By Skyler Romero
“People live with a private understanding / Sorrow’s the wind blowing through”. So goes the chorus of “A Private Understanding”, the lead single and opening track of “Relatives in Descent,” the latest album from Detroit post-punkers Protomartyr. The lines, courtesy of lyricist and frontman Joe Casey, carry a palpable sense of cynical resignation, aided by the accompanying music video wherein Casey’s lyrics are lip synced by an elderly man in an easy chair, lips quivering between each line, to an audience of half-attentive and similarly weary-looking folks smoking cigarettes and clutching cocktail glasses.
Forming in Detroit in 2008, Protomartyr started as a jokey side project to Alex Leonard’s and Greg Ahee’s previous band Butt Babies, who would invite vocalist Joe Casey to the stage as a gag during sets. With the addition of Scott Davidson on bass, Butt Babies became Protomartyr, and ever since their big breakout album, 2014’s “Under Color of Official Right,” and through 2015’s similarly well-received follow-up “The Agent Intellect,” they have made a name for themselves as uncompromisingly loud documentarians of decay both personal and societal. Comprised of lead vocalist Casey, guitarist Ahee, drummer Leonard, and bassist Davidson, the band has derived its considerable appeal from the combination of Casey’s pointedly cynical and world-weary lyrics, belted out in his signature booze-soaked howl, and the band’s tightly controlled racket, switching with ease from punishing guitar noise to moments of quiet, simmering dread.
That feeling of dread is possibly more prominent than ever before on “Relatives in Descent.” While Protomartytr has always been known to have a fatalist streak, one gets the impression listening to their newest album that the strikingly peculiar shape of the current socio-political landscape has had a hand in re-shaping their view of the world.
On songs like “A Private Understanding” it’s hard not to read social commentary (and possible punnery) into lines like “…in this age of blasting trumpets / paradise for fools / infinite wrath…” and the loaded imagery of American icon Elvis Presley becoming dismayed at the likeness of Josef Stalin appearing in the clouds. Similarly, “Here is the Thing” finds Casey rambling like an angry town drunk about a litany of grievances against a social order that “makes you choose between necessity and health”, “grows fat off your fear”, and, “will be with you for the rest of your life”. All the while the rhythm section of Leonard and Davidson chugs along like a train to the underworld, with Ahee’s guitar providing the ghostly whistle and grind that heralds its horrible arrival.
Sonically, “Relatives in Descent” finds the band perfecting the signature sound that they have developed over their previous two albums. The guitars are uncompromisingly loud and dissonant one moment, distant and plaintive the next, sometimes recalling the sound of sirens echoing in the distance. Scott Davidson’s bass playing is reliably tuneful and melodic even with the subject matter is pitch dark, while Alex Leonard’s drumming remains as brutally pounding as ever, maintaining rigid structure whenever the song’s other elements pause for emphasis.
All this provides an ideal framework for Casey’s lyrics, sometimes angry, sometimes regretful, but always sharply critical. Tracks like “Up the Tower” and “Male Plague” find Casey raging against such modern villains as sequestered, out-of-touch leaders in the former, cowardly MRA patriarchy defenders in the latter, while other songs like the synth-augmented “Night-Blooming Cereus” find him quietly ruminating on the image of a flower that could thrive in such unremitting darkness. Times may be dark, as “Relatives in Descent” is more than willing to point out, but like that flower, it finds Protomartyr only growing, thriving, and at their very best in the darkness.