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Protomartyr: Ultimate Success Today – “bruising post-apocalyptic portraits”

The Detroit collective haven’t yet failed to deliver and with Ultimate Success Today that fact remains.

There are bands that manage to inhabit your subconscious and stay there forever. Artists that speak your language and seem as if they were specifically placed on earth for your exclusive consumption.

We’ve all got one of these artists. Probably more.

Yes, Protomartyr (Joe Casey – vocals, Alex Leonard – guitar, Scott Davidson – bass, Greg Ahee – drums) are one of those bands for this scroll.

There hasn’t been a band over the last decade that has made as consistently good music as the Detroit gale-force giant, spearheaded by Casey and his bleak political diatribes that are shot through a murky prism of desolation.

On Ultimate Success Today, the band’s brilliant fifth album, there’s everything that has made this band truly what it is.

Many will paint Casey as a grizzled curmudgeon, but he has always been a reporter. The guy propped at the end of the bar watching others tell their stories, which Casey has always used as fuel to burn through the lens of diseased poetic obscurity.

Throughout Ultimate Success Today, Casey takes an even more inward approach than normal. A sledge hammer replaced by any icy chisel to get his points across.

Namely through the opening creeping darkscape of Day Without End and Tranquilizer, where he opens up on touring life, the strain it’s taken on his body and the fear of doctors and medical advice. Songs that imbue a raw, existential dread.

On Ultimate Success Today, extra sonic armour has been added to Protomartyr‘s nervous splintered off-kilter edginess in the way of strings and saxophones, breathing a fresh anxious vitality into the band’s sound.

Beyond Casey stating that we’re “hunted with a smile”, a lot will be made of the politically charged Processed by the Boys.

“When the ending comes is it gonna run at us like a wild-eyed animal?/ A foreign disease washed upon the beach?/ A dagger plunged from out of the shadows?/ A cosmic grief beyond all comprehension?”

Casey provides a mesmeric prophetic snapshot and before you question it – yes, this album was written pre-COVID-19.

I Am You Know rumbles with Ahee‘s sharp drum fills and shakes with Davidson‘s wiry bass grooves which collectively hover above Casey‘s acerbic snarls.

The Aphorist sees Casey‘s lyrical reportage stalk and spit with dizzying effect, rightly announcing that “self doubt is a stalking fiend” and “narcissism is a killer”.

The coiling riff during June 21 wraps itself around the cross-over vocal between Casey and Half Waif‘s Nandi Rose who gives Protomartyr yet another elusive dimension.

The poisoned whiplash of the labor movement-inspired Michigan Hammers and withering gut-punch of Tranquillizer are yet another one-two crippling combo that Protomartyr have made a habit of.

Photo credit: Trevor Naud

Casey spits more bile during Modern Business Hymns which is laced with ramshackle rhythms and Leonard‘s trademark jangling prairie hum on guitar.

The malaise riddled Bridge & Crown is an inward reflection that touches on capitalism and past personal tragedies, namely the death of Casey‘s father whom he references several times throughout Ultimate Success Today.

“Everybody knows we’re holding on to little dreams/To drive our bodies all down the line/ ‘Til there’s nothing left but the Bridge and Crown.”

Essentially, it’s a track that encapsulates the essence of Protomartyr and what they have achieved up to this point. It would have been an obvious choice for closing the album but as they have proven time and time again, Protomartyr have a habit of pulling aces from their sleeves.

The latest one comes in the way of the downright incredible Worm In Heaven – a track that Casey has stated would be his funeral song.

Passages like, “So it’s time to say goodbye/I was never too keen on last words/Hope I said something good” and “I exist/I did/I was here/I was/Or never was” are stark symbols that most bands could only write as their swansong.

After listening to Worm In Heaven, it’s one of those songs that stops you in your tracks to fall silent and compose your thoughts. As you let each listen wash over you, the weight and impact of its messaging almost becomes too much to bear.

Post-punk is fast becoming a dirty term in 2020 and with good reason. Sloganeering acts like Fontaines D.C. are bestowed on sugar mountains as some kind of saviours to rock music, with their false anthemic hedonism leaking through the vaults and contaminating the landscape.

Optimistically, which is quite ironic considering what Protomartyr espouse, in some ways the aforementioned circumstances could very well solidify the band’s stature.

Not only have Protomartyr continually raised their own bar, which is further demonstrated with Ultimate Success Today, but it’s evident that their contemporaries are ill-equipped to keep up, which will only illuminate the Detroit collective’s standing in not only the modern day climate, but in the future, too.

It’s hardly surprising, though. Protomartyr have always been ahead of the game. That’s what makes them one of the best bands to emerge from the shadows in the last fifteen years and the bruising post-apocalyptic portraits conjured up through Ultimate Success Today adds yet another fine chapter to their story.

Ultimate Success Today is available now via Domino Recording Co.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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