One of the most fascinating things a music lover can do is witness the growth of a young artist. It starts as an inkling or a glimmer of natural talent and expands into something vast and formidable.
Jakob Armstrong—youngest son of Green Day frontman Billie Joe—began playing guitar at seven years old and honed his craft privately until about sixteen, then playing in bands in and around Oakland after meeting friends with like-minded tastes in music. Soon enough, with the memories of Ultraman action figures fighting in his head, he and a group of friends he cultivated from those years playing around and pouring over records, formed Ultra Q. Its name is inspired by an Ultraman prequel series; a deep cut for import action series lovers.
Fusing together the skyward lift of Interpol, the clever guitar interplay of the Strokes, the maudlin romanticism of the Cure, and the often impressionistic narrative gifts of Arctic Monkeys, Ultra Q’s growth since their 2019 EP We’re Starting to Get Along (and its 2020 follow-up In a Cave in a Video Game) has been exponential. A traditional alternative rock sound was baked by the California heat, shards of broken glass gleaming in the sunlight, spanning the distance from Berkeley to Rodeo Drive. Over blaring guitars and thunderous drums, Armstrong’s voice is carried by a very familiar lilt, self-recorded by Armstrong on a whim while quarantined, could easily be slotted between the blown-out, lo-fi tones of early Wavves and the works of intentionally harsh-sounding Columbus band Psychedelic Horseshit.
Ultra Q’s earlier work marked the synthesis of a songwriter’s vision and his band’s ability, forged through an invisible existential threat and an ever-changing world, eager to show what they’ve found while we were all inside. But new album My Guardian Angel soars to heights unimaginable for us lowly, earthbound beings.
Produced by Chris Coady, who has helmed classics by the likes of TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Beach House, My Guardian Angel offers a deep sonic palette to match Armstrong’s artistic ambition. Wildly vacillating between widescreen pop-punk (“Klepto,” the impeccably titled “VR Sex”), romantic new-wave (“Rocket,” “I Wanna Lose”), and shimmering synth-pop (“I Watched Them Go”), the album displays Armstrong’s songwriting talents—along with the musicianship of Kevin Judd and brothers Chris and Enzo Malaspina—conceived and recorded for maximum impact.
Emotional growing pains, sleepless nights, the ethereal allure of romance, and the notion of sound being so closely attached to memory are all wrapped up in clever guitar interplay reminiscent of the band’s formative influences, but delivered in an identity all their own. The words are attached to feelings we think are going to slip away from us in the fading and tarnished pallor of adulthood; truth be told, those feelings emerge just as freshly the older we get.
And that is the gift of My Guardian Angel, the implicit understanding that growth is merely a tool we use to better process the past slipping away from us. — Martin Douglas