Protomartyr is the epitome of a band that can’t rely on charisma or publicity: they are four perfectly normal but erudite guys, born and raised in Detroit’s surroundings, who grew interested in playing music very late. They formed Protomartyr well into their twenties, with no aspiration to become superstars or even a world-touring band. This background represents the foundation of their project, and it also works as a declaration of intents: Casey, Ahee, Leonard, and Davidson didn’t grow in poor conditions, they didn’t suffer much of the Detroit city bankrupt, they studied and they built their own ideas, in parallel to their musical consciousness. As Casey, the singer and songwriter explained in an interview: “there are enough bands writing songs about eating pizza and getting drunk – no one needs us doing that too. I just figured if we’re taking the time to write a song, it might as well say something”. Protomartyr’s music is both spontaneous and systematic, so it requires talent, urgency and a methodical process of song-writing. Relatives In Descent, the band’s fourth full-length album, is the outcome of those prerequisites. It maneuvers in an austere atmosphere, made possible by the band’s great knowledge of post-punk history while raising political and common issues. It’s a severe critique of the world today, punching you in the stomach with some unwanted truth, but it also caresses you with the beauty of the music itself.
As soon as the first track “A Private Understanding” kicks in we find Protomartyr sharply quoting Joy Division with the opening drums and polemically addressing Trump’s disastrous presidential campaign:
The scholar will be forever poor
Gross gold runs headlong to boor
I don’t want to hear those vile trumpets anymore
Call me “Heraclitus The Obscure”
Constantly weeping because the river doesn’t move
It doesn’t flow
It’s been leaded by snider men to make a profit from the poor
I don’t want to hear those vile trumpets anymore
Through the second and third songs of the album, the guitar of Greg Ahee turns darker and darker, drawing dry melodies enveloped by minimal basslines from Scott Davidson. Lyrically the attention shifts from the global scale of “A Private Understanding” to the local and then familiar one, in “The Children”:
Ain’t got no mother
Came from my temple, all, when I thought them
I never loved them
Why feel that way when their existence is my business?
Poetically, Casey flirts with touching feeling but he remains gelid, constantly finding injustices or bad habits to raise a question against. Protomartyr’s members have great taste, they managed to throw their influences at the listener without resulting redundant, and this task is extremely difficult while playing within the coordinates of the post-punk genre. The aforementioned Joy Division, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, early days’ The Fall are smartly tributed through the whole album. For example, the tension built in “Windsor Hum” is expertly solved with silky guitar chords, creating a poetic alliteration with the theme of the song itself, the droning murmur of the Windsor river. The expedient is so well spotted that it would make Nick Cave himself proud.
The second half of Relatives In Descent is denser than the first one. It would have been easy to lose focus or cohesion, but instead the Detroit’s quartet expands the borders of their music: the martial proceeding of “Up The Tower” is mitigated by the spectacular “Night-Blooming Cereus”, a sad ballad about a recent fire in Oakland that seems to let the band lose, forcing them to express all their emotional force at once. “Male Plague” brings out a self-critical, chaotic side of Casey, posing this aspect in dichotomy with the others themes of the album: the band isn’t exonerated from conflicts of society, instead they are very much part of them. With the closing “Corpses In Regalia” and “Half Sister” the influences are very diversified, including references of Pere Ubu, Magazine, and The Chameleons. The cynical lyricism of the last track sums up the misanthropic feeling that permeates the whole opera while offering a moral:
In Northern Michigan
There was an incident in winter
A horse was hit by lightning
And began to speak in a foreign language
When he was finally understood
It repeated, “Humans are no good”
So they shot it behind the shed and stuffed him
He’s now on display as a lesson
For the kids to always do your best
Do your best always
Protomartyr made treasure of late outputs from Preoccupations or Have A Nice Life, they found a sonic balance between new wave and modern rock managing to create their own imaginary, that is actual and contemporary like very few others. Ultimately, Relatives In Descent pictures a cold snapshotting of the current social problems and it will go down as one of the best post-punk albums that came out in recent years.