Review: Protomartyr See Life Through to Its Lack of Conclusion on ‘The Agent Intellect’
Release Date: October 9, 2015
Label: Hardly Art
Protomartyr are heavy, man. Not in the sense of being derived from lightning Slayer shredding or doomsday Sabbath churn — though with their scaling guitar leads, pounding martial drums, and interlocking obsessions with death and the church, connecting them to a metal lineage would hardly be impossible. But Protomartyr are heavy in that their songs carry the weight of a life fully and unglamorously lived, through tragedy and disillusionment, through knowledge gained too late, through the Lord giveth-ing and the Lord taketh-ing away. It’s burden-rock, first and foremost.
If that sounds like a bummer to listen to, well, that’s what makes The Agent Intellect an achievement. Protomartyr’s third studio album is all the things you’d expect it to be from a band of their geography (Detroit) and countenance (stone-faced): chilling, sobering, frightening. It’s also funny, catchy, invigorating, ultimately human. It’s dingy, insular basement rock cast as fist-pumping music for the masses; U2 performing Hex Enduction Hour. It’s an album so fully realized and of its own singular identity that despite its many obvious post-punk-era touchstones, there’s no mistaking the band for revivalists.
The quartet’s second album, 2014’s Under Color of Official Right, smartly calmed things down from the blowout pace of 2013 debut No Passion All Technique, allowing room in their distorted frenzy for more open-spaced guitar melancholy on tracks like “Maidenhead” and “Violent.” The result approximated Michigan surf rock: isolated and at times violently cold, but uniquely compelling and strangely serene at its core. Frontman Joe Casey was understandably hesitant to have the album interpreted as a Detroit travelogue (or himself as a city spokesperson), but the LP’s sense of place in its survived desolation was undeniable.
Rather than back off from their newly minted tint of Detroit rock on their third album in three years, the band goes widescreen with it. The expansion is clear from the first strains of LP opener “The Devil in His Youth,” which begins its origin story of the Dark Lord with a lacerating riff that echoes the instantly captivating authority of “Fell in Love With a Girl” or “Search and Destroy.” By the time Casey barks out Satan’s climactic lines as a seething post-adolescent — “I will make you feel the way I do!” — it’s clear that while they’ve long had the gravity and force of will to match their Motown predecessors, Protomartyr can now match their sheer musical power as well.
Few of the album’s 11 ensuing tracks are quite as barnstorming as “Devil,” but the album remains gigantic throughout. Riffs crackle like lit fuses, going kaboom on the chorus, while drums crest and crash like tsunami waves, and swaying bass rumbles denote a perpetual queasiness. Even the relatively restrained “Pontiac 87″ still reverberates like it’s sound-checking in an abandoned castle, and builds with a force that turns its defeatist closing chant (“There’s no use in being sad about it / What’s the point in crying about it?”) into a rallying cry. Guitarist Greg Ahee said in July that Proto wanted Intellect to be “huge but still disorienting”; it’s hard to remember any other band outside of the decidedly un-punk Pink Floyd managing this simultaneous level of size and unease. (They haven’t gotten too big for the city, though: “I Forgive You” is so thick with 313-specific references that the band annotated the lyrics to it on Genius themselves. Big Sean must be beaming.)
And as much bile as gets vented throughout The Agent Intellect, what separates Protomartyr from their post-punk peers are the moments of surprising tenderness. Casey’s voice is kind of like that of Ian Curtis — so corroded, and used so bluntly, that on the rare occasions it goes soft, it’s disarmingly affecting. When he hush-sings his way through “Pontiac,” or drops down for the hook to “Forgive,” it’s more piercing than any of the album’s most purposefully jagged moments. Even at the album’s hardest, there’s a strong sense of sympathy. They recognize themselves among the unrecognized drones ticking their life away in “Clandestine Time,” and even those dismissed for their arrogance in “Dope Cloud” — which, with its reference to “This ancient microphone, and the lungs behind that creak,” may include the singer himself — are more tut-tutted at than excoriated. Self-righteous fury is a young man’s game; well into his thirties, Casey knows he can’t afford to view the world in such black-and-white terms.
Intellect climaxes beautifully with “Ellen,” a rare love song, written from the perspective of Casey’s dead father to his widow. The song swells to a gorgeous emotional catharsis, the singer’s promises of “I will wait for Ellen” echoing out into eternity, as the song breathes its last gasps. But just as “Ellen” fades to black, it unexpectedly surges back to life for another few minutes, diminishing the impact of the air of closure. It’s all too telling for Protomartyr: Just like life, the band continues on well after what feels like it should be the dramatically satisfying final scene. The album then ends in earnest with the far more ambiguous “Feast of Stephen,” named after the band’s titular saint, Casey concluding over dissonant chord changes, “They can stone me till I fall asleep.” And it’s miles to go before that, no doubt.