Review Summary: Leave your children in the car...
By all accounts, Protomartyr pay their dues. Formed in 2008, the band spent four years making the rounds on Detroit’s inexhaustible small-venue circuit, before putting out their debut “No Passion All Technique” on Michigan’s Urinal Cake Records. The album, a lean, brawny slab of post-punk, was a brutalized love letter to Motor City, as bare and stalwart and grim as the town’s bleak, post-Automotive Decline persona itself.
By “Under the Color of Official Right,” the band’s second album, their sound got thicker and more circumferent. The songs on that record rolled over the listener as a viscid curtain, throwing in jagged jabs from all sides. The writing got tighter and the lyrics walked an unchanged footpath. Half-spoken, half-barked hymns to a dysphoric working-class everyman, crude and curdled in a ‘Work-Bar-Bed’ paradigm, far too often alone with his thoughts for his own good.
The two albums show a methodical progression; one that today’s young bands too often forgo for a quick spark-and-fade. Protomartyr cut their teeth, and then began a gradual attack. Their debut was a strong record. Their second was better and tougher, more expansive, with the band standing on sturdier ground. By that design, the third one should be where they kick you in the teeth with a great one. They don’t disappoint.
“The Agent Intellect” feels raw and cauterized at once, an ambit of incendiary punk songs, as wiry as the best on “No Passion,” and as stifling as “Official Right” at its most claustrophobic. With only a handful of songs reaching the four-minute mark, there is not a hell of a lot of fat on this record, and the band make the most of what they leave in. If Joe Casey’s atonal delivery sometimes clashed against the music on their debut, creating stiff turns, he finds all the right grooves here, making tracks like “I Forgive You” and “Uncle Mother’s” catchier than the sinister subject matter has a right to be.
The bass-work here is a particular portent. Fractured and pulsing, it lurks into your spine and doesn’t let up. Evil has never been so danceable. In several instances, the fretwork reaches for dreamily atmospheric heights, and closer “Feast of Stephen” and single “Dope Cloud” sounds the way shoegaze might have, had its patrons been binging on Ritalin instead of Percocet’s. They’re translucent and paranoid and rather than professing prosaic death, opt for death from life’s monotonous grind instead.
The electronic fragments of “Agent Intellect” show Protomartyr’s biggest growth. They sound fleshier than and not quite as pummel-ready as “Official Right.” Instead of thudding over the melodies, they enclose around them, filling what few cracks the bare instruments leave, creating songs that sound so airtight, they smash through you like a gauzy sledgehammer.
“Ellen” is the longest cut here, and at six-plus minutes is the longest song Protomartyr have released so far. It’s interesting to see them play around with broader parameters, and though they never get out of first gear here, they let the song breathe, Casey chanting the chorus all the way through, while a noise guitar warbles in the background.
As exciting as it is to hear the band sound so stellar and sure, what’s more exhilarating is waiting to hear where they’ll go next. There’s yet to be a dud in their small discography, and plenty of ground for them to cover, if they choose to continue polishing this winning formula of a winning streak. As long as the dingy ghost of Detroit continues to hang over them, here’s hoping that these guys won’t lose their grisly muse.