Protomartyr’s backstory, of frontman Joe Casey recruiting a band 10 years his junior to produce brutal, urgent music, would be all but irrelevant if the Detroit four-piece hadn’t made it their mission to live up to it with three albums in four years. The story goes that Casey wanted a band just as dedicated as he was, and it’s been their job to make the music seem like necessity, led by a man in his mid-30s coping with the loss of his father and unwilling to let his own voice go unheard.
And live up to it they have, with each album an improvement in ambition and achievement, peaking with the new, often brilliant The Agent Intellect. Following 2012’s No Passion All Technique and 2014’s Under Color of Official Right, Intellect highlights the band’s strengths, with Casey’s melodies punching through some of the sturdiest rock and roll arrangements since The National emerged with Alligator and Boxer.
These arrangements are likely to be overlooked, if only because Casey’s yearning lyrics and dramatic delivery are what give Protomartyr their distinct personality. But his bandmates all put their fingerprints on the album over the course of its dozen songs. “Clandestine Time” finds drummer Alex Leonard complicating one of Casey’s most streamlined melodies for its opening measures, riding the cymbals for what seems like an unnecessarily noisy run. But when the crashes drop away into hyper taps of kick drum and snare, and later return for Casey’s ominous, cackling conclusion, the drums are ultimately what guide the song’s emotional turns, dictating where the listener’s attention focuses.
(Interview: The Altered States of Protomartyr)
On guitar and bass, Greg Ahee and Scott Davidson prove malleable, with a song like “I Forgive You” opening like The Strokes at their most frantic but still allowing for the song’s hook to appear at the center before finally receding to a calm finish. “Dope Cloud” shows the band in less linear form, oscillating back and forth between gravelly and slick, providing a tug of war at the center of the song that gives it tension. It’s all worthy of standing on its own despite the fact that it’s given few moments to; there’s not a solo in sight, and there are just a handful of periods when the vocals drop away and allow the musicians to play off each other.
Because, at heart, Protomartyr lives and dies by Casey’s passion. With a voice that sounds like the bottom of a highball, Casey’s delivery comes across as flammable, be it snarling in opener “The Devil in His Youth” or the droning shuffle of “Pontiac 87”. What’s impressive is just how expressive the songs can be with a relatively low vocal range. Both “I Forgive You” and “Cowards Starve” appear early in the record with strong hooks, neither pretty nor anthemic. Instead, Casey comes across as something better, a vocalist who doesn’t need backing singers who would rather incite their own self-expression than have you joining in his. It’s a supreme confidence, and it’s what makes the closing of “Pontiac 87”, with the repeated lines “There’s no use being sad about it/ What’s the point of crying about it?” ring with about as much empathy as an older brother telling you to stop hitting yourself.
Lyrically, Casey’s predilection for darkness is in full force here, with the humor coming from just how over-the-top the sentiments can be, how lines about drug abuse and religious servitude earn equal responses: “That’s not gonna save you, man.” It’s the “man,” in its dismissive colloquialism, that gives Casey his cool. Nearly every song has something like this, whether it’s a repeated line or a climactic bit of punctuation, like the epilogue of “Why Does It Shake?” or the mid-song repetition of “Let them into our home” during “Boyce or Boice”, a phrase that doesn’t look right when written without three or four exclamation marks.
While the individual songs have peaks and purpose, the album winds up functioning on the same level. Its clear climax is “Ellen”, named after Casey’s mother and written from the perspective of his father speaking of her from beyond the grave. “I will wait for Ellen/ I’ll pass the time/ With our memories for Ellen/ I took them on ahead/ I kept them safe for Ellen,” Casey sings as if he’s his own parent, imagining to his best approximation the love his father felt for his mother through the lens of his own love. As if the sentiment itself wasn’t beautiful enough, it’s sung fearlessly over a galloping rhythm and expansive, scuzzy guitar, showing the band capable of a deeply moving prettiness that they’ve only vaguely hinted at before. When the song retreats and returns unexpectedly, it’s a much deserved encore from a band that just tied a ribbon on their finest work.
Essential Tracks: “Ellen”, “Clandestine Time”, and “Dope Cloud”