Oh, the irony of transforming into action figures only to get scooped by Barbie. For all the promotional and physical muscle the Armed have flexed during the rollout of their own summer blockbuster, none of the pull quotes—“a chocolate cake full of broken glass,” “the real story is more confusing than any lie”—has the snap of Greta Gerwig boasting of Barbie that “I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.” On Perfect Saviors, the Armed are no longer a collective or a project, but a big ol’ rock band with superproducers, magazine covers, clean choruses, and slick videos, all in the service of meta-arena rock that critiques the concept of rock stardom itself. Artists call this sort of conflict “juxtaposition,” diehards might call it compromise. The Armed appear to see it like Gerwig does, that the only way that mass entertainment can reconcile art and commerce is to make the latter finance its own roast.

In that sense, Perfect Saviors finishes the job started by 2021’s ULTRAPOP, a thrilling album that mostly operated in the theoretical realm. “Pop” referred less to melody or cult of personality than a general ideal of instant gratification and the many hours that go into the science of eye and ear candy. “All futures, destruction!” was a good hook; so was having a bodybuilder named Clark Huge hulking over a bank of synthesizers, or singer Cara Drolshagen in triplicate wearing Juggalo makeup. The Armed bypassed the personal disclosure and parasocial identification now expected of superhero films and pop stars to satisfy an eternal tenet of entertainment: Normal people want to watch extraordinary people do cool shit that they couldn’t possibly do themselves.

The Armed’s new album requires less conceptual heavy lifting. There is no prerequisite knowledge of Guy Debord or Andy Kaufman, of the fake “Dan Greene” or the real Dan Greene, or of Frank Turner this time around. The Armed’s unified theory is that everything is wrestling and ball is life. Scene-chewing opener “Sport of Measure” presents the objective side of this philosophy, alluding to basketball, capitalism, or the technical metal and hardcore that defined the Armed’s past work: gamified pursuits where the winner is bigger, better, faster, and just more than the other guy. Lead single “Sport of Form” is an intricate mini-suite that ropes in Julien Baker and Iggy Pop to represent subjective competitions like figure skating and gymnastics and art, the pursuits your coworker with the Barstool shirt doesn’t think are real because they’re judged and probably rigged. In between are things like boxing and the stylized, shockingly straightforward live performance video for the GNC-glam stomper “Everything’s Glitter”: Victory can be achieved by knockout or just looking really damn good.

And so Perfect Saviors dares to be conventionally attractive—the first time where the Armed’s actual songwriting isn’t meant to be judged on a curve, relative to other metal or hardcore bands. The first seconds bring Tony Wolski’s denimed drawl out to the front, exposing the florid turns of phrase that got buried in static on ULTRAPOP: “Take my fill of these ambrosia nights,” “I’m drama in these khaki towns.” If “Everything’s Glitter” and “Liar 2” are comparable to something currently playing on California’s alt-rock mainstay KROQ, that’s the whole point. What do you think they brought in Alan Moulder and Justin Meldal-Johnsen and former members of Zwan and Red Hot Chili Peppers and half of Jane’s Addiction for?

Perfect Saviors excels in a more conventional sport of measure, expanding the physical capabilities of radio rock just a few degrees beyond the previously acceptable standard. Think of a yoked Strokes, or Queens of the Stone Age if “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” replaced its lyrics with the ingredients in Premier Protein. Yet compared to the concept of rock that the Armed once crafted in their own image, it feels vaguely unsatisfying. Unlike the full integration of melody and melee on “All Futures” and “An Iteration,” the Armed-ness here can feel grafted on like producer tags; a blast beat where a drum fill might suffice, a surge of power electronics rather than synth swells. Perhaps this is where the concept of ULTRAPOP meets critique on Perfect Saviors: With enough effort, anyone could achieve a radio-rock banger just like they can get rock-hard abs.

The Armed reference “An Iteration” numerous times throughout Perfect Saviors, establishing continuity within the franchise and unwittingly drawing out its fundamental flaw: While a vivid, imaginative way of doing the arena rock thing, their means of subverting it feels like a repetition of established talking points. You know the syllabus by now: the allure of false idols, the hollowness of fame, the numbness of information overload, the unreliability of the news, “pretend kings with plastic lives in big clone houses,” “this ain’t the same fucking thing you’ve been sold before.” Mind-blowing stuff if first encountered as a teen via Nothing’s Shocking, or Zoo TV, or “The Dope Show,” less so when once-indie artists like Arcade Fire and St. Vincent occupied the same meta-arena rock platforms decades later. Still, the lack of novelty in the Armed’s message doesn’t make it any less true.

When the Armed veer off message during the second half of Perfect Saviors, they’re reborn as a band who promised limitless possibilities, especially applying their physicality to more limber forms of music: Madchester melon-twisters (“Burned Mind”), angular dance-punk (“Liar 2”), and jazz-fusion (“Perfect Grieving”). The redemption of Perfect Saviors is less a matter of muscle or metal than it is mischief and misdirection, none more jarring than the quietest song they’ve ever made. “In Heaven” does the acoustic ballad thing and doesn’t attempt to be the Armed’s answer to “I’m Just Ken.” The Julien Baker harmonies, a possible Smashing Pumpkins reference, and a saxophone solo are all presented earnestly, as is the single most vulnerable lyric Wolski’s ever sang: “My new body waits for me in heaven.” Not exactly “I’m here to see my gynecologist,” but still an admission that these He-Man are human after all.

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The Armed: Perfect Saviors