Every Protomartyr album is their darkest, at least until the next one comes along. Under Color of Official Right offered the biting cynicism of residents of a city and a country in perpetual crisis, which was then usurped by the more deeply personal traumas uncovered on 2015’s The Agent Intellect. Which then made that trauma, confusion and frustration universal on 2017’s Relatives in Descent, a cathartic examination of power structures and the distortion of truth. For all of its many objects of scorn—toxic masculinity, wealth disparity, authoritarian leaders—Relatives at least offered the barest thread of restoration and truth in Joe Casey’s final refrain of closing track: “She is trying to reach you.”
Spoiler alert: She didn’t. In the opening line of “Day Without End,” the first track on the Detroit band’s fifth album Ultimate Success Today, Casey dashes hopes bluntly and abruptly: “I could not be reached/No matter how/Many times she repeats.” It’s a real gut-punch—a devastating introduction to what once again finds Protomartyr climbing down farther into the darkest places they can find. Written while Casey was struggling with a kind of visceral reaction to the horrible state of the world as well as being plagued by thoughts of it hypothetically being the last album he might ever record—a thought that likely isn’t helped by a new plague era and people being disappeared in unmarked vans—it’s an expectedly solid contender, once again, for Protomartyr’s most bleak, made all the more interesting due to the musical experiments the band has undertaken.
As Protomartyr descend into the spiral of despair in “Day Without End,” it slowly creates a gothic vortex of sound, Greg Ahee’s guitars swirling in a contradiction of intensity and ambience, pierced by a blaring noir saxophone. As the album progresses, so does the pervasive sense of doom and jagged, perilous post-punk arrangements. “Processed by the Boys” is an all-too-terrifyingly relevant examination of an American police state, Casey asking, “When the ending comes, is it gonna run at us like a wild-eyed animal?” against some of Ahee’s punchiest riffs and a curiously somber clarinet placement. The album’s most punishingly demented moment is buried a little deeper in “Tranquilizer,” as Casey barks repeatedly, “the pain, the pain…” through a filter of distortion against squeals of saxophone and a stoic fuzz bass. It sounds like a man coming apart at the seams right before your ears.
At their most harrowing or hopeless, Protomartyr still find brief windows through which to briefly project a moment of fun or, at the very least, cathartic release. Ultimate Success Today is no different in that regard, offering an upbeat standout like “Modern Business Hymns” or the explosive climax of the previously mentioned “Tranquilizer.” By and large it frequently feels as if the light at the end of this tunnel is pulling 10,000 tons and headed for immediate impact. Which isn’t so out of character, necessarily. In expanding their sound, finding more space in between their agitated freak-outs and making a little extra for a saxophone or a clarinet, however, Protomartyr still make utter panic sound appealing.
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.