Los Angeles – There is nothing glamorous about Protomartyr. The band dredges the depths of the psyche, unearthing melancholic themes of misery and malevolence in the process. On a purely superficial level, the Detroit, MI four-piece lacks that certain “panache” that so many buzzy blogosphere-driven indie-rock bands possess; they are fronted by a slightly balding 35-year old man who rarely takes the time to put down his cigarette for press photos. While the rest of the band (guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard, and bassist Scott Davidson) are quite younger, at first glance Protomartyr appear to be more doom-metal outfit than on-the-cusp-of-indie-superstardom post-punk group. Instead of turning the focus on aesthetics, they are the exemplification of a working-man’s band; pounding out the riffs, unloading lyrical zingers, and churning out unstoppably memorable hooks.
Protomartyr has always dealt in darkness. Nobody expected the band’s third release, The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art) to be a sunny lyrical voyage, but Joe Casey and company have brought their sound to another plane of complexity, weaving thought-provoking and mortality-acknowledging statements of astute psychological observation around spindly, ominous, and urgent punk rock. At the crux of Casey’s songwriting are two topics: the sudden death of his father and his mother’s descent into the early stages of Alzheimer’s, both of which occurred during the album’s creation. With these two devastating events coloring the mood of the record, Protomartyr has turned in their best album yet – one that should fly towards the top of most rock ‘n roll year-end best-of lists.
Casey’s meal-mouthed vocals hit a nice midpoint between singing and speaking – the closest contemporary reference point would be some of the songs on Iceage’s You’re Nothing – particularly on the breakneck opener, “Devil in His Youth”, which relays an off-beat origin story of the Devil, beginning “in some suburban room”, reaching its narrative climax with the title character making a sinister promise: “I will make them feel the way I do / I’ll corrupt them till they think they way I do.” In other moments, such as the first chorus of “I Forgive You”, he feels like the wisdom-spouting ringleader of a chaotic riff circus, eventually calming down the madness just long enough to console the song’s subject, mumbling “I forgive you, but I feel it’ll happen all again.”
In addition to dealing with death and debilitating disease, The Agent Intellect is a lyrical love letter to the city of Detroit. Like most of the songs in their discography, the 12 songs heard here are chock full of insider-references to Michigan’s biggest city, including Joumana Kayrouz, Outer Drive, and Matt Z. As a gritty rock ‘n roll band, it does not come as a surprise that the group is proud of their Motor City heritage, with a lineage that runs from Motown to the MC5. Protomartyr fit pretty well into the evolution of the city’s musical heritage – rough and tumble, but with enough intelligence to keep the listener intrigued.
Despite the fact that The Agent Intellect is mostly a triumphant follow-up to Protomartyr’s breakthrough Under Color of Official Right, it does have a few stutters in its stride late in the album. The band is simply unable to sustain the sheer energy of the A-side, at times finding themselves on the dull side of the fence through side B. One of the album’s initial singles, “Why Does It Shake?” has an intriguing post-disco/proto-new wave strut that is quite nearly negated by a heavy-handed wall of distortion during the blink-and-you-miss-it chorus. “Clandestine” has a feverishly paced, ethereal verse and honey-sweet chorus with a lilting bass lead, but it takes multiple listens to really stick in the listener’s craw – but days later, there it sticks, and isn’t that the trademark of a truly well-written track?
All in all, Promotmartyr give the people what they want, and they provide it in spades. A band that refuses to settle for the easy way out, these 12 tracks are equal parts challenging and rewarding. This is the kind of album you want to reserve about four/five listens to before issuing a confident judgment.
Is it shocking to learn that Protomartyr is going to be on the road in a big way to support their new album? It shouldn’t be. The band is hitting the Eastern United States before heading over to Europe and the United Kingdom in November.