Detroit collective release their third album in 3 years
About a minute into the track ‘Uncle Mother’, something happens which perfectly crystallises the sound and feel of this album. As a relatively straight-ahead rock beat rollicks on, frontman Joe Casey sings of ‘something evil lurking’ when a jagged spiderweb of guitars tumble out behind him. It’s one of many surprises on an album full of drama, melancholy, heart kicking sadness and the occasional ray of warmth.
Protomartyr are from Detroit, a city once associated with Motown Records, the American automobile industry and too many great rock bands but now most linked with bankruptcy and the decline of the ‘American Dream’. A sense of creeping dread and paranoia is never far from the group’s sound. Singer Joe Casey is backed by a band about ten years younger than him. What works well with this dynamic is the collision of Casey’s lived-in vocals intoning lyrics about a life lived, fully weighted down by the experience of a life lived. It’s not often that such maturity is backed by a rock sound so fresh, so dangerous sounding, so now. Often by the time lyricists scale the heights Casey does here, their musical ideas have grown stale. So we’re in luck.
‘The Agent Intellect’ is definitely a ‘rock’ album, one with the ghosts of post-punk lurking in the shadows. Casey cites avant-punk weirdos Pere Ubu as an influence, another band with a vocalist that could be classed as…different. Casey is not an aesthetically pleasing sounding singer. Some songs are delivered in a monotone bray. He has himself described the Protomartyr live exprerince as a ‘fat guy yelling’ at the audience. It works though. It really does. Like a bar room preacher telling the stragglers we’re all going to Hell in a handcart, the everyman anger and desperation oozes through the speakers backed by some thrilling music.
Opener ‘The Devil In His Youth’ comes across as a sort of ‘origin story’ for the Bible’s most interesting character. ‘Coward’s Starve’ builds to a rabble rousing chorus. The existential grief of the line ‘Social pressures exist and if you think about the all of the time you’re gonna find that your head’s been kicked in’ is so 2015. Pre-release single ‘I Forgive You’ is a sad slice of Fall-style racket making.
‘Pontiac 87’ is the album standout. Casey recalls the visit of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Detroit in 1987, specifically an appearance in front of 93,000 people at the Silverdome. The subject here is more the more sinister, unseen aspect of the event, ‘money changing between hands’, the tension, ‘old folks turned brutish’ ‘the fall from grace’. The conflict here is reflected in the music. The opening guitar riff, repeated throughout, is sad, cold, almost pleading. These pleads are tramples on by sudden roars of guitar and Casey’s yelled admonishing vocal. The coda is pretty heartwrenching: ‘There’s no use being sad about it, what’s the point of crying about it’. Then back to that riff. I’ve played this one over and over.
The back end of the album tumbles on with single ‘Dope Cloud’, followed by the pure, horror movie chill of ‘The Hermit’. Emotionally, it gets very heavy. ‘Why Does It Shake‘ deals with the subject of Alzheimer’s disease, which had struck down Casey’s mother. The track begins in defiant mood, Casey’s bombastic vocal, declaring physical supremacy (‘Never gonna lose it, never gonna lose it’) before the music abruptly collapses and deteriorates, Casey demanding ‘Why does it shake?/The body, the body, the body’. The track heaves back into life, despite the horror and sorrow. It is very nearly overpowering. This is followed by a love song to Casey’s mother, sang from the perspective of his dead father, who says he will keep her fading memories safe and wait for her on the other side. The band swoop and soar and very nearly disappear all together as the sound drops out before aiming for the skies in a triumphant coda. If you’re not careful, it’ll stop you in your tracks and you might just find something in your eye…
The final track of the album is called ‘Feast of Stephen’, another name for St Stephen’s Day, a saint’s day for the ‘protomartyr’ for the Christian church. It sounds a bit like Pavement and acts as a bit of light reprieve from the emotional wringer that Protomartyr have just put us through. This is a fascinating album, musically and lyrically. At times, just when you think it all riff-driven verse-chorus-verse, it lurches and grooves and explodes. The dirge like quality of some tracks dovetail brilliantly with Casey’s lyrical outlook. There aren’t many artists recording at the moment who deal in lyrical themes like this, Casey has an authors eye for detail. You can nearly feel yourself walking home in the snow, feel the impeding hangover, the darkness approaching. Prepare to invest yourself.
‘The Agent Intellect’ is out now via Hardly Art