Review Summary: The old Windsor humming across the river, saying Everything’s fine..
It kicks off on a cleft burst of militaristic drumming, then a thick, doomy guitar, then those coarse vocals, and you know it’s a Protomartyr joint. Relatives in Descent
is the Michigan outfit’s fourth album, another set of blue collar lamentation, another squall of economic depressions, drinking sicknesses and quotidian tiredness. Another barrel of sweat, another nudge towards their own classic, another ***ing heap of post-punk goodness…
For how dense and brazen Relatives
is, Protomartyr smuggle furtive shifts and variations into its every turn. They don’t let either the obelisk riffs or the sooty atmosphere sit in place for longer than a ten-stretch before making them drop or slew onto new odd trajectories. There’s something of a sinister serenity in how forbearing and composed Protomartyr sound here. Opener “A Private Understanding” coasts then cruises then crashes then corrodes all in a five-minute span, the band unafraid to let the song take its natural path to the colossal chorus it builds towards. Patience makes Relatives
. They’ve tracked towards it over every one of their three past albums, but this time, the apotheosis Protomartyr have had in their sights is reached in full. They don’t seem like tight songwriters with a post-punk fetish anymore. They sound like engineers, shapers, devisers. Big chops and small insurrections make Relatives
their fearless and best album, which is a hell of a feat after the winsome trio they’d rode in on.
That self-subversion had always distinguished Protomartyr from their peers, and it’s on fine display here again. They pull back on “Here is the Thing,” letting Joe Casey’s ragged baritone smash to the surface, riding a smoggy bass-line and compressed drums through the song’s length. The earworm guitar-line that would fit so well with the rhythm, lending “Here is the Thing” an instant, conventional catchiness, that any other band would have deployed from the start, doesn’t kick in until the very end, slinks around for a few bars and then fades off. On “My Children,” the band churn eerie atmospherics for half the song’s duration, until letting it break out in a The Fall-esque primitivist riff that moves concentrically around the heavy synths that moil off its surface like steam from hot piss. This subtle spoiling of traditional song patterns elevates the already-hermetic song-writing, pushing it up another notch.
Adding to these personalized streaks are the smartly-parsed more orthodox punkisms. The sing-along refrain of the cataclysmic “Male Plague,” the evil surf riff of “Up the Tower,” or the barked repeated hook of “Windsor Hum” are immediately affective, and snap the distinct complexity of Relatives
, letting the listener indulge in a brief fling with some primal pleasure.
While there’s nary an inferior track here, the closing third of Relatives
is where the interesting things starts to properly take place. Gloomy ambience pervades “Night-Blooming Cereus,” coating it in despairing romanticism. A thing of brutalized beauty, it creates a soft vacuum effect after eight takes of abrasive, declarative post-punk, a chance to pop your ears and let your chest heave off the dread. Then it soars so seamlessly into the havoc of “Male Plague,” that you feel like someone has just taken some knucks to the back of your head. Short and ever un-sweet, “Corpses in Regalia” morphs endlessly, first gauzy and hushed, then danceable and ***ing groovy as all hell, then fractured and melancholic, all the way to the pitchy electric hum that closes it off, lingers, only to charge into the mid-tempo march of closer “Half Sister,” kicking off perhaps the finest example of Casey’s fatalistic resignation:
In ancient Palestine,
a Roman middle-manager
dresses down a radical –
I have a back log of so-called prophets.
You are of a multitude.
Casey sounds as haunted and histrionic as he always does, cut open by anxiety. Almost never didactic or bogged in sanctimony, his sermons on Relatives
makes for the best sort of politico record, one that gets the point across by simply relaying casual circumstance, as opposed to pedantically banging on about it. The band’s bent on politics is easy to understand at any rate. Detroit, their hometown, has long since been the creased whipping post of America’s disenfranchisement, all its economic and sociopolitical woes manifested in the dreary vistas of abandoned factories, endless blocks of government housing and a failing fiscal state. It is the unadorned face of the U.S.’ downfall. That Casey and the band relate all of it with such rugged finesse and covert detail is a masterly touch few of their peers could summon.
‘Maturity’ is too obtuse a word to describe what the process of watching Protomartyr gain tiers of deftness and scope has been. They aren’t soothsayers or doomsday preachers, not an act that will thrust post-punk back into the world’s good graces. What they are is something much simpler, much better. Another working-class stronghold in the peerless canon of Detroit’s consummate rockers, sulking and stewing and screaming along with MC5, the Stooges, Gories and the goddamn Supremes.