There is an argument that almost nowhere is more punk than Detroit: home of The Stooges and the MC5, its deep industrial throb gave the world a kind of primitive noise which threatened to shake civilisation to its foundations, before the city plunged into a terminal, savage decline which backdropped another generation of bands spearheaded by Negative Approach and L-Seven.
It should come as no surprise then that one of America’s finest punk bands of now calls the city their home. Lead by the phlegmatic Joe Casey, Protomartyr have spent the last decade constantly reshaping themselves, from their outstanding one take debut No Passion, All Technique to 2017’s uber-taught Relatives In Descent.
Casey prophetically sees Ultimate Success Today as the symbolic closing act of a five-album cycle in which the band’s macro environment has taken a toll on them, an American dream which his home city revealed as tarnished decades ago. It’s the sort of mindset that could be destructive or maudlin in the hands of many other songwriters, but Casey has fused the bare wires tension and paranoia into the band’s finest work yet, from the raking sax that punctures the bug eyed tension of opener Day Without End to the raw boned but loveable closer Worm In Heaven.
If this is the end of the world, it’s not a mass extinction event but one that would have us living afterwards in our caves with Protomartyr’s trickery. The heavy handed riffing of Processed By The Boys is epic, Casey spaying out non-sequiturs of apocalyptic verse such as, ‘When the ending comes, is it gonna run/At us like a wild-eyed animal?/A foreign disease washed upon the beach/A dagger plunged from out of the shadows’. In a way though, this is the band at their most approachable, a track that seems as condemned to sadness as it’s scared of every sort of future.
This sort of entropic backdrop colours songs which are more direct, subtle and less reliant on velocity or brute force to make their presence felt. Those longing for raw power or two-minute dust ups should instead be thankful that this brave new world of consequence has led to gems like Modern Business Hymns, a confluence of their new vectors, a rock and roll band who seem to hold dear new things we didn’t see in them before.
Casey is cagey about what all of this means other than his overarching idea, but on Michigan Hammers they sound animated, peak-and-trough, while Tranquilizer ebbs with the nastiest fuzz bass and a returned sax, the barking poetry a series of expressions shaved from cuttings in a book written by fools.
This literate, intelligent, empathetic band have their own tiger by its tail, shaking themselves to life or death. For this reason alone, it’s another chapter in the story of how Detroit continues to give that thing called punk new forms and all of us reasons to carry on.