BY JENNIFER KELLY
There is nothing at all set up on the stage of Northampton’s Iron Horse at fifteen minutes past 10 on a Friday. The earlier show, by local folk rocker Seth Glier, seems to have involved a birthday cake and perhaps has run over. You always wonder whether the Iron Horse will go over the line far enough and be so nasty to the band you came to see that they leave and never come back. The sound guy, ominously, leaves the building in search of the Gotobeds, a much-lauded punk rock foursome, originally from Pittsburgh and now signed to mighty Sub Pop. All that counts for nothing, though. They are unable, still, to set up so much as a cymbal stand before the early set has cashed out. Evidently, there will be no sound check.
That’s a shame because the Gotobeds’ dual guitar, high energy set has its moments, but it is impossible to hear the vocals at all, and only through lip-reading can you infer brash, thrashy, pop-vibrant melodies thrown off kilter by stuttery guitar spatter. It’s frustrating because this is obviously a fun band, coiling surprisingly intricate interlocking guitar parts around Ramones-catchy punk melodies, the guitar player juddering around the stage on a one-legged Chuck Berry-style hop. They dedicate one song to Rudy Guiliani (I’m guessing “New York’s Alright (If You Like Sex and Phones)” and another one seems to consist entirely of the lyrics “One, two! Fuck you!” They announce their next album as “Never Mind the Postal Service, Here’s the Gotobeds,” which is almost certainly not the real title, and they seem, altogether, to be putting on a pretty good show. If only you could hear it…sigh.
I am beyond excited about seeing Protomartyr, who made my #1 favorite album last year, Under Color of Official Right. I’d heard a lot about their live show, especially the front-man Joe Casey, who is, let’s put this gently, not exactly a rock star out of central casting, and I was looking forward to seeing their working class mayhem in action.
Protomartyr also has some early set sound problems, but sorts them out rather quickly, which is important because here’s the thing about Protomartyr: This is a ferociously tight punk band fronted by an unlikely character, Joe Casey, who stands one hand in his pocket, blasé as an accountant at a staff meeting, making occasional modest gestures, but spewing a stream of chaotic poetry. He somehow grounds the band, while also leading it in dangerous directions. The band behind him is just monstrously good. Drummer Alex Leonard weights the band’s sound with primal, tom-whacking drums, working in concert with bassist Scott Davidson to set a heavy groove. Greg Ahee layers a pedal effected guitar over it all, injecting sharp riffs and shimmering miasmic atmospheres. Good sound balances these contradictory elements, so that the weird poetry coalesces with guitar-bass-drum onslaught. If you can hear it all, it’s a pretty great night.
The other surprising thing is that Protomartyr’s guitar sound on the album is completely different from its sound live, the warm, almost new-wave-ish framework exploded into a MBV-ish wall of distortion. (There was a bit of a dust-up over one reviewer’s likening Protomartyr to Interpol last summer, and I kind of wonder if they changed up the guitars to blow that comparison out of the water. Though I hope not. It was always bullshit.) The drums are also much louder and, frankly, a much more critical element to this band than you’d realize by listening to Under Color of Official Right. The difference goes beyond the standard, whoa-this-band-is-much-louder-in-person cliché. They sound genuinely different, even playing songs that I pretty much wore out the grooves on in 2014, and there is some new material, also very confrontational and raw, as well.
Protomartyr plays a lot of the songs from Under Color of Official Right, the sawed-off and tuneful “Ain’t So Simple,” a cathartically enraged “Want Remover,” the surprisingly lounge-y “What the Walls Said,” a blinding-sheets-of-white-noise-tipped “I Stare at Floors” and a hypnotic “Scum, Rise!” There are also some new ones, which sound more stripped back and punk-like than the current album, though, to be fair, the old songs sound this way as well. They finish with a blistering, annihilating “Come and See,” and pack up without ceremony. When we come out Joe Casey is having a smoke and talking to the kids who have gathered outside. If you didn’t know, you might think they were the rockers and he a fan. Protomartyr transforms the everyday into the mythic, but only when it’s on stage.