There’s definitely something terrible about identifying as a political band in America; such is the bipartisan, zero sum game which is the broader national context from New York to L.A., any move to present a critique or commentary on events risks the frothing condemnation of the other side’s reactionaries.
Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney and sports the ruddy complexion of former British Prime Minister David Cameron. He’s generally unwilling to cast the Detroit four-piece as condemning or endorsing America’s citizens at a level so rudimentary as the way they voted, or by extension the actions of those that they voted for.
Nevertheless Relatives In Descent, the band’s fourth album, is dominated by the sensations of both resignation and distaste that the country’s collective decision to elect Donald Trump has kindled in him; interviewed recently he chided the electorate by saying: “As a country…we’re not as smart as we think we are…It’s a new dark age”.
He’s far from the only musician to feel such a creeping dread, but whereas the band’s last outing, The Agent Intellect, was a superbly executed lesson in putting the punk in post-punk, this time the symbolism of the messages have been honed, his emotional turbulence becoming a weapon with a metaphorical blast radius which can’t be escaped.
At forty years old, Casey is in age roughly a decade in advance of his colleagues – guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson – but conversely the string of dead end jobs he took to make ends meet prior to their coming together has afforded him the chance to view things from the worker-drone’s perspective rather than suffering from the idealism of a career performer.
This personal take is what gives Protomartyr its collective license to deconstruct conformity. The lyrics come in and out of focus, abstract passages such as on opener A Private Understanding; “Elvis outside of Flagstaff/Driving a camper van/Looking for meaning in a cloud mass/Sees the face of Joseph Stalin” to “She’s just trying to reach you” – a line repeated during the explosive closer Half Sister, the demand somehow obtusely twinned.
In musical terms it’s raw but calculated, the quartet kicking over some of their own statues in the process of making Casey’s atonal drawl into something to be loved rather than feared. On The Chuckler, for example, Ahee’s guitar rides the singer’s shifts in tone, flitting from delicate chime to pissed off roar as he shakes his head at his generation’s negligent planetary legacy for subsequent ones.
It’s great, but the real kernel here is in a trio at Relatives In Descent’s driving core: Night Blooming Cereus weaves the message into synth pop akin to – I can hardly believe I’m writing this – the mode of a shredding free Future Islands, whilst Up The Tower pounds like revolutionary doctrine, drip drip dripping into the collective psyche. The whole motion is carried through by probably the most orthodox episode, as Don’t Go To Anacita spits and snarls, thrilling and hair pulling as the quartet have ever been, its cautionary tale of technology blindly emancipating some people whilst having no conscience about the livelihoods of others signposting the desolation suffered by many such as those in their Michigan home.
These flourishes transform Relatives In Descent from a record which can be plotted as something on an obvious upward linear curve to a breakthrough work that leaves Protomartyr at the leading edge of both nuanced, insightful resistance and cathartic rock music which takes on the contemporary American dream at full tilt.
Fewer flies have sounded better in the world’s ointment.