Protomartyr has never wanted for momentum. The Detroit band, at their best, has always been racing toward an endpoint, driven by a sense of urgency, outrunning some kind of unseen danger or darkness that’s constantly nipping at their heels. That darkness always finds its way into their music, in the vapor trails behind Greg Ahee’s guitar riffs or in the pregnant pauses in Joe Casey’s personal narratives or commentaries. The darkness never overtakes them, though, in large part because of Casey’s sardonic humor. But most of all, it’s because Protomartyr never stops moving.
“A Private Understanding,” the opening track to the band’s fourth album Relatives in Descent, has a similar feeling to past Protomartyr openers—it’s perpetually on the brink of building up to something, and it feels tense and climactic. But it lingers on moments in a way that few of the band’s songs have before. The verses feel a bit more drawn out, with the first echoing the phrase, “Never wanna hear those vile trumpets anymore,” while the second recounts a true story of Elvis Presley seeing the face of Stalin in a cloud: “He was affected profoundly, but he could never describe the feeling/He passed away on the bathroom floor.” By the end, Casey croons, “She’s just trying to reach you,” echoing a consistent theme of failed methods of communication and the complicated ways that people process those messages. As empathetically as these figures are drawn, they’re still mired in the fatalistic absurdity of never being able to say what needs to be said. Maybe she’ll never actually reach you; Elvis is dead on his bathroom floor.
Relatives in Descent, illustrated by its unsettling opening track, is the darkest Protomartyr album to date because it’s so reflective of the time in which it was created. It’s not a political album, but rather a bleakly philosophical album of meditations on the fallible nature of truth and self-destructive ideals that brought us to an age of willful ignorance and “fake news.” Nobody gets off particularly easily here. Casey sneers mockingly throughout the sing-songy punk stomp of “Male Plague,” reminding the self-inflictedly mediocre white men at its core that “Everybody knows it’s gonna kill you someday.” In the brooding “Corpses in Regalia,” he barks, “Decent people don’t live like that,” laying down an indictment on wealth and excess, while the driving “Don’t Go to Anacita” condemns the exploitation inherent in privilege. Only “Up the Tower” actually addresses what sounds a lot like the president, himself, and “the hatred he brewed within us,” following up on an observation of a golden door with a violent command to “knock it down! knock it down! knock it down!” It’s the kind of catharsis that Protomartyr has always done well, dialed up to match the dreadful urgency of the moment.
Some of the darkest moments on the album are those that happen on a purely instrumental level, giving Relatives in Descent a gothic wash of blacks, grays and charcoals. Those hues are rendered brilliantly, their chilling tone resulting in the strongest batch of songs they’ve written to date. The opening riff of standout single “My Children” has a subtly eerie tone, creating an ominous passageway toward its unexpectedly catchy chorus. “Windsor Hum” chimes with a horror-movie-soundtrack riff, underscoring Casey’s reassurance, “everything’s fine,” with the sick-to-your-stomach feeling of knowing that it isn’t. And the reverb-laden sound of closing dirge “Half Sister” finds Protomartyr capturing the grimmest of post-punk gloom brilliantly.
In that final track, Casey says “truth is a half sister,” before looping back to an early refrain from the album, “she is trying to reach you.” In intercepting these communiqués, to better understand why humanity is sometimes doomed to reject truth, Protomartyr delves into some dark places albeit ones that yield their most rewarding results. Relatives in Descent is an album whose ghost lingers after it stops, a record that’s to be explored as much as it is to be felt on a visceral level. Protomartyr have descended into the darkness, making sense of a species predestined toward catastrophic misunderstanding, and they’ve allowed themselves to bask here, finding a stillness within the chaos. If you gaze long into the face of Stalin in the clouds, the face gazes also into you.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.