As much as it’s a shortcut to pigeonholing artists, regional affiliation as it pertains to the many facets and faces of punk rock is a tricky terrain to toe, considering that the attitude’s the thing. That said, Detroit’s Protomartyr seems to wedge itself into some sonic crevice of the Motor City’s storied musical past only by proximity; the band’s residency in a city quickly becoming a metaphor for grimy rebuilding, resilience, some lost relic of the American Dream is an unfortunate sidebar.
On Under Color of Official Right, the foursome’s sophomore record, Protomartyr nonchalantly pulls out pretty much every stop available in an effort not to be easily hemmed in to any preconceived corner of the tempting urge to align them, even passingly, with your Stooges, your Dirtbombs, et al. In fact, this album essentially thumbs its nose at the perceived imprint of its predecessors.
The thoughtful, sparse interlocking of instrumentation leaves the illusion that there is little going on musically for a majority of the core of the songs here; so nuanced are its interweaving repetitions that tunes like the ‘70s New York suave of “Ain’t So Simple” and the alarmingly first-wave punk grate of “Want Remover” dredge the slacker-as-profound-poet motif seamlessly enough while managing to not come off as an outfit hell-bent on profundity.
Still, stealthy scorchers like “Pagans” rip through in odd ways, with quick bursts of energy that are as melodic as they are quirkily vibrant. Vocalist Joe Casey possesses an unassuming delivery, not entirely unmusical, but not entirely concerned with expanding beyond the sort of spoken-word drawl of a coffee shop nihilist, specifically on tunes like the grating, minimalist “Tarpein Rock,” which benefits from contrasting Casey’s lyrical minutiae with counter-melodic fits of fuzzy backing vocals that propagate sassy hollers a la Frog Eyes’s Carey Mercer.
Under Color emerges, then, as by and large a cunning powder keg of an album, at times so sparse and inviting, only to ignite in fits of fiery rebellion midway through a song with crunching, lush guitars and Casey’s cool-as-a-cucumber vocal delivery, approximating the feeling of the seminal punk of Hüsker Dü or, later, the literary austerity of more experimental post-punk efforts by Cursive.
In particular, the most cogent example of this symbiosis is the album’s second-to-last track, “Violent,” which expounds on this loose, organic recipe, Casey blurting discordant lines culled from western novels and tomes devoted to maritime exploits. The disjointed nature of Under Color’s thrust somehow catapults its enjoyability. The harder it is to pinpoint its origins and the further you allow yourself to take off your critical monocle, the deeper its creative abandon draws you in.