give air drummers carpal tunnel.

There are certainly moments that echo Ultrapop, like the noisier portions of “Sport of Form”. But even that is played against the quiet, sometimes with vocals processed to robot voice levels, others with Baker’s unmistakably gentle quality.

“Public Grieving” is the last trip through the genre blender, starting as a piano ballad before shoegaze (minus the feedback) and proggy math rock fusion enter the mix. It’s almost as if two different songs are playing at once, yet still cohering.

Perfect Saviors isn’t The Armed running around and engaging in horseplay in a major label sandbox. They are still on Sargent House, the label that Deafheaven and Chelsea Wolfe also call home, after all.

Rather, it’s flirting with accessibility in consistently interesting ways. Instead of throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks, it’s more precise, approaching themes they’ve covered before in different ways.

Challenging themselves more than the listener pays off. So long, octopus. Hello, human connection.




Mammoth WVH Mammoth II, I Am The Sheriff/BMG 2023

Wolfgang Van Halen had put in his time before finally releasing his own music, spending time as bassist in Van Halen and Tremonti.

His first self-titled album, released in 2021, arrived four years after it was recorded because he wanted to spend as much time with his father, Eddie, who was battling the cancer that took his life in 2020.

Artist: Mammoth WVH

Album: Mammoth II 

Label: I Am The Sheriff/BMG 

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 

2021’s Mammoth WVH was deservedly well-received, showing that Eddie’s raves over his son’s talent in interviews weren’t just understandable parental bias. The album, with all the instruments and vocals from Wolfgang, showed his facility with various forms of modern guitar rock to solid effect.

Rather than record with his touring band, Van Halen stuck to the formula for Mammoth II, recording all the instruments and vocals at his father’s 5150 Studios. 

Van Halen’s multi-instrumental skills, a combination of his father’s knowledge and his own self-teaching, laid the groundwork.

Singing backup in VH helped develop his singing. He avoids a lot of vocal tropes, not singing as if he’s waiting for the laxative to kick in or he has a pickle in his throat. No Cookie Monster here, either.

Mammoth II is an amendment to the debut, as Van Halen continues to mine the music he grew up on, the guitar-driven album rock of the ’90s into the ’00s, albeit infused more with melody than nu-metal angst. He’d rather whip out old school arena riffs and hooks than break stuff.

Mammoth II doesn’t drastically depart from the self-titled debut, but there are changes. “Another Celebration at the End of the World” is more uptempo, with a definite Foos influence in its sense of determination.


VIDEO: Mammoth WVH “Another Celebration at the End of the World”

Conversely, he gets angrier and heavier on “Optimist”, chock full of ’90s alt-rock familiarity, but played with enough skill and craft to not breed contempt.

“Miles Above Me” opens with an air guitar-worthy riff, paired with percussion that’s a reminder that Van Halen’s a talented drummer who’s had that portion of his skillset slept on because his prior bands had other people at the kit.

There’s been that entitled subset online that’s acted as if Van Halen’s real duty is to be the keeper of the VH flame, making sure to play his dad’s old hits. He got to do that at last year’s tributes to Taylor Hawkins playing “On Fire,” “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher,” a salute to Eddie as much as it was to known VH fan Hawkins.

The bottom line’s always been that Wolfgang’s keeping the flame going by playing his music, doing his own thing. After all, his dad and uncle loved their father, but they weren’t about to record a series of swing albums with Eddie on sax and clarinet.

The most obvious tribute here is on “Take a Bow.” The album’s longest song, at almost seven minutes, it’s mostly a combination of arena-aimed choruses and riffing. But then over halfway through, Wolfgang whips out his father’s classic Frankenstrat for a solo that’s a testament to his skill with just enough of a knowing nod to VH. Of all the guitarists who picked up tapping from Eddie, Wolfgang certainly has the most right to throw that in when or if he so chooses. It’s a loving salute kept in the context of his own Mammoth WVH sound, in a solid song to boot.

Throughout, there’s clearly attention to balancing the heavy and the melodic, with more soloing (avoiding descending into pointless wankery). It’s as if Van Halen’s keeping one foot in the pit and the other swaying and holding waving a cellphone as a “lighter.”

And it’s welcome when he tweaks things ever-so-slightly, as on “Better Than You,” with harmonies that sound second-hand Beatlesque, if Van Halen had some classic E’Nuff Z’Nuff in his playlists.

The terrific production from Michael “Elvis” Baskette goes a long way to helping keep the album from sounding self-indulgent even though Wolfgang isn’t keeping songs short. Baskette’s come a long way from producing that Limp Bizkit album with the awful cover of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” on it.

But there’s also a somewhat hermetically sealed quality to the album. Wolfgang Van Halen’s got the chops to play everything, but that also comes at the expense of missing the spark of other players in the room. 

There is also a tendency to almost overindulge in sounding Capital B Big.

As it is, Mammoth II is perfectly solid, a worthy continuation of his personal musical legacy and an indication of the potential he still has.




The Hives The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons, Disque Hives 2023

The Hives never really went away since their last album, 2012’s Lex Hives. 

There had been live shows in the intervening years. Even in the pandemic, they performed streamed sets geared to times in various cities around the world.

Artist: The Hives

Album: The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons 

Label: Disque Hives 

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 

But they’d never darkened a studio door until recording The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons. The title references the fictional sixth member and manager of the band. The ostensible man behind the curtain, who the actual band members kept kayfabe about, even though everybody’s known that Fitzsimmons is them.

Just as the Ramones were all named “Ramone,” the Hives stick to pseudonyms like Nicholaus Arson, Chris Dangerous and Vigilante Carlstroem (What? Were Mad Magnus Mayhem and Borje Boomstick taken?).

Thanks to 2001’s Veni Vidi Vicious and their live shows, they were subject of a major label bidding war which netted them millions from Interscope. Their follow-up, 2004’s Tyrannosaurus Hives, didn’t reach sales the label wanted.

And, so, the Hives tried to play the major label game, opening for label mates dance popsters Maroon 5 and working with producers like Timbaland and Pharrell (and attempting to work with Andre 3000). The resultant Black and White Album also didn’t sell, so Interscope didn’t renew the option.

Since then, the Hives have been the anti-Ramones, only releasing Lex Hives (on their own independent label) since. And now they’ve returned, basically at the same age the core Ramones were when that band called it a day.

These days, the Hives sound as if they’ve reached a comfort level with who they are and the wheelhouse they work best in — loud tunes with choruses often intended for audience shoutalongs, influenced by punk and garage. In short, they’ve fully gone back to making music designed to soundtrack their live shows, which were always their strong matching black-and-white suit.

After producing themselves last time out, they worked with another producer known for pop, Patrik Berger, who’s worked with the likes of Charlie XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen and Robyn. But Berger is meeting them on their turf.

“Bogus Operandi” disabuses pop expectations instantly. You can picture magnetic frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist strutting, preening and posing his way through it. The band, still 4/5th intact from its early days, rips through it with distortion and tight energy. It sounds as if the band circa Veni Vidi Vicious had found a wormhole to arrive in 2023.

“Countdown to Shutdown” came through a branch off that wormhole, a successor to Black and White’s rock track “Tick, Tick, Boom”, ready for live shows and full of precision Swedish engineering.


VIDEO: The Hives “Countdown to Shutdown

The whole thing is designed for sweaty fun rock times, where looking for depth is missing the point. “The Bomb” mostly repeats the lines “He a bomb, me a bomb/We a bomb, she a bomb/We’re blowing up tonight” while Berger pushes the needle into red.

“Trapdoor Solution” is rapid-fire Hives, precisely frenetic before sprinting out the door after a minute.

If there were a Monkees-like cartoon show about a Swedish garage punk band, songs like these would be made for it.

“Stick It Up” is a reminder that in the Swedish rust belt town the Hives grew up with, records from the ’50s and ’60s were cheaper and easier to obtain than punk. It swaggers along, with Howlin’ Pelle instead of Screamin’ Jay.

A fuzzy riff kicks off “Smoke & Mirrors”. But the song, complete with its gang backing vocals, could have come straight from late ’70s power pop that would have been filed under “new wave”.

Complete with handclaps, the darker “Crash Into the Weekend” is straight out of the garage, with Pelle sounding like he’s as determined to tumble and burn as he is to stick the landing.

The Hives do have an AC/DC-like tendency to do variations of the same song, with titles that sound like an AI being asked to write a song for them.

Case in point? “Rigor Mortis Radio”, which sounds exactly as you’d expect — broodingly infectious. If the Hives added matching black leather  jackets, they’d bust them out for this.

The one song that departs from the formula gets saved for the back half. The drum machine and horns of “What Did I Ever Do To You?” sound like they’d been listening to recent tourmates The Arctic Monkeys.

But lest anyone think The Hives didn’t want to party like it was 2001, they finish with the heavily caffeinated “Step Out of the Way”.

If the Hives can sound silly at times, it’s knowingly so. “Randy Fitzsimmons” may be “dead”, but Howlin’, Arson, Dangerous, Vigilante and The Johan and Only are still very much alive and, judging by the 12 songs in just over 31 1/2 minutes, quite invigorated.


Kara Tucker

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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