Protomartyr, “Relatives in Descent”

Protomartyr
Relatives in Descent
DOMINO
8/10

The arc of Protomartyr’s career thus far has been one of steady and incremental growth. Their first two Hardly Art releases, Under Color of Official Right (2014) and The Agent Intellect (2015), were eclectic in their noisiness—violently loud and snarling, yet with the melodic edge that balances out the best post-punk records. On Relatives in Descent, their first for Domino, the Detroit band once again explores this spectrum but considerably extends its boundaries. The louder parts are louder than ever before, likely because of the way they’re scattered amongst the band’s most precise moments of quiet introspection to date.

Vocalist Joe Casey’s lyrics have grown sharper with every album, and Relatives in Descent cements him as one of rock’s best lyricists. “My Children” uses the concept of a song as a metaphor for coming of age, while “Up the Tower” uses half-spoken storytelling and instrumental repetition and propulsion to highlight Casey’s menacing growl.

On Relatives, Casey’s words are abstract and poetic, a reflection on the perpetual state of anxiety half of America is constantly paralyzed by. The record is mired by skepticism and pessimism, examining every corner for an answer but instead coming up with more questions. These themes are established and challenged almost immediately, as the art-house rolls of drummer Alex Leonard’s kit are matched by the cascading dissonance produced by Greg Ahee’s guitar. At one point, Casey sings (or, more accurately, states), “Truth is hiding in the wire.” Reality is obscured and mangled throughout the album; their particular thread of post-punk gnarls up cynicism and spits it out in hopes of a better tomorrow.

Male Plague” finds the amps turned to eleven and the drums awash in colorful cymbal work. Casey’s delivery has a swagger to it, and when the guitars double and Casey is joined by harmonies for a chorus of “Male plague / Male plague,” one’s first instinct is to find anyone nearby and start moshing. But no mosh pit materializes because Relatives in Descent is ultimately about isolation and loneliness, being connected by disenchantment with the ways of the world. It’d be a tough listen if it wasn’t so damn enthralling. The album ends with “Half Sister,” a face-melter that features Casey’s most sing-song vocal part on the record. His voice is deep and sinister, not pretty by any means but more effective than a punch to the gut. You could say the same about Relatives in Descent as a whole.

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