Protomartyr really came into their own with 2014’s Under Color of Official Right, an arty post-punk platform for frontman Joe Casey to drone, mumble and shout about how dull life really is. Since then, they dabbled in a split with the one and only Kelley Deal (The Amps, The Breeders) called ‘Blues Festival’ which topped off the journey they had under taken on Under Color… Deal’s vocals in the track made it seem the logical pairing – either that or Protomartyr, Parquet Courts and Ought making a supergroup. The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr’s latest offering, shows more of the same keen-eyed criticism of idleness, culture and whatever Casey deems fit to be not working right. As Detroit locals, they offer a dingy picture of an industrial hunk of concrete on which everyone has to work. The album makes no attempt to glamorise life, it reflects glumly on it. But that’s post-punk, right?
Protomartyr very often find their groove of lyrical post-punk and stick in it until it decays like everything Casey talks about. The first track, ‘The Devil in His Youth’ sees the guitars come in late and Casey painting a picture of a man who ‘The privilege came before him’ but ‘It all changed when he came of age’. Casey sings ‘I will make them feel the way I do’ in the position of the devil, going beyond his tipsy-mumbling into a more aggressive tone and sympathising with the devil for not being able to drag himself away from work. In fact, it’s something Casey can relate to. When Casey pushes himself into the more direct lyrics that he’s definitely capable, a line like that will stick out and remain a highlight of the record. The instrumentation is tight, especially the drums on ‘The Devil in His Youth’ and the guitars blare out with consistent jaggedness, like on ‘Cowards Starve’, a track more indebted to Under Color…’s slower moments. The guitars arc across Casey’s vocals, but then rumble up from underneath. This two-pronged attack is key to the attack-and-withdraw of Protomartyr, coinciding with Casey becoming more aggressive. Sometimes the instrumentation comes across brighter, like on the end of ‘Cowards Starve’, but it nearly always comes across as dark and foreboding.
These moments of brightness, such as on ‘I Forgive You’, where the guitars blare with neon lights shine with sparkles of Strokes-like post-punk. It’s the closest to ecstasy they get; Casey barely becomes indifferent. On ‘Boyce or Boise’, it begins as what you’d expect from a Protomartyr song, but the time change gives it the same galloping-carnival effect as on ‘Why Does It Shake?’ and the slow-motion almost sends it into 60s pop territory, until Casey starts repeating ‘Remove the fire from thine eyes, please’ in his most towering voice. Previous to that, the song is a furious punk track, where Casey sings ‘They know our movements, they own our failures’. ‘Ellen’, a six-minute track, goes into a different territory for Protomartyr, as Casey takes a more introspective approach by singing about his mother with alzheimer’s from the perspective of his father. The drums march onwards, military-style and the guitars consistently clatter out for over four minutes, threatening to engulf Casey’s voice. It veers on the emotional, which is an interesting venture for Casey, away from the drudge of life and into his personal life, which looks to be just as unfortunate as the world around him.
The instrumentation never lets up on the quality, rumbling along on ‘The Hermit’ and ‘I Forgive You’ with only a few misses, like ‘Clandestine Time’, which gets lost in murky effects on Casey’s voice and the relentless drums. Still, the bassline rings out on the track beneath everything, rooting the track. Even ‘Uncle Mother’s’, which begins as a weird avant-garde Sonic Youth-esque piece segues into a dark guitar/bass combo which rattles along on its barebones. Every time the instrumentation kicks in at the right time, like on the chorus of ‘Uncle Mother’s’, which shouldn’t work in comparison with the funky (if you can call it that) verse and does contrast it, but it does work, somehow. Likewise, Casey barely misses a mark, yelping out ‘I don’t think so’ and repeating ‘They lie, they lie’ on ‘The Hermit’, keeping up an almost speak-sing on the same track.
The Agent Intellect is Protomartyr’s best album yet by far; the rest of the band has finally caught up with Casey and now on an equal level they can throw dingy post-punk anthems at the listener by the bucketload. Casey is wordy and often references Detroit-specific terminology (See their annotations for ‘I Forgive You’ on Genius), but even when he can’t be understood the instrumentation is enough to satisfy anyone with an appetite for modern post-punk contemporaries like Ought or Protomartyr or veteran acts like The Fall. Protomartyr embody Detroit in a way that their forefathers, Iggy and the Stooges and the White Stripes, could never describe as well. Sure, Iggy’s industrial racket was the closest bet, and the Stripes’ classic-rock was more indebted to Nashville, but Protomartyr perfectly narrate the city, with all of the decay that comes with it. When it comes to character portraits, they’re just as good, such as on ‘Ellen’ or ‘The Devil in His Youth’. It’s often sad, but The Agent Intellect is brutally modern.
Funnel Recommends: The Devil in His Youth / The Hermit / Why Does It Shake?