Reviews

Future Familiarity: Ultra Deluxe – ‘A Call To Arms’ Album Review

Brooklyn, NY’s Ultra Deluxe have been playing with the borders between nintendocore and skramz since their inception in 2017. Mainly the brainchild of Max Narotzky, it has a birthed a path that has led to a space opera expedition that not only sets out to be a hallmark of radical queer expression, but to examine the long-term affects of capitalism on the world and on us as people. In a sound that is both enrapturing and entertaining beyond belief, their new album A Call To Arms was released on April 23rd.

A Call To Arms has a narrative set in 2755 – post climate crisis and societal collapse, the world is a desolate and dangerous environment to live in. The ruling elite class explores the galaxy as the United Galactic Federation. The UGF are on a pilgrimage to discover new planets and claim them as their own rather than try to save a planet they have already ruined, and the lower castes must fight to survive. An uprising known as the Contra are set on stopping the imperial spread and restore order and peace by all means necessary. From a band with a focus on diversity, mutual aid, and care for one another, their values are woven in the very core of the narrative and give a valuable perspective on a vaguely familiar situation.

Photo of Max Narotzky taken by Jon Reino

Hunt 2735 begins the album. Soft synths invite you in just prior to a post-hardcore breakdown that gives you a taste of what the rest of the album brings. The main character from Ultra Deluxe’s previous record, Contact, introduces the narrative. Rory gives a very present take on the rise fo the Contra resistance, leading the song to a spoken climax that introduces midi strings and ends on an uplifting notion of the human quality of resilience: “We can fight back, we can and we will. What they tear down we will rebuild.” The backup vocals of Emily Zimmerman, who also provides bass on the album, make it a group chant inviting more voices to bloom with it.

Delivering you into a saccharine synth lead, Commune begins to pick up with its chunky bass lines and delicate synth work underneath. A true treat of the album, it introduces two more characters, Aria and Youssef. The two alternate between detailing how the UGF continues to move into space in the galaxy while the inhabitants left on earth struggle daily for existence. Between the physically demanding work and the emotionally draining hopelessness, their visceral and impassioned expressions in the last half really help build the world and the characters in as little time as possible and making a nod to La Dispute’s “The Last Lost Continent” in the meantime. Before the end of the song you are already feeling kinship with these characters, whether through shared experience or empathy.

Rory reemerges in the fray and begins to craft the groundwork for revolution among the Contra. A casting call for the disparate, Target Acquired preaches of a future that values life above capital. One of the softer songs on the record, it has a very characterized delivery from both Max and Emily. It begins to play a bit more into the emotional appeal of the record with its laments of the destruction that plagued Rory’s childhood and how it motivates them to move forward.

Dane York, Emily Zimmerman, and Max Narotzky photographed by Jon Reino and Jane Sun

An immediately more pressing tone in the strings and synths grow as Throwing Meteors begins. In a vocal style reminiscent of a straightforward hardcore approach, it has a brooding energy that begins to blossom. It bursts forth into a two-step-adjacent segment that is the literal call to arms. It is an invitation for other members of earth to forfeit their disillusion and rise with Rory. It feels like the true middle point as it begins to wind down and get more contemplative.

That contemplation continues into the following track. The shortest on the album, Pillow Talk makes the most of its limited span. It packs one of the strongest emotional punches on the album. It is a vulnerable exchange between lovers, Rory’s call of love and worry with Yula’s response of need for honor and helping the greater good. The synths begin to go more hectic and the track’s distortion rises until it just toes along the line of overwhelming before gracefully bowing out into a cool off. A tension point between two people that melts away with understanding.

Cureless begins to dive more into Yula’s circumstance and motivation. As they assume the role of narrator, speedy blasts of synth lie under their monologue questioning birth, life, and death. It leads to a bigger question, what is Yula’s motivation? As soon as you have the time to ask the question it is answered, with a centerpiece dedicated to portraying her illness as existence before later revealing it to actually be cancer. The synths and guitar morph into what could easily be a crabcore band from MySpace’s hit single in 2009 as the vocals grow more spastic and Yula gains the strength and clarity of mind to sacrifice themself.

The finale comes on the way off the planet. Collision sees Yula departing on the path to sacrificing themself in a gorgeous story of autotune-laden valor. They die after pushing the ship as far as it will go to try and protect the others. As the longest song on the album it also features some of the most prominent bass flair on the album, and really leaves a lot of room for curiosity to grow and for investment in this character to be fostered. The final blast of energy and glitching distortion is a fitting end for Yula’s story, but through their death you are left wondering the fate of the rest of the Contra force.

‘A Call To Arms’ artwork done by Alex Futtersak

The synth remains spacious and sprawling for most of A Call To Arms and it feels like the true shine on this futuristic chronicle. The bass is strong and steadfast, carrying a lot of the songs to their destination in a manner similar to a crowd marching forward. The touches of guitar and bass added by Dane York are peppered throughout in a wonderful way. The drums are precise and focused. Making a true effort to maximize a story somewhere in a space opera setting with a fairly minimal resource is a thing that makes Ultra Deluxe such an impressive act to watch. Plus, the engineering, mixing, and mastering of Doug Gallo from AGL Sounds really pushes the album into a space as massive as the narrative as well.

On top of the sheer magnitude of the craftsmanship that went into this album, the most pressing thing about this release is how feasible the storyline is. This storied future of collapse and resistance is not nearly as out of reach as some people may think, and definitely not as far off as it should be for comfort. The prescient nature of what feels like a comic book storyboard is what makes the album such a motivating listen. Envisioning yourself as a Contra member should only help you realize the battles at hand before you currently. The state of urgency we must continue to focus on in order to prevent us from getting to a point like the characters on this album are. The narrative may appear like a far-fetched future but is entirely achievable sticking to the path we as a society are on, and in a shorter span of time than several hundred years in the future. A Call To Arms, more than anything, is a poignant statement on collective thought, encouragement, awareness, and resistance.

You can listen to A Call To Arms here:
Bandcamp
Apple Music
Spotify

And you can keep up with Ultra Deluxe here:
Instagram
Facebook
Twitter

And, in true Ultra Deluxe fashion, here is a charity to donate to in order to help sustain New York City food banks:
Community Solidarity

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