By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)
One month on from the release of Protomartyr’s widely acclaimed Relatives in Descent, now’s as good a time as any to cast a glance over the back catalogue of a band rapidly gaining traction within indie and post-punk circles. Since their 2012 debut All Passion No Technique, a remarkably accomplished but often-overlooked part of their discography, their songcraft and stage presence has grown tangibly with every new release, channeling post-punk sensibilities accompanied by snarling, cryptic lyrics in a manner which is not only relevant but utterly compelling. We’ve taken a look through all four albums in order to pick the very best tracks they’ve recorded so far.
Demonstrating frontman Joe Casey’s scholarly interests and his characteristic fondness of retelling stories from literature, often laced with dark humour and sardonic inflection, here he recalls the case study of three schizophrenics under the impression they are Jesus Christ. Fascinating, morbid and eye-opening in equal measure, delving into his lyrics is often enlightening but never does it feel like a chore. Like all good storytellers, his delivery – unnervingly detached during verses, explosive during choruses – is key.
9. Up The Tower
Greg Ahee shines here as his inventive guitar work and unexpected chord changes carry the mood throughout the entire song. Tension rests on the various riffs as they ebb and flow, ranging from frenzied bursts to tense palm-muted sections. The rhythm section thunders distantly throughout the majority of the track, suddenly erupting into action like an elephant stampede coming into view as Casey shouts “Throw ’em out! Throw ’em out!“
8. Why Does It Shake?
To paraphrase an old football commentator’s cliche: a song of two halves. The first is boastful and defiant, the words of a brashful and self-confident man. “I’ll be the first to never die” snarls Casey, bragging that he has the whole world at his feet. After one final bombastic display, a doomed attempt at convincing himself that he’s “never gonna lose it“, suddenly the walls come tumbling down and the sustained pace grinds to a halt. Tentative drums and anxious guitar flickers back and forth as suddenly existential doubt floods in. “Why does it shake? / The body… / Why does it move? / The fear…“, a philosophical observation on the fragile nature of humanity from a man who is, himself, on the verge of a breakdown.
7. Scum, Rise!
An abrasive, industrial-sounding riff rings out throughout the whole song in what undoubtedly ranks as one of the band’s most archetypal post-punk offerings. Described as a “rallying cry for the dispossessed”, Casey’s growling delivery of “scum, rise!” sounds anthemic – like Spartacus egging on a slave rebellion or a revolutionary leader encouraging a proletariat uprising.
6. The Chuckler
The daily grind is conveyed here in nihilistic fashion. All the depressing travails of 21st century life – both mundane and global – are no longer a source of despair; instead, with a degree of resignation and hollow, deadpan laughter, he submits: “I guess I’ll keep on chuckling / ‘Til there’s no more breath in my lungs / And it really doesn’t matter at all / Ha ha“. Greg Ahee’s innovative songwriting again comes to the forefront, continuing to experiment sonically and structurally to great success.
5. Clandestine Time
Airy, reverb-laden guitars soar over driving percussion in a manner reminiscent of shoegaze on this instrument-dominated track. The interplay between Ahee’s riffs – which fluctuate in and out of focus – and Leonard’s drumming patterns is underpinned by Davidson’s stepwise bass hooks, all of which merges together in an infectiously energetic yet wonderfully nuanced way. The genius of this song lies in the way it never slows down yet still manages to build to a climax; the introductory section is revisited in the middle and outro, augmented each time by riffs carried over from previously, eventually culminating in a mesmerising final minute.
4. Here Is The Thing
Something of a throwback to the much-maligned “blasted trumpets” discussed in A Private Understanding, in the firing line this time is capitalism and indeed its profound impact on the course of history in Detroit, paying homage to Mark E Smith’s animated delivery. Ascerbic lines such as “Now you know innovative thievery in parking structures” and “In the grind of the day / It grows fat off your fear” brilliantly capture the resentment in the city felt towards the rapid onset of gentrification and the manner in which power is concentrated in the likes of millionaires and real estate developers.
3. Devil In His Youth
In light of the concerning amount of momentum far-right movements are gathering worldwide, this track feels more poignant than ever. Throughout the course of the song, an average boy living a privileged, suburban lifestyle grows into a figure of malice, a consequence of his skewed worldview and stunted social capabilities leading to rejection by his peers. As a result, he develops unsavoury and vindictive tendencies such as racism and misogyny, leading him to yell in angst “I will make them feel the way I do / I’ll corrupt them till they think the way I do“. Sound familiar?
A beautifully heartfelt ode, expressed from the perspective of his late father, to his mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s and a rare, delicate moment of introspection; simultaneously mournful and celebratory of the memories he and his mother share. Placed in context, its gritty post-punk surroundings serve to emphasise how fragile this track is. The melodies feel out of focus and hazy, giving it a noticeably tender feel despite featuring the same distorted guitars and pulsating drums as seen previously. Ostensibly the only ‘love song’ ever penned by the Detroit quartet, the rarity of such a thing is also the source of its beauty. A prime example of quality over quantity.
1. My Children
The second single to be released from their latest album and one of the most complete songs they’ve recorded yet, Protomartyr have managed to distill almost every aspect of their music into a deeply satisfying 3 minutes and 42 seconds. An ominous, mumbled intro gives way to angular guitars as the anti-frontman delivers a caustic take on issues of growing old, remaining childless and the implications that might have on his legacy. As usual, attentive listeners are rewarded with references and easter eggs such as the sly Bowie reference when he sings “So don’t lean on me, man / ‘Cause I ain’t got nothing to give“, as well as the Greek mythological connotations of “My children / Ain’t got no mother / Came from my temple, all, when I thought them“. Perhaps a bit of an initial slow-burner, after repeated listens this track has established itself as arguably their greatest output to date.