Out this week on Hardly Art, is it the rock record of the year? 9 ½ months in, quite possibly so. Taut-yet-twitchy aggression amid a pulsing sonic vortex translates into a five-out-of-five stars triumph.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Detroit-based postpunks Protomartyr—Joe Casey on vocals, Greg Ahee on guitar, Alex Leonard on drums, Scott Davidson on bass—formed in 2008 following a stint as a Leonard-Ahee duo, the tastefully-named Butt Babies. The addition of singer Casey and bassist Davidson (who replaced temporary bassist Kevin Boyer, from Tyvek) made all the difference in the world, however, including the fresh moniker choice. They debuted with 2012’s No Passion All Technique and the critical kudos have been mounting ever since.
Third full-length The Agent Intellect, on Hardly Art, is a raging beast of an album, raining firestorms of guitar over blasted dystopian terrain, rampaging unchecked and unshaven through desolate memory palaces, considering family, home and art before concluding ruefully that, “That’s not going to save you, man.” Since last year’s Under Color of Official Right, the foursome has been on nearly constant tour, honing a louder, more dissonant fury that lights a fire under this third full-length.
The music press sometimes acts as if Casey is the only member of Protomartyr, and with his blunt working man’s poetry, his casual self-lacerations, his rumpled black suit (even in the warmest weather), he is, indeed, a focal point. Yet part of what made Under Color work so well, and which is even more relevant in The Agent Intellect is the taut aggression of Protomartyr’s instrumentals. The last album had a sweetening ray of new wave in its guitar parts, as if the Flock of Seagulls guitarist had been kidnapped and tortured by the Fall, but this one has burned all that out in a white hot heat of discordant fury. The bass is masterfully twitchy and forward-pushing, like a hot wind at your back, and the drums ramble boisterously, ready for a fight anywhere around the curve.
Agent Intellect is, no question, a somber piece of work. Songs dive into dark corners of Casey’s past and present, memories of rioting Detroit (“Pontiak 87”), dangerous relatives (“Uncle Mother”) and a disaffected childhood (“Devil in His Youth”) pushing up through the chaotic textures of the songs. There’s less of the distorted, stream-of-consciousness humor of Under Color, and more of a survivor’s ruminations, tough, still there, but damaged.
A couple of the songs are about Casey’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s (you could hear her voice at the end of “I’ll Take that Applause” in Under Color). The first “Why Does It Shake” is a bleak evocation of existential frailty, an obliterating beat underlining the title phrase, repeated, and its echo “the body, the body, the body.” It is a remarkable piece, a kind of vortex that pulls you in and fills you with dread, even as it forces your own body to move.
The second, rather more uplifting, is called “Ellen.” It is told, I think, from the perspective of Casey’s father, who died shortly before the mother was diagnosed. Casey is as close as he comes to singing on this one, infusing his voice with a gruff tenderness as he says, “Beneath the shade I will wait for Ellen/though I have gone before, I will wait for Ellen/ I’ll pass the time with our memories forever/ I took them all and then I kept them safe for Ellen.” It’s heartbreaking…and beautiful.
The final cut on the album, “Feast of Stephen” considers the first Christian martyr (or, you know, the proto-martyr). It is warmer, more contemplative in tone than the other cuts, but perhaps the album’s most desolate track (Casey asks at one point if it would be possible to send all the babies back). “They can’t stone me until I fall asleep,” mutters Casey. He’s maybe a martyr to the fucked up world we live in, maimed by it, hopeless, but still punching through until the dark falls.
This album is a triumph, and with it, Protomartyr has pulled off the unlikely feat of making the rock record of the year, twice in a row.
Photo credit: Zak Bratto. Below, watch the band live on KEXP from last July.