Protomartyr Relatives in Descent

[Domino; 2017]

Styles: post-punk, experimental rock, noise rock
Others: Ought, Pere Ubu, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks

Post-punk has long been a paragon of musical and lyrical unrest, smacking of gravitas and self-seriousness. Excepting Talking Heads’ oft-exuberant exploration of the urbane artist lifestyle, the genre has perennially reveled in disaffection, ranging from the codified depression of progenitors Joy Division to the fraught maladjustment of contemporaries Preoccupations. Detroit’s Protomartyr are no strangers to alienation, their high-minded postmodern lyricism frequently brushing with cultural, historical, and societal touchstones to construct a salvo of personal disillusionment and philosophical crisis. As such, the group is wont to conflate the political with the introspective. Relatives in Descent is no exception: the band’s Domino Records debut furthers Protomartyr’s penchant for belletristic navel-gazing while maintaining the social consciousness that informed their three previous releases.

Front man and literary onanist Joe Casey recently gave NPR a track-by-track breakdown of the album, detailing the history behind each song’s lyrics and accumulating a varied and daunting bibliography of inspirational sources in the process. Like Vampire Weekend, Protomartyr fancy the sly literary or pop culture reference in their lyrics; but while the former utilize allusion to bridge the gap between esoterica and youth culture, the latter pull from a panoply of obscure texts to reflect the information overload symptomatic of the “Internet Age.” The group does so to varying returns throughout the record, with certain lines invoking genuine pathos: “I guess I’ll keep chuckling/ ‘Til there’s no more breath in my lungs/ And it really doesn’t matter at all,” while others flounder with their metaphysical didactics: “Truth is a colicking horse/[…] Truth is a babbling prisoner.” Casey is at his lyrical best when tackling philosophical questions obliquely rather than head on, which is exactly why “Half Sister” pales in comparison to “The Chuckler.” Nevertheless, that both songs flirt with Camusian themes, while the rest of Relatives reckons with a host of other referents — both arcane and familiar — bespeaks Protomartyr’s commitment to crafting challenging, academic songs reflective of their harried social and political climate.

The success of the album’s lyrics rests largely on the efficacy of Casey’s sprechgesang, an unadorned vocal delivery that places him somewhere between D. Boon and Nick Cave. Casey’s stentorian voice buttresses his words, instilling a sense of urgency in his verbose streams of consciousness. Keeping with their singer’s outré musicianship, the rest of the band forges ahead with its characteristically off-kilter sense of rhythm and dissonance. Guitarist Greg Ahee pays homage to his indie forebears, mimicking Yo La Tengo’s blurry guitar sound on “Caitriona” and recalling Sonic Youth’s abrasion on the final third of “Night Blooming Cereus.” Rhythm section Alex Leonard and Scott Davidson, too, find inspiration in those noise pop groups of the 80s and 90s, as they impel a tumbling bass and drum dervish on the Pixie-esque “Here Is the Thing.” As a collective, the group thrives on friction, allowing each instrument to collide with one another by virtue of their staggering heft without any single musician overpowering the mix.

A testament to post-punk’s paradoxically consistent but ever-mutating sound, Relatives in Descent tethers the influence of its predecessors to the genre’s current sound. Here, Protomartyr oscillate between the literary and musical giants of the past and the burgeoning fears of the current cultural epoch. Equally informed by universal human crises as it is by contemporary imbroglios, the album aims to disorient, alienate, and dismay the listener. The band is usually able to do all three in a single song. Often in one line.

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