Detroit post-punks Protomartyr first made a dent in the 2010s, storming in with their furious, poetic and abrasive rock that was riddled with lyrics pointing towards America’s political degeneracy and sweeping devotion to capitalism. Their 2012 debut ‘No Passion All Technique’ was a speedy, noisy ode to the decay and rich characters of their hometown, introducing listeners to Greg Ahee’s dexterous guitar playing, bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard’s knack for building rhythmic tension, and vocalist Joe Casey’s gritty, baritone revelations.
More than a decade later comes their sixth album ‘Formal Growth In The Desert’, with the band once again setting their sights on evoking the energy of a specific setting – albeit this time symbolically. “The desert is more of a metaphor or symbol,” Casey explained recently about their latest album’s motivation. “Of emotional deserts, or a place or time that seems to lack life.”
Their last album, 2020’s ‘Ultimate Success Today’, dwelled in death and apocalyptic visions, acting, as Casey told NME, as the last act in the band’s five-part play. At the time the frontman said he wanted to “move on” from the grief of losing his father; the same cataclysmic event that pushed him to make music in the first place. Further tragic shifts unfortunately occurred in the lead-up to Protomartyr’s latest LP, including multiple break-ins at the vocalist’s family home in Detroit and the death of his mother, who battled Alzheimer’s for a decade and a half.
Although their last album reacted to finality with themes of closing, the Midwest band felt compelled to expand this time around. They recorded at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas as Casey gleaned inspiration from the towering rock formations and sandy expanses of the southwest, making his reality seem smaller in the grand scheme of things and resulting in a renewed joy for writing. That perspective manifested into 12 vivid and vigorous stories which ruminate on life during inevitable loss, as well as the difficult-but-possible struggle of finding joy by moving forward.
That renewed sense of creativity can be heard throughout ‘Formal Growth In The Desert’ not only in the lyrics, but in the addition of swelling synths, pedal steel guitars and sonic spaciousness. This shift in sound is, in part, due to Ahee’s recent scoring of short films: his co-production of the album nods to his appreciation for cinematics, and allows the tracks to play out like a motion picture.
Lead single ‘Make Way’ starts with a spoken word delivery of “welcome to the hungry earth” over trickling guitars that slowly build up tension before exploding into life. ‘Elimination Dances’ then creeps in with the jangly strumming of a Spaghetti Western as Casey reflects on the album’s inception – “In the desert I was humbled, seeing what a thousand years of ice did” – over steadily building and at times distorted guitars, before landing on the refrain: “That’s how elimination dances through the time of time, of time”. The song’s title comes from a 1950s teen dance game in which, according to Casey, “you get tapped out when you lose”, making it a perfect metaphor for the play of survival.
In ‘Polacrilex Kid’ Protomartyr share a story of self-hatred, failure and inquisition, asking over layered, rapturous punk guitars: “Can you hate yourself and still deserve love?” Album closer ‘Rain Garden’ seems to answer that question. Disorienting, intense and swelling arrangements surround Casey’s voice as he sings, “I am deserving of love / They’ll say it’s just a love song / But love, love has found me”, right before a breakdown of stumbling synths and measured, pulsing drum beats back that assertion.
Deserts are barren lands possessing hostile conditions that humans can’t survive in. But Protomartyr are at home here: growing, expanding and putting up a mirror to humanity’s driest and bleakest parts, inviting their listeners to reflect on it all.
- Release date: June 2
- Record label: Domino