Detroit quartet Protomartyr recorded their fifth album last year. Not, at first sight, the most fascinating piece of information about Ultimate Success Today, but one that’s worth bearing in mind if you’re in the market for something faintly creepy.
It happens first at the start of track two, Processed By the Boys. Drums, bass and distorted guitar hammer out a staccato riff, the guitar sound so thick with effects and echo that it’s closer to the stuff of stadium rock than critically acclaimed post-punk. Then vocalist Joe Casey appears, declaiming lyrics in a pugilistic snarl. “When the ending comes is it going to run at us like a wild-eyed animal? A foreign disease washed up on the beach? A dagger plunged from out the shadows?” he ponders, before going on to paint a grim picture of a different kind of turmoil, involving “all good laid low by outside evil” and rioting in the streets.
Elsewhere on Ultimate Success Today, there are visions of cities erupting in violence, of “shut-ins” panicking, of populations reliant on “built-up respirators” for survival. “What a way to die,” he offers on Modern Business Hymns, “pulled apart by the absence of what sustains us.” After a while, his predictive powers start to seem so uncanny you feel like getting in touch with Casey to see if he’s got any thoughts on next Saturday’s lottery numbers or the 3.30pm at Haydock Park.
This would feel like a grimly fitting moment for Protomartyr to release an album even if its lyrics didn’t seem to presage the world’s current woes. Conjuring a sense of apocalyptic anxiety and horror is very much One of Their Things. It was there on Come & See – a song from their 2014 album Under Color of Official Right that took its title from the Book of Revelation – and it ran throughout Ultimate Success Today’s predecessor, 2017’s Relatives in Descent, its Trump-haunted mood summarised by the opening line of Here Is the Thing: “Dread 2017-18.” Nevertheless, you don’t have to be a staunch believer in psychic woo-woo to find the number of coincidentally apropos images in the lyrics gives Ultimate Success Today an unsettling sheen, a curious echo of the precognitive powers that some were keen to attribute to Mark E Smith.
You suspect another mention of Smith’s name might cause Casey to sigh: he’s been compared to the late Fall frontman umpteen times during Protomartyr’s career. Listening to Ultimate Success Today, you can see why: if you don’t want to be compared to Mark E Smith, it’s probably best not to declaim abstruse lyrics – “you who suffer beyond margin of quadrant”, “shouted slogans of leapers give me megrims”, etc – in a crabby bellow, just as if you don’t want to be compared to Johnny Cash, it’s probably best not to come on stage dressed in black, playing along to a chicka-boom country rhythm and saying, “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash.”
But to write Casey off as a talented copyist is to sell him short. If Ultimate Success Today is littered with moments that evoke the self-styled Hip Priest’s memory, then there’s also ample evidence of an artist stepping away from his influence, particularly during the album’s second half, where Casey’s vocal shifts closer to singing than sprechgesang: on Worm in Heaven and Modern Business Hymns, he adopts a rough-hewn, brooding croon. Quite aside from his ability to conjure up a world teetering on the brink of chaos, his lyrics are good on sharp, acidic pen-portraits – “the failed lawyer hunting teen-punk shows / He’ll explain his Top 5 for 09 and what to eat” – and on incisive scene-setting imagery: “Sirens dopple after semi-automatic report / Chargers whine through the valley concrete.”
Meanwhile, Protomartyr’s musical approach doesn’t really bear comparison to the Fall, or at least not any more. In the gap between Relatives in Descent and Ultimate Success Today, their hastily recorded debut album No Passion All Technique was reissued, its ramshackle, derivative post-punk a fascinating counterpoint to the music they’re making now, which balances power – the blasting guitar riffs of Michigan Hammers, June 21’s insistent motorik beat, a series of impressively snappy dynamic and rhythmical shifts on The Aphorist and Tranquilizer – with sophistication: the album’s deployment of free jazz players, including saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc on Tranquilizer and opener Day Without End, is subtly and smartly done, their contributions driving the tracks along, never descending to the kind of skronky din that rock bands indulge in when they want to let listeners know their tastes extend to Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler.
They’re capable of unleashing pulverising guitar noise, but they’re not reliant on it. The music sounds affectingly ragged and drained – emotions that again feel perfect for the current moment – while the lyrics flip-flop between something approaching faint optimism (“hope you walk through life with a smile”) and something darker and dejected: “Remember me, how I lived / I was frightened, always frightened.” It’s music for uncertain times, something Protomartyr seem to be almost eerily skilled at producing.
This week Alexis listened to
Sex Swing: The Passover (Idles Remix)
The remixes on Sex Swing’s Passovers collection range from Jane Weaver’s charming kraut-pop to Anji Cheung’s dark ambience, but Idles’ drone-heavy, ominous take on The Passover is the real keeper.