The band Protomartyr releases its album "Ultimate Success Today" – and paints a bleak picture of the USA with jazzed-up postpunk.
Doesn’t look like a joyful meal: Protomartyr with Joe Casey (2nd from left) Photo: Trevor Naud
Detroit can be a depressing place. Though the Midwest metropolis’ resurrected downtown, with its glass facades and flashy plazas, now tells the story of rebuilding, the peace seems deceptive. The social tension and division, the seething, the latent aggression are still tangible. Not only among the numerous, often black homeless, but also among the young people from the poorer classes and the unemployed.
Joe Casey, singer of the band Protomartyr, has spent his life in Detroit. Casey’s verses, often delivered with a deep, hypothermic timbre, capture an ominous mood on the streets; the dark, angry sounds of his band come across as the soundtrack to the moral decay and decline of the USA.
With "Ultimate Success Today" the fifth album of the band from Michigan is now released. The quintet has long been considered one of the most important guitar bands in the States; Iggy Pop, another son of Detroit, is said to have chosen the group as the "best band we’ve got in America right now".
He would not be completely wrong. For one thing, Protomartyr have a singer in Casey who succeeds excellently in putting into words how America is going to the dogs right now. "Michigan Hammers," for instance, is about social disparities in the state, in which he poems in his typical elliptical style, "Dignity or toil / Syndicate or gang / Rose & thorn / Not all of them on pills / chant from the end of the bar: / Being reborn in this soil, in this ground."
Casey often matches his own state of mind with the strangely ominous mood in the air. "Self doubt is a stalking fiend / Narcissism is a killer / That and no healthcare / Dumb aphorist embrace obscurants / and write in ogham for your final lines," reads "The Aphorist," for instance.
Protomartyr: "Ultimate Success Today" (Domino Records/Goodtogo).
These are very open, sophisticated lyrics full of allusions, here for example to Trump’s self-importance, to the U.S. health care system (it almost seems as if the songs weren’t recorded long before Corona), to the speechlessness that is currently spreading among progressive Americans.
On the other hand, the music also sounds fresh, independent, surprising: the energy of hardcore comes together in Protomartyr with early seventies protopunk à la Velvet Underground and postpunk bands like Pere Ubu, even with Manchester greats like Joy Division they are compared. Casey once attributed the similarities in sound in an interview to the fact that both northern England and the Midwest are industrial regions.
But maybe it’s the jazz touch that makes "Ultimate Success Today" stand out from other bands in this genre. It was worthwhile to bring the improvisation-tested Jemeel Moondoc (alto saxophone), Izaak Mills (bass clarinet, saxophone, flute) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (violoncello) on board for the recordings. Often winds and strings sneak into the songs almost unnoticed and give them exactly that residual spice that was still missing. This is the case, for example, with the first single "Processed By The Boys", which comes across as The Clash-like and in which the saxophone in the middle section provides the swinging undertone.
Little known in this country
Or in "Day Without End", where the improvisation parts form the background rumbling that gives the piece tension. All this ensures that "Ultimate Success Today" is one of the most interesting albums of the year so far.
While Detroit’s electronic scene in particular is reasonably well known in this country, the punk/postpunk/hardcore scene of more recent years has gone largely unnoticed. There were and still are a number of exciting bands like Tyvek, Ritual Howls and Frustrations, some of which played to sparse audiences in this country. Casey once said that Protomartyr were significantly influenced by Tyvek.
What one should not expect from Protomartyr is optimism. Neither was anything good nor will anything be good. "The past is full of dead men / The future is a cruelty / Resign yourself," it says in "Modern Business Hymns," and the album’s closing verses don’t sound very conciliatory either: "I exist, I did / I was here / I was / or never was," Casey sings there, and he repeats the last words in an endless loop. As if he were caught in a bad dream that doesn’t want to end.