Lead vocalist, Joe Casey, downplayed the philosophical significance of Protomartyr’s latest LP’s title. “The Agent Intellect” was something Casey found in a book and thought it was noteworthy, much like how the band got their name. Lyrically, the collection of twelve tracks proves the title to be anything but a mere coincidence. “Under Color of Official Right” featured a litany of Casey’s bleak quips on social matters, name dropping TV’s Judge Mathis, his disdain for babies, and “rich crusties.” But on this go-around, existential meanderings are explored with subjects like the cycle of existence, mortality, and episodes of personal failure.
Their sound is repeatedly likened to the forefathers of post-punk; the stylish gloom of Joy Division to the dynamism of The Fall and Wire. But much of the grit and grime present in their music should be attributed to their home, Detroit, Michigan. The localities of The Motor City are coursing through their songs, whether it’s Casey’s dreary wordplay, Greg Ahee’s high-strung succinct riffs, Alex Leonard’s mechanized drumming, and Scott Davidson’s rollicking grooves.
“The Devil In His Youth” rings in the record with a patient build up that rams into another gear at a moment’s notice. Wrought tension is fueled by short accelerating and decelerating riffs, stoic bass and drum lines, and Casey’s fervent narration of suburban boy’s upbringing that goes to shit in adulthood.
The unrelenting urgency is inherited by the preceding tracks, like with the dizzying “Uncle Mother’s” and the panic inducing “The Hermit.” On Uncle Mother’s” (partially inspired by an indecipherable voicemail left on Greg Ahee’s phone), the band replicates the confusion with hiccuping hooks, and vague verses barring the definitive declarations of “it’s cold by law!” Similarly, banger “The Hermit” is marred with frenetic gusto, supplied by tightly wound instrumentation and Casey’s looping barks of “they lie.” Showing their range, the album does have its quieter moments, like on the groovy low-end led “Pontiac 87” and the spacious “Clandestine Time.”
Falling in line with Mark E. Smith, Casey’s intricate wordsmithing holds its own against his sonically ruthless bandmates. You have to appreciate the Detroit nuisances Casey slip in, unsuspecting to the non-Detroitian. The loser anthem, “I Forgive You,” makes allusions to a Drunken Master classic, artisanal shop invasion, and a billboard hogging injury lawyer (annotated by the man himself).
Few of the tracks have more of a personal touch, with Casey choose his mother, Ellen, as focal point. The initial single, “Why Does It Shake?” is a slow trodden romper, held down by Leonard’s rigid timing, ground-shaking guitar episodes, and Casey’s deadpan deliverance on his quest for immortality (“History is my backyard / Eternity is my reward”). Sung from the perspective of his late father, “Ellen” is an emotional monsoon, impressive for a band that rarely pens love ballads. Flourishing with lush desolation, Casey sings of the elder Casey waiting in the afterlife (“below there / hello there”) for his wife, preserving the halcyon she’d lost to Alzheimer’s.
The closer, “Feast of Stephen” serves as a multi-purposed homage. Novelist, Elmore Leonard (grandfather of drummer Alex Leonard), suggested the band change their name (and have for secret shows) to “The Steve’s,” a nod to St. Stephen, a protomartyr himself. Like the previous two closers (“Principalities” and “I’ll Take That Applause”), “Feast of Stephen” doesn’t bring any resolve or closure to the monolithic record. But then again, in the gospel of Joe Casey, mortality was the catalyst, eternity is the reward.
“The Agent Intellect” manages to be a stirring listen, with the ability to leave listeners deep in thought but yet impossible to stay motionless. Despite being just their third long player, Protomartyr already deserve considerations for deity status among the OG post-punk bands, and the Detroitian luminaries that came before them.
Raisin Brain drizzled with honey, dusted with cinnamon, and topped off with your beer of choice (at least 3 cans)