With their new album, Ultimate Success, released tomorrow, we look at Protomartyr’s story so far before their show Manchester’s Deaf Institute in late 2017.
Governments and their naval-gazing hallmarks. Anywhere in the world – they’re all the same.
The government of the day employs a cunning emphasis to indoctrinate mass culture with their ideologies while arguing the toss with the opposing party on non-pertinent issues. Rinse and repeat.
While the aligning of politics and music seems stronger than ever, Detroit’s Protomartyr tackle the issue in a less overt fashion, to the point where they transcend their contemporaries.
It all starts with frontman Joe Casey.
A forty-year-old former nightclub doorman who possesses an exterior familiar with someone who has spent their life behind a desk selling insurance as opposed to fronting a bourgeoning rock band.
In comparison to his band mates (guitarist, Greg Ahee; bassist Scott Davidson; and drummer, Alex Leonard), Casey is ten years their senior, which further enriches Protomartyr’s enigma. A bunch of art school drop outs forming a band Protomartyr are not. Neither are they the various other clichés that embellish a band’s Wikipedia page.
On paper they’re parallel to a covers band plodding around a backwater town where Friday nights are spent playing at the local pub to a roomful of locals; a way to remedy a week of monotonous employment endeavours. Merely the human remnants of what’s left when everyone in high school has finished choosing their friends.
One thing’s for sure, Protomartyr have made a living of going against the grain and by and large it’s their most potent weapon.
Casey is akin to that unassuming silent drunk in the corner of a pub, taking in all the conversations. Not Charles Bukowski by any stretch, Casey’s words, backed by his vocal delivery, while unyielding, are jarring all the same.
Where Bukowski could make going to the corner shop for a loaf of bread sound cataclysmic, Casey’s politically motivated themes which intertwine with the mundane aspects of living are just as equally spellbinding.
Without being truly subversive, Casey merely asks all the right questions, which are pontificated from a grassroots level, none louder than his vociferous assessment on the ill-effects of capital greed.
While that may be the case, Protomartyr have been quick to distance themselves as political band. Casey’s messaging is sculptured within an abstract of alternative themes, not limited to their native Detroit and the degradation of Midwestern America. Some call it the new dark age but it may be more pertinent to term it the new world.
Sure, these themes touch on aspects that can be attributed to flawed political systems, however rather than writing about how ‘Trump is cunt’, or ‘the bewigged one is not our president’ or various other ridiculous hash tag-esque slogans, Protomartyr inject a locality into their messaging which is their most striking feature.
People say problems in politics start at the top, but in truth they are started at a local level and Protomartyr provide a dark snapshot of that – particular through their new album, Relatives in Descent.
Casey tackles these issues in a spoken word drawl that many compare with The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. Casey, however, operates closer to the music. His vocal doesn’t cut across the noise shaped by his bandmates. It seemingly floats, hovers, then strikes. It’s unnerving.
Four albums in, and things don’t seem like letting up any time soon. Their debut, No Passion All Technique, was an unhinged gritty offering of garage punk.
Under Color of Official Right began a seismic shift for the band, garnering critical praise from all quarters. It wasn’t hard to notice why, either. Tracks like the seamlessly assembled Maidenhead and Come and See are outstanding collisions of punk music. The angular and visceral components absent during its predecessor started to shine through, largely credited to Ahee’s virtuosity of slowing things down in a less-is-more approach.
Their third album, The Agent Intellect, followed a year later. A bruising representation of apocalyptic post-punk, with Casey pulling out all the punches from front-to-back. Twelve tracks, each of which were knock outs. Undoubtedly Protomartyr’s watershed moment, with tracks such as Cowards Starve, Clandestine Time and Feast of Stephen among the best the band has written.
Step up Relatives In Descent – the band’s 2017 long-player and every bit its predecessor’s equal.
An album certainly more jagged in musicianship and sharper in lyrical scope. Where The Agent Intellect had an air of sentimentality, largely inspired by the death of Casey’s mother and father, Relatives’ is a butcher knife-sharp portrait into the current state of affairs, and although not as instant as its younger siblings, it’s as equally beguiling.
Live they are a raucous beast and Manchester’s Deaf Institute provides the perfect arena for their discordant sonic terrorism.
Woolly haired and glassy-eyed, Greg Ahee stumbles out onstage, looking like he has just spent a night playing video games with the aid of spliffs and junk food. Bassist Scott Davidson looks more like a roadie for Neurosis as opposed to providing the sonic underpinning to one of the finest representations of post-punk today.
Alex Leonard occupies the drum stool, his bookish exterior not looking a match for his broad drum kit, however seemingly defying the odds, he moves across the skins with consummate ease and alongside his rhythm section cohort in Davidson, the sound is ribcage pummelling. Then there’s Casey himself, suited, booted, with two cans of lager in his jacket pockets who nonchalantly takes centre stage.
Ahee effortlessly moves his fingers up and down his guitar neck as the ethereal sounds of My Children spit and crackle over Casey’s stream of conscious yelps. Windsor Hum, a track inspired by environmental pollution around their native Detroit, is one of the best tracks written in 2017 and is a complete wall of white noise, with Davidson’s booming bass line catapulting the track into a different stratosphere.
While Windsor Hum is a relentless sprawl of awesomeness, Male Plague could very well surpass its brilliance. More of an advocate for punk being attitude as opposed to sound, if we were to entertain the latter notion, then the opening chords of Male Plague are the perfect depiction, with an atmospheric Ramones-like harmonic almost gouging through the speakers.
Relatives In Descent’s jagged opener, A Private Understanding sounds as disorderly live as it does on record, with Leonard’s jazz infused off-kilter drum beats being the track’s hallmark.
The peculiar This is the Thing, (one of the band’s only tracks to have a fade out) is played at speed, with Leonard’s drum patterns altering from jazz inflections to thunderous pounds akin to Jon fucking Bonham.
The Devil In His Youth, Cowards Starve, Bad Advice and Tarpeian Rock, are all fierce flourishes in the Protomartyr live cannon, each played at break-neck speed, with many tracks bleeding into one another, they are played so fast. It’s a method that knocks the audience’s equilibrium, with the band belting out eighteen tracks in just over an hour.
In true Protomartyr fashion, after a three song encore which ends emphatically with Scum, Rise! they exit the stage with little fanfare. Casey parts with a warm smile and few words, while Davidson, Ahee and Leonard follow with gentle acknowledgements to their audience. Merely a modest bunch that employ the Midwestern quality of celebrating and suffering in silence.
The sold out Deaf Institute, filled with impressionable students, working class thirty-something’s and older meek blokes reliving the good old days collectively ice over in awe which slowly melts into admiration, such as the magnitude of this performance.
While 2017’s version of post-punk appears ascribed to bands that lean heavier on the slacker mentality (Parquet Courts, Flat Worms et al), Protomartyr seemingly have more in common with acts like Sleaford Mods and IDLES as opposed to any of their fellow countrymen.
It’s democratic punk music that artists like The Constantines mastered throughout the earlier noughties. Protomartyr have picked up and morphed these ideals into something that is truly their own, not necessarily via sound, but through their themes and in this day and age, very few bands can boast such qualities. Quite simply, Protomartyr are a band that won’t be boxed in.