Protomartyr must be one of the more unlikely rock ‘n’ roll success stories of the past few years. It goes like this: Detroit dude in his mid-30s working as a doorman starts jamming with a couple guys in a local punk band who are a decade younger. Detroit dude has no known musical ability, has never been in a band before and, in fact, has a pretty bad case of stagefright.
But he’s good! He’s a little odd —not your typical rock frontman—but he’s got something to say and some dark places to draw from, and that translates into lyrics about the shitty state of the world and feeling like a fuck-up. He’s relatable, in other words. And he has an unnerving sort of charisma, often wearing a suit jacket and prowling the stage like a menace. He looks like an accountant who got fired for doing something terrible.
Detroit dude’s name is Joe Casey and because of his background and his quirks and his talent, he’s often the primary angle in stories about Protomartyr. Understandably so.
Nearly a decade after it first formed, Protomartyr is back with its fourth album of snarling, tightly wound post-punk. Relatives in Descent builds on what the band has been doing since its 2012 debut No Passion All Technique, with Casey turning his loathing outward, and his band sounding bigger and better than ever.
That’s one major takeaway from Relatives: While the press and critics have focused much of their ink on Casey, the three guys behind him have developed into a powerful and sharp unit. Guitarist Greg Ahee has always scorched the earth with his sinister, searing jangle, which is Protomartyr’s only real consistent melodic element, thanks to Casey’s talk-sing style. Drummer Alex Leonard brings his own melodic sensibility to his tom-heavy rhythms, while bassist Scott Davidson ably anchors the band’s underground rumble.
Highlights for the instrumental trio include Davidson’s groovy bass line on “Here Is the Thing,” which sounds more like excavation than art; Leonard’s rock-solid rat-tat-tat on the punky “Don’t Go to Anacita”; and Ahee’s versatility, whether he’s creating a soundscape for Casey’s rantings (“My Children”) or firing off sparks of harsh light (“The Chuckler”). And on songs like “Caitriona” and the second half of “A Private Understanding,” the band builds a wall of sound studier than anything on their first three albums.
Meanwhile, Casey still oozes glowering charm. In “A Private Understanding” he sets the scene: “This age of blasting trumpets, paradise for fools, infinite wrath. In the lowest deep, a lower depth. I don’t want to hear those vile trumpets anymore.” (One wonders if “trumpets” should be spelled with a capital T.) In “Up the Tower,” he tells a story of “howling waves of people” rushing a king’s door, spitting out vivid details like bloody teeth:
The portraits in the hallway
Look better smashed upon the floor
Gaudy baubles turned to dust
The hatred he brewed within us
Is now crashing loud upon his shore
The vultures returned to roost
In the buzzy, breakneck “Male Plague,” Casey takes down his own gender, using the song title as a punk chat. “Fear of the future, losing your hold. Male plague! Male plague!” he sings as the band churns beneath. “Hey figurehead, what are you gonna do? Her truth moves too fast for you.” And Relatives in Descent ends with perhaps its prettiest song (relatively speaking), and Casey declaring “Truth is the half sister that will not be forgotten” against a serrated guitar part and an uneasy bass line.
While his band has grown into a post-punk monster, Casey, too, has moved beyond his personal frets and frustrations and developed into a lyricist capable of clear and compelling commentary. He’s a voice worth listening to. It took a while, but thank goodness he found his way to the front of a band.