Opinion I Modern day post-punk’s new prototype
Protomartyr is a band that melds punk’s aggression with experimental music. As the world experiences unprecedented uncertainty, their new album is timely
When you listen to Ultimate Success Today, the Detroit-based post-punk band Protomartyr’s latest album, it seems perfectly suited for these uncertain and troubled times. The covid-19 pandemic has paralysed the world and hobbled people’s confidence; racist and other xenophobic forces have emerged in the US and elsewhere; and no one really knows how or when normalcy might return. But the fact is the band recorded the album last year, before anyone could predict the pandemic and its consequences.
Ultimate Success Today is Protomartyr’s fifth studio album since it was formed in 2008—and the band sounds prescient. The song themes include questions of mortality; a dystopic end of the world; and mid-life crisis. One of the songs, Processed By The Boys, sounds so prophetic that it is eerie. Vocalist Joe Casey talks about how the end could come (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?). Casey has a vocal style that is part spoken-word and part-singing. His lyrics, sometimes reflecting stream-of-consciousness thoughts, are usually angry, aggressive and teeming with protest. On Ultimate Success Today, those attributes remain intact but the album also has a soundscape that is more multilayered and experimental than their earlier raw post-punk albums.
Post-punk is among the broadest categories in contemporary music. The genre emerged in the late 1970s and is seen by some as an evolution of the spare, noisy and minimalistic style of music that defined the rebellious punk rock that preceded it. Post-punk bands drew on the ethos of punk’s aggressive style and rebellious, anti-establishment lyrics but added to its sparseness a fuller and more experimental sound. Today, post-punk has come to define a broader spectrum of music and is often a lazy way of classifying bands. Some bands, including Protomartyr, for instance, don’t like it when critics pigeon-hole them as post-punk. But whatever tag you label them with, Protomartyr are among the most important bands that have taken punk’s angry anti-establishment attitude and evolved it into a sound that has influenced a long list of other bands.
The band’s own evolution has been quite discernible. The earliest Protomartyr albums were rough at the edges and as raw as the noisiest old-school punk bands would get in the early 1970s. Their first, No Passion All Technique, was just the opposite of what the title implies; it was all passion. The punk quotient was high; and in a classic DIY manner, the band is supposed to have recorded all the songs in just 4 hours. Anger, grief and resentment were what motivated Casey, 43, to sing in a band after he lost his father in the late 2000s. And that album is reflective of those feelings.
Three other albums preceded Protomartyr’s latest release, and while they quickly found a local cult following in and around their native city of Detroit, it was only after their second and third albums and some international and festival circuit touring that they got both, good press and a wider base of fans.
But anyone starting to explore Protomartyr ought to begin perhaps with their fourth album, Relatives In Descent. By the time the quartet released that album in 2017, their sound had become polished and lyrics, more poetic. On it, lead guitarist Greg Ahee’s riffs are highly punk-influenced; drummer Alex Leonard lays down intricate beats; and bassist Scott Davidson provides ample, if not virtuosic, depth. But it is Casey who is the ace in the pack. His prose-style lyrics and style have often been compared to the late Mark E. Smith, the maverick frontman of the British post-punk band The Fall. In My Children, from Relatives In Descent, he sings: To create, pass on, pass on/ What’s mine, now yours, pass on/ Written in stone, no longer in sand, pass on/ Pass on, to create/ To grace, what’s mine, now yours, I’m gone, pass on/ To create, create, pass on, pass on/ What’s mine, now yours, I’m gone, pass on, create, create, in stone…. All delivered by Casey in the beginning as if he’s at a poetry reading session—but soon losing his patience and breaking into aggressive song.
Although Protomartyr have quite clearly been influenced by British bands such as The Fall, Casey and the band have their own style, one that has been evolving. On Ultimate Success Today, the band sounds musically more experimental but also more mature. The saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, known for his highly improvisational playing, is a guest musician, as is the free jazz cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. Those collaborations, as well as the use of bass clarinets and flutes, could mark an important shift in Protomartyr’s oeuvre: from the sparse noise of punk to a more sophisticated and multilayered soundscape.
Protomartyr have been an influential band in today’s post-punk scene. If there could be a cluster of bands that are like Protomartyr, I would expect to see in it Britain’s IDLES (a Bristol band whose lead singer Joe Talbot’s style has much in common with Casey’s); and Porridge Radio (a Brighton band whose lead singer Dana Margolin not only writes the songs but also plays lead guitar). But also the relatively lesser-known Swedish band Viagra Boys (whose lead singer Sebastian Murphy laces black humour in aggressive but subtly angry songs). Bands such as these, with Protomartyr among the vanguard, could make up post-punk’s exciting new avatar: angry, aggressive, yet experimenting constantly musically.
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