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Review: Protomartyr Are Vulnerable and Furious on Relatives in Descent

Is there any guitar band quite as raw as Protomartyr? Closer to Swans or Glenn Branca than their peers, Protomartyr stack simple sounds into a churning, impenetrable wave of kinetic energy. 2014’s Under Color of Official Right and 2015’s The Agent Intellect pushed past scrappy, quick-tempoed punk toward something that thundered against indifference, as tracks like “Bad Advice” and “Pontiac 87” felt defined by a strand of scorched nihilism native to the city of Detroit, though bigger than the Motor City.

On Relatives in Descent, their Domino debut, the band broaden the scope of their laser-focused wit in search of some wider meaning for these strange, outrageous times. With loose fills and pangs of coarse guitar, “A Private Understanding” returns to the dry delivery of Agent Intellect single “Why Does It Shake?,” loudly denouncing our “age of blasting trumpets.” “She’s just trying to reach you,” Joe Casey repeats over and over, staving off the ease of cold distance with a pointed attempt at intimacy. There’s a fundamental tension between the arty posturing at the heart of many Protomartyr’s older songs and their newfound interest in vulnerability. “Male Plague” reflects this idea through gendered entitlement and its effects with age, spilling out about postured bodies and police violence with an outright fury, while “My Children” explores the transactional inheritance of these values from father to son, noting the shifting forces with each change of hands.

Against the backdrop of rapidly-gentrifying Detroit, this conflict festers into a broader resentment toward the city’s rich technologist and real estate developers, themselves symbolic of changing power relations across the globe. “Now you know innovative thievery in parking structures,” Casey shouts on “Here is the Thing.” “New faces love surveillance / Comic Sans, parroting an ape.” It’s an aching, Springsteen-ian frustration with the architecture of control that’s just beneath the surface of so much mechanized existence, yet forever beyond reach to those that stand to benefit most from shifting modes of power. “The liberal-minded here, they close their eyes and dream of technology and kombucha,” Casey trumpets on “Don’t Go To Anacita.” “The anti-vagrant system sounds like 20 dollar bills, being sorted in a counter.”

But even through all their outrage and frustration, it’s this thriving vulnerability that animates even the bleakest moments on the album. In a track-by-track breakdown with NPR, the band revealed that the song “Night-Blooming Cereus” was written in the wake of Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire late last year. “Growing up, places like that were important for my development in so many ways,” Casey shared. “This kind of struggle brought about the image of a flower blooming at night.” At a time when there couldn’t be more to speak out on, the fact that so much hope radiates through its B-side not only feels foreign to the band, but foreign to so much of what punk is supposed to be built on. While mediating the difference between bitterness and hooks was such a hallmark of past releases, it feels good to hear them find catharsis here, even if it’s in small doses.