Release Date: Oct 9, 2015
Record label: Hardly Art
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Protomartyr’s backstory, of frontman Joe Casey recruiting a band 10 years his junior to produce brutal, urgent music, would be all but irrelevant if the Detroit four-piece hadn’t made it their mission to live up to it with three albums in four years. The story goes that Casey wanted a band just as dedicated as he was, and it’s been their job to make the music seem like necessity, led by a man in his mid-30s coping with the loss of his father and unwilling to let his own voice go unheard. And live up to it they have, with each album an improvement in ambition and achievement, peaking with the new, often brilliant The Agent Intellect.
In what feels like an odd moment of prescience, roughly halfway through The Agent Intellect, the harrowing third album from the Detroit band Protomartyr, the Pope pays a visit. It’s 1987 in Pontiac, Mich., and Pope John Paul II is visiting the Silverdome, delivering Mass to the 100,000 faithful who’d come to hear him speak. Among them was a young Joe Casey who, 25 years later, would grow up to become Protomartyr’s frontman.
As Promomartyr stated in their last album, ‘Under Color of Official Right’, “I’ll take that applause, because I deserve it,” there was a hint that they were well aware they’d achieved exactly what they’d set out to. Sure, it was announced sarcastically and bubbling with a charismatic disenchantment that was in keeping with surroundings – but they really did deserve that acclaim, even if it’s still trickling in with cult fervour. ‘The Agent Intellect’ then represents the next jump.
"The Agent Intellect" is a concept in medieval philosophy related to the division between form and matter in the human soul, and while such notions don't play much of a part in the lyrics on Protomartyr's third album, 2015's The Agent Intellect, it's not hard to imagine lead vocalist and lyricist Joe Casey as a philosophy professor at some Midwestern college taking the stage at a tiny bar off-campus and delivering a series of rants and/or free associations as a student band whips up a thick fog of guitars and drums that pours out behind him. Protomartyr established their sonic formula on 2012's debut album, No Passion All Technique, and while the band has steadily grown and evolved since then, the essential framework isn't radically different on The Agent Intellect, only smarter and stronger, and guitarist Greg Ahee's waves of fuzzy thunder and rusty jangle are the meat on these bones. Casey's speechifying and Ahee's soundscapes are the yin and yang of this music, and even when the lyrics get buried in the mix, the guitar meshes well enough with the vocals that the mood remains constant even as the literal meaning gets shaken.
Protomartyr don’t seem to consider themselves a ‘successful’ band, if interviews are any indicator. In fairness, it’s safe to assume they’ve not yet been made wealthy by playing sharp-angled, sardonic-vocalled jangling postpunk. Still, since the quartet’s second album ‘Under Colour Of Official Right’ emerged last year, they’ve enjoyed far more overground attention than groups this abrasive and uncommercial can usually expect.‘Under Colour…’ exhibited the bleak blare of late 70s/early 80s greats – The Fall and Joy Division, primarily – and was possibly the most British-sounding record ever to have come from Detroit, a city which revolutionised American music in the second half of the 20th century.
Detroit's Protomartyr come from a long, proud line of post-punk bands with a less than cheerful attitude. For frontman Joe Casey and company, it's been a long road out of Motor City obscurity; on last year's raw, poignant breakthrough Under Color of Official Right, Casey ranted and raved about everything from corrupt city mayors to drunken deadbeat dads. Now, with their third and best full-length, one might expect Protomartyr to be reveling in their redemption – but The Agent Intellect isn't that album.
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.
Of the many reasons that postpunkers Protomartyr have struck a (dis)chord – a frontman who felt too old to start a band but did anyway, a downcast urgency that underlines his foreboding storytelling – their Detroit birthplace has proved compelling inspiration. Their music reflects dilapidated houses and demolition sites; it comes from a place of alluring urban decay and authentic economic hardship. Led by Joe Casey, whose gravelly malaise recalls a sleepy Shane MacGowan, their third album tries to sever that umbilical chord and explore darker personal material.
Protomartyr’s 2012 debut, No Passion All Technique, was savage. Such congruity between a title like “Feral Cats” and the song itself is rare. It was also a sleeper, one that critics caught on to so slowly that the coronation of Protomartyr’s 2014 follow-up, Under Color of Official Right, seemed compensatory. Plus, an interesting contextual angle— vocalist Joe Casey, Detroit native, grapples with a broken city—distracted from shortcomings: Under Color of Official Right was excessively polished; Casey strove for conventional vocal melodies and hooks with perceptible difficulty.
The Upshot: Rock record of the year? 9 ½ months in, quite possibly so. Taut-yet-twitchy aggression amid a pulsing sonic vortex translates into a five-out-of-five stars triumph. Don’t miss the audio and video tracks, below. Detroit-based postpunks Protomartyr—Joe Casey on vocals, Greg Ahee on guitar, Alex Leonard on drums, Scott Davidson on bass—formed in 2008 following a stint as a Leonard-Ahee duo, the tastefully-named Butt Babies.
"The Agent Intellect" is the third studio album from Protomartyr, a Detroit-based quartet. Protomartyr kicks off its third studio album, "The Agent Intellect" (Hardly Art), by inviting the baddest of the bad to speak. The narrator in "The Devil in his Youth" lurks on the fringes of many of these songs, Beelzebub re-emerges again a few songs later in "Uncle Mother's" as a sinister doorman welcoming passersby to hell in the guise of a saloon.
Protomartyr debuted in 2012 with No Passion All Technique, but was introduced to far more people two years later with Under Color Of Official Right, released to acclaim in 2014 by Hardly Art. Its sound was anxious post-punk (thudding percussion and guitars that vacillated between airy reverb and serrated distortion), its look elicited a lot of unflattering comparisons, and its soul was pure wounded Detroit. Protomartyr’s hometown was no mystery to anyone paying attention to frontman Joe Casey’s lyrics, and the music bore the influence of the garage rock bred there, not to mention local heroes like The Stooges.
Whether the cunning realisation of unquenchable creative vision or restlessness captured and let loose for the sake of it, releasing three studio albums in as many years can be thorny territory for even the most potent and strong-willed artist. With the release of their third album, The Agent Intellect, Detroit post-punk foursome Protomartyr edge towards the former, despite straddling a precarious line between resolve and reiteration that comes as standard in the seemingly unwinnable Sisyphean stretch they find themselves. For all their momentum, the question remains: has efficiency fared the fast-rising quartet well on this, the veritable doldrums manifest? Despite taking its title from an ancient philosophical concept about how the incorporeal "soul" might contribute to the understanding of immortality, The Agent Intellect is very much concerned with this earthly realm and the ever interminable weight of the everyday.
Protomartyr — The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art)Let’s face it: the industry expectation is that rock music is for, by, and about young’uns. Protomartyr bucks these expectations. Singer Joe Casey is dealing with the unsexy reality of losing parents, the long look down the decline slope of what comes after age 40. Sonic precedents abound: it’s easy to hear traces of the Fall, Joy Division, Girls Against Boys, but The Agent Intellect is not retro.
Protomartyr’s new album shares its name with an ancient philosophical questioning of how the mind operates in relation to the active self, and there’s plenty of brains and brawn on show in this third album from Michigan’s premier post-punks. The Agent Intellect is a sonically gloomy experience: frontman Joe Casey’s baritone vocals are set thick with hopelessness, Greg Ahee’s guitar lines switch between sharp dissonance and sodden swathes of ringing distortion, underpinned by the relentless marching rhythm section of drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson, Beginning with a rumination on universal evil with opener “The Devil In His Youth” and ending with personal grief on “Ellen”, Protomartyr reflect a frightening and cruel world in which the physical body and the intellectual mind are both dejectedly fallible. However, Casey won’t go down without a fight.
Detroit's Protomartyr write impactful post-punk songs without sounding like they give a shit. Deep thought and effort are evident in their infectious, hook-laden riffs and the compelling presence of singer/lyricist Joe Casey, yet it all comes across so offhand, you'd think nothing was at stake. But The Agent Intellect is a multi-layered, emotive powerhouse of a record, undoubtedly influenced by how hard the band's been working at their craft (three albums in three years and counting) and their drive to make the most of life.
There are very few moments of release in Protomartyr’s imposing third album. It’s mostly gunmetal-gray, holding-pattern tense, with zaps of excitement on the way to more tension. Listen to the drummer Alex Leonard: For long stretches, he hits only snare and toms in mechanical patterns, and he rarely strikes an unclenched cymbal above medium force.